Lost Voices of the Elizabethan Age – Maybe they aren’t so lost after all!

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Hannah (BA History) discovers that academic research can be exciting in her project to shed light on some of the ‘lost’ letter-writers of Elizabethan England.

This project involved taking the names of the people who wrote letters or petitions to Queen Elizabeth I in the Lansdowne Collection, and running their names through a number of databases containing early modern records to see what I could learn about the people who penned these letters. There is often not a record of ordinary people in the history books, and so this project was appealing as it offered an opportunity to investigate more of a micro-history within the Tudor period, rather than just focusing on the monarch or nobility, as is so often done.

When I started this project I wasn’t expecting to find very much information on many of the letter-writers as many of them were just ordinary people, not nobility or people who I would have thought would have left a ‘paper trail’. How wrong I was! Nearly every name I searched for in the ten or so databases at my disposal yielded some sort of result. The majority of these records were minor results such as the person in question being mentioned in a minor court case over a land dispute or owing money to someone else, but a result is still a result! And there were some interesting results such as the letter written by the Countess of Shrewsbury or the discovery that the letter written by a man known only as Poole was actually William Poole who had travelled to Poland at the same time as the man in the letter. I was able to use this information to piece together the information I had and be able to say with some certainty that it was the same William Poole who wrote the Lansdowne letter, making my subsequent search for him much easier with a first name as well as a surname! Looks like academic work can be exciting!

The other interesting thing about this project was the mix of authors who had penned letters to the Queen. There were some men who were authors, like Christopher Ocland, some clergymen like William Hubbock, and many men who seemed rather ordinary like Miles Fry. There were even four women who wrote in this collection, the most notable being the Countess of Shrewsbury. The notion that these people had lost voices led me to expect to only be dealing with people of whom there was no record so I was surprised to learn that many of them were notable individuals whose name yielded a number of results.

That being said, although I had a lot more joy with results than I was expecting, I did encounter a number of challenges, some of which sadly couldn’t be overcome. The first challenge for me was learning how to filter out the information I was finding for certain names. For example, when I searched for John Powell in the National Archives, hundreds of results turned up for Elizabeth’s reign – way too many for me to sort through! I therefore soon learnt that I had to search for really specific date ranges, when I had them, and also search for other key words from the letter along with the author’s name. Once I learned that this was a good way to refine my search, the project became much more manageable, thankfully! However, there were a few names where I didn’t have enough information to be able to successfully narrow down my search. An example of this was letter 15 which was written by Johnson; there was no first name and no date of when the letter was written. I therefore had to concede that there just wasn’t enough information for me to work with here and just move onto the next name.

Despite the challenges involved, this project was incredibly interesting and I loved having the opportunity to research people who, without projects like this, would otherwise likely not have been known about. It certainly opened my eyes to the thrills and difficulties of academic research, and I loved the experience!

Hannah Bonsall, BA History

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