On finding things you’re not looking for

by Nick

There is an art to making archives speak to you. I have learned the hard way over the last year that you can’t always just turn up and start transcribing; that finding your way round a collection takes time. It’s a skill I’m still learning, but there are compensations sometimes, such as when you find something which is completely unrelated to your research, but which still stops you in your tracks.

I went down to Gloucestershire Records Office last week. My plan was to do some digging in sources that might shed some light on the political allegiance of clothworkers during the civil wars, but one of the first things I found was Bulstrode Whitelocke’s signature gazing up at me in confident italics, and things kind of took their own course from there.

I’ve blogged about Whitelocke previously. He was a lawyer and parliamentarian during the mid-seventeenth century, who played a part in the impeachment of the earl of Strafford and went on to be an important member of the Independent faction and then a political grandee during the Commonwealth. Historians generally don’t like him: Thomas Carlyle famously called him “Dryasdust”, and more recently Blair Worden has seen him as a trimmer who, in politics at least, sailed close to whichever was the prevailing wind at the time.

It’s true he could be pompous and self-righteous, and he didn’t wear his learning lightly, but in having left so much of himself through his writings he reveals a certain vulnerability that is somehow compelling. Here is his letter to John Smyth of Nibley in the summer of 1642. Smyth was an antiquarian and steward of the Berkeley estates to the east of the Severn. So far as I can tell, he and a group of other Gloucestershire gentry  – who would go on to be royalists – seem to have been collaborating on a petition to Parliament, and Smyth had written to Whitelocke to get his views. Here is Whitelocke’s reply:


Although it be something preposterous [illegible] with me to deliver my opinion of your petition before it comes initially before us; yet to satisfy your request; taking it for the substance true; in mye opinion, you much weaken your cause (and you your judgement fast) at this to fix upon a man soe qualified, a stranger, with wife, & many children; enforced for debt to leave his owne and your complaint of suffering by former Ministers are not more for the matter, then this may be, those enforced, this voluntary, which expect to have [illegible] either wholly to frustrate your hopes, or much to lessen them, of this rest assured that I am

Your servant

Bulstrode Whitelocke

London 6 Aug 1642

Now there is lots that this letter might tell us about political organisation, factions and ideology on the eve of the civil war. But reading it I got obsessed with Whitelocke’s choice of language. Although I’m not quite clear what the petition was about – the plight of a Laudian minister, perhaps? – Whitelocke was presumably appalled at Smyth’s choice of subject, but was too polite to bring himself to say so directly. As I stared at his letter through the light of the microfilm reader, I could imagine him sweating over the letter; preparing his pen and ink as he agonised over the syntax and tried to deal with an annoying letter without being too rude.

And it was then, with Whitelocke’s signature staring back up at me, that I was reminded he had been a real person, who lived and breathed and existed rather than just being a character on a printed page. This might seem obvious, even banal. But I have an essay due on Monday, and in the pressure to produce  papers amidst work and other commitments it is easy sometimes to see sources as abstract things that can help you prove or disprove a point – not as traces of another person’s existence. While Whitelocke was socially from a very different class to the clothworkers whose traces I was looking for, it was him rather than them who reminded me that there are sometimes more important things than essay marks.