Magazine article History Today

Prising Open the Casket

Magazine article History Today

Prising Open the Casket

Article excerpt

I KNEW AT SIXTEEN that I wanted to be a historian. I'd read the vigorous, exhilarating, at times excoriating debates between Geoffrey Elton and his critics about the Tudor revolution in government. I never looked back.

Elton knew his archival sources inside out, could fire off quotes like an expert marksman, interpret them with passionate conviction and, when the polemic demanded, pounce. His style was famous for its eloquent, oracular diction. I found it utterly compelling.

My sixth-form library--not surprisingly--did not run to the great source compendium, the Calendar of Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, published in thirty-two volumes. Without access to these bulky tomes, I could not begin to look up the references or listen to Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell speaking for themselves.

I applied to read History at Clare College, Cambridge--Elton's own institution--and was accepted. But even then, to read the Calendar as a final-year undergraduate was not to see the original documents. Those were held in London at the British Library and the National Archives (Public Record Office).

I took Elton's Special Subject on 'Thomas Cromwell and the Enforcement of the Henrician Reformation', and then progressed to be one of his small army of PhD students. At last I was able to work on the documents, to ransack the archives and major research libraries holding Tudor materials, which meant travelling as far afield as Washington DC and Los Angeles. In my first year as a research student, I won a scholarship to visit the Huntington Library, where the Ellesmere Manuscripts had been acquired. I stayed in America for six weeks and spent every moment, apart from Sundays when the archives were closed, studying my documents. I've never worked harder in my life. It was so exciting to hear the voices of the past.

Although I never realised it at the time, I'd found my metier--burrowing in archives, finding out what's new, what's been overlooked or wrongly catalogued, tucked away for four centuries--and then bringing it into the limelight. After completing my PhD, my first job was in the Early-Modern Department of the (then) Public Record Office in Chancery Lane. Important documents had been stored at this site since Thomas Cromwell was Master of the Rolls. He'd say in his letters how he was writing in his office there, and now I was one of those looking after the state papers he'd helped to create.

I used to stay late into the night, reading whole boxes of documents in the freezing strong-rooms in an overcoat. One of my most thrilling moments was to find a new cache of letters by Thomas More. I liked to climb to the top of the tower, where uncatalogued documents and fragments left over from the Victorian rearrangement of the records were haphazardly thrown into sacks. Opening these grimy, sometimes stinking bundles was a real adventure. Here lay dragons--or at least the skeletons of dead rats.

Five years later, I left to be a university teacher. For historians, one thing leads to another. I'd first worked on Cardinal Wolsey, then on Thomas More, then on More's legal and literary adversary, Christopher St German. After that, I'd written Tudor England, which led me to consider Elizabethan politics in far greater depth than I'd done before. I was fascinated by the internal contradictions of the Religious Settlement of 1559, by the subtle links between the Privy Council and Cecil's parliamentary inner caucus in the first three decades of the reign, by the introverted politics of the 1590s; above all, by the working relationship of Elizabeth and Cecil.

Then, Patrick Collinson, the leading Elizabethan historian who'd been elected Elton's successor as Regius Professor at Cambridge, published his landmark essay on Elizabethan 'monarchical republicanism'. His work led him to conclusions that fitted hand-in-glove with mine. I knew I was on to something 'hot'. …

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