College of St George Archives Blog

College of St George Archives

Conservator’s eye view: writing instruments

March 24th, 2015

In my last blog I wrote about quire structure of the parchment, prepared not only for the binder, but crucially for the scribe and the artist to fashion their magic with masterly hand-writing and radiant illustrations and historiated initial letters. Here I give some detail on the writing instruments and inks used during the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Before writing, scribes rubbed the parchment with pumice, cuttlefish or ground chalk to remove any impurities and make the surface smooth and absorbent. They pricked the margins, often through several stacked sheets, and linked the pricks across the page to rule the lines and frame the text space. The ruling instruments varied in different areas and periods. A hard point, stylus or awl was favoured in the early Middle Ages and again during the Renaissance; it produced a shallow furrow and edge effect on the page. A plummet, or metal point often made of silver, was common from the eleventh century onwards; it left a trace resembling a fine pencil mark. Several styluses attached to a handle resembled a mini gardener’s rake which was run across the page to produce parallel lines. One can detect the use of the scribe’s rake in manuscripts whose lines quiver ‘in time’.

Medieval writing materials

Black ink had several sources. The dark natural colour from the glands of the cuttlefish was known since Antiquity; just as common was the carbon black ink made of crushed charcoal dissolved in water. But the material Medieval and Renaissance scribes favoured above all else was iron-gall ink. Its tendency to bond with parchment meant guaranteed durability and its lustre was irresistible. Its source was the tumour-like growth around the gall wasp (Biorhiza pallida) eggs laid in their hundreds in the buds or soft twigs of oak trees. The crushed galls, together with a little iron-salt, were boiled in rain water and the black liquid was thickened with gum-Arabic – the water-soluble sap of acacia or, more commonly in Northern Europe, cherry, plum or almond trees. The red ink used for titles, headings and important parts of the text was made from the roots of rose madder (Rubia tinctorum). Many colours, such as red, were cooked down with soft rain-water and fermented until the right colour was achieved. Blue was a very important colour because of its association with the purity of the Virgin Mary and artists would, if it was available and could be afforded, use lapis lazuli. When the stone was crushed to a fine powder and mixed with egg-yolk (tempera) it produced ultramarine. Instead, scribes would use a much cheaper alternative blue produced from woad (Isatis tinctorum).  Yellow was often made with dried saffron crocus stimas, which produced a rich golden yellow and was sometimes substituted for gold.

Scribes made their quills by cutting a goose, swan or rook feather with a pen-knife. The width of the nib determined the degree of contrast between pen strokes, thick or thin, according to the direction in which they were traced and also had a bearing on the scale of the writing. Smaller handwriting generally required a narrower nib.

Medieval scribe

With the parchment, ink and quill ready, the scribe could start work on the text.

Peter Eley
Library and Archives volunteer

Views of a Solar Eclipse

March 19th, 2015
A letter from Canon Henry Cockayne Cust (Canon of Windsor, 1813-1861) to the then Chapter Clerk, Thomas Batcheldor, describes how he viewed the total eclipse of the sun on the 18 July 1860:

“I am glad you had a good view of the eclipse, my family saw it well, and I took a secondhand view of it in a pail of water” [SGC I.E.4/119]

Please do not try this at home!

It seems they may have been lucky to have had a good view of the eclipse. In the same letter, Canon Cust writes of recent terrible weather – perhaps typical of England in the summertime and whenever there is an impending celestial display.

Solar eclipses are usually a great cause of excitement because of their rarity. Some other perspectives on eclipses through the ages can be found in the Chapter Library’s collection of printed sermons.

Fulk Bellers, a Preacher of Gospel in London, gave a sermon just prior to the total solar eclipse in 1652 in which he reassures that firmament [sky] eclipses were not to be feared as “Jesus Christ may still go on to shine into our souls” [SGC RBK B.140]. Bellers included the story of the trick pulled by Christopher Columbus on the indigenous people of America during a lunar eclipse in 1504. Knowing an eclipse was about to take place, Columbus told the people that the gods would be angry if they did not provide him and his men with provisions. When the eclipse occurred, the frightened people rushed to give Columbus and his men anything they wanted.

A sermon ‘Occasion’d by the Total Eclipse of the Sun, Upon April the 22nd, 1715’ by Joseph Burroughs provides another insight into the continuing fears surrounding an eclipse [SGC RBK B.549]. Burroughs describes that an eclipse fills many people with amazement and thoughts of the Power and Wonder of God, but many more have been maliciously persuaded in superstitious fears of “great miseries and calamities”. Burroughs, like Beller, uses his sermon to reassure (or admonish!) people on the occasion of an eclipse with the message: heed not to the ways of the heathen!

According to the printed second edition of Burrough’s sermon, the eclipse in 1715 took place “about a Quarter Past Nine in the morning, the Body of the Sun was wholly hid from us by the Moon for some minutes at which time three of the Planets – Jupiter, Venus and Mercury…appear’d. There was Darkness in part for near an Hour before and as much after it was Total”.

Hopefully, the skies will be clear for the total eclipse of the sun occurring in the morning on Friday 20 March 2015. Enjoy the spectacle – safely!

Gemma Martin
Archives Trainee

The will of a 16th century canon

March 13th, 2015

At his appointment to a Canonry of Windsor in 1504, Robert Honiwood was Chancellor of Norwich. He subsequently became Archdeacon of Taunton (1509) and Prebendary of Lichfield (1512). He died in 1523. The fine brass monument to Robert Honiwood can be seen on the wall of the Rutland Chantry Chapel in St. George’s Chapel. Two account rolls that he compiled during his time as Canon Steward of Windsor still exist and are held in the Chapel Archives.

In his will, Honiwood is named “Robert Honywode, Archdeacon of Bath and Chanon of King’s College of Wynnessore”. The will continues thus:-
“My body to be buried in the Chapell where the Duchesse of Exeter lies buried in the College of Wynnessore by the awter [altar].  At my burying to Master Dean if he be present 6s 8d, to every pety canon [minor canon] present 2s. To every vicar and chantry prest 20d. To every clerk 12d. To every chorister 4d. so that the Dean and chanons and choristers and other ministers sing … masses of Requiem for my soule and all of those for whom I am bound to pray. As soon as possible after the day of sepulture, 1000 masses to be caused to be said … for  … all christian soules.  At the day of my burying £20 to be disposed among pour people, to every pour householder 20d and to every pour body 4d.” The subchanter of Windsor was to receive 6s 8d “for his diligence”. Each of Honiwood’s executors and servants, also the torchbearers at his burial were to receive a “blak gowne” and his servants and his chaplain were each to receive “the horse they were wont to ryde on”.  Master Orchard, Honiwood’s servant was granted, additionally, a feather bed.

To the Abbess of Burnham was willed 6s 8d and to every nun, 3s 4d to say prayers for the Canon’s soul.  The “Maister of Eton” was to receive 6s 8d; each chaplain, 20d and every clerk 12d to sing the prayers on the day of Honiwood’s burial.

The College of All Souls, Oxford, was bequeathed Honiwood’s house and land in the parish of Clewer.  His executors were to sell his house and land in “Estburnham” [East Burnham] and dispose of the proceeds for his soul, the residue being used for “charitable werkes of mercy and pitie”.

On a scroll issuing from the hand of the kneeling figure of Robert on his memorial tablet is written in Latin:  Virgo tuu’ natu’ p’ me p’cor ora beatu’ [O Virgin, I beseech you, pray to your blessed son for me].

Jill Hume, Archives volunteer

Conservator’s eye view: book structure

February 23rd, 2015

My blog dated 23 January gave a short introduction to the remarkable natural material called parchment or vellum and its durability. The collection of medieval documents and early books at St George’s Archives and Chapter Library is testament to its properties.

This time I will concentrate on the way a book was constructed after the parchment had been cleaned and dried and cut to the required size. Very large sheets could be folded several times and their edges cut open to form the basic unit of a book, the so-called quire, or gathering (and in the language of printers, a signature). Smaller sheets were folded only once to create a bifolium – that is, two leaves or four pages. Bifolia were inserted inside one another to form a quire. The quires of the manuscript of Biblical commentaries of Gregory and Bede held at St George’s [SGC LIB MS.5] are made up of four bifolia each, that is of eight leaves or sixteen pages. There are 24 quires in total in the book which equates to one hundred and ninety two leaves, or three hundred and eighty four pages. The arrangement of the leaves follows a pattern common throughout the medieval period – the hair side of the treated calf skin faces hair side and flesh side faces flesh side. The aesthetics of a medieval manuscript were determined well before work on the page layout, let alone the decoration, could begin.

Quire structure in SGC LIB MS.5

The quires were often distributed among scribes and artists in monasteries and chapel scriptoria to speed up the work. The differences of handwriting within a single volume will nearly always be per quire and rarely within the same quire.  Scribes used various devices to signal the order of quires: quire marks (consecutive numbers written on the last verso of a gathering), quire and leaf signatures (combination of letters and numbers on the leaves in the first half of a gathering), or catchwords (the first words of the next gathering written at the end of the previous one).  Each of the pages will have been textualised by the scribes and then elaborate letters or miniature illuminations will have been added before the completed quires are sent to the bindery for binding the whole codex, or book.  More information about binding will be the subject of a later blog.

For a brief, yet pleasant animated introduction to the above please see the Getty Museum video, ‘The Structure of a Medieval Manuscript’ on YouTube.

Peter Eley
Library and Archives volunteer

The early days of St George’s School library

February 16th, 2015

Nowadays, St George’s School pupils participate in the annual National Book Week and have access to a new computer suite and well-resourced library.  However, back-copies of the School Magazine reveal the modest beginnings of the School Library.

It was only on completion of the new school building in 1935 that the School Library had a room of its own and soon it became the centre of reading and other hobbies.  Recent acquisitions had focused on fiction, then on nature, while the weekly “Field” magazine was popular.  It was hoped that a large music section, good biographies of distinguished men in the history of the world, more poetry and some moving classics might be forthcoming. Donations and gifts of books were sought as the Library Fund was insufficient to maintain a well stocked Library with its books well maintained and replaced as necessary.

Soon the many contributions to the Library Fund were being acknowledged.  In 1946 a Library Committee was formed, dilapidated and out of date books were being replaced and the proceeds of fines for overdue or damaged books were allocated to the Library Fund.  A year later a small subscription by every boy ensured a small but steady supply of new books for the Library.  Soon it was reported that the school had been gifted some fine oak bookshelves from Chapter Library and that the Library, which now contained 1500 books, was being used by large numbers of boys.  More than 200 books were added to the Library during the school year 1948-49.  In 1953 there was said to be a fairly good selection of all types of literature, but much “dead wood”.  Up to date books on Natural History, science, sports, games, hobbies, music and art, true adventure stories and annuals and books by Jane Austin, Trollope, C. Bronte, More (“Utopia”), Butler (“Erewhon”), C. S. Forester and T. S. White would be gratefully received.  Substantial gifts of books or donations to Library funds are acknowledged in subsequent issues of the school magazine.

Jill Hume, Archives Volunteer

Conservator’s-eye-view: vellum and parchment

January 23rd, 2015

Over the next few months, St George’s Chapel Archives and Chapter Library will be publishing a series of blogs written by one of our invaluable volunteers. Peter Eley is the founder of conservation supplies company, Arquiva Conservation, which has supplied the Oxbridge colleges, the Royal Household/Royal Collection, National Trust and English Heritage. He has worked on many conservation projects and is currently carrying out a survey of the many wax seals held in St George’s Chapel Archives. Here he offers us a conservator’s-eye-view of some of the Archives and Chapter Library holdings, beginning this week with a closer look at vellum and parchment.

There is a remarkable collection of early documents and books safely stored at St George’s Archives and Chapter Library and it has been my privilege for several years to work as a conservator on many of the medieval deeds with wax seals attached.

All of the hundreds of deeds are hand written on vellum or parchment and in this rapidly changing age of electronic communication it is worth considering for a moment or two the merits and construction of this long-lasting natural material.

Vellum; the word is derived from the Latin vitulinum meaning ‘made from calf’, leading to Old French velin (calfskin).  The choice of animal skin and their treatment was determined by local economy and by the type of book or document for which they were intended. Goatskins were most commonly used in Italy. Sheepskins were favoured for documents (as per our deeds) since they showed erasures more noticeably than other materials and thus discouraged alteration. Large and thick calf skins were most suitable for giant lectern Bibles and choir books. Thirteenth century pocket sized Bibles used skins that had been split and pared down to thin leaves, ready for the scribes and illuminators to carry out their wonderful work. Calf skins of medium thickness and fine quality would have provided the durable and yet supple material for manuscripts of the size of Books of Hours, psalters, breviaries and pontificals.

To see how parchment is made please see YouTube “How parchment is made”, Mr Win Visscher showing Dr Stephen Baxter the process (a Domesday BBC programme).

Quite frequently in my career I have seen carefully executed repairs to manuscripts pages, especially on expensive Royal or ecclesiastical volumes, whereby the contemporary repairer has used pieces of ‘slunk’ or ‘uterine vellum’ (after their unlikely source, aborted calves). If well done, a tear or a blemish can be almost impossible to detect. Another use for uterine vellum, because of its thinness, was for the artist or illuminator to trace his/her design or initial letter onto the page in preparation for filling all or part of the page, following the scribe having written the text.  Today, a conservator can order similarly thin parchment called Goldbeaters Skin off-the-shelf to make fine repairs.

Despite the hundreds of years our parchment documents and books have survived in such good order, not to mention the climatic changes they have endured in this drafty part of Berkshire, the ‘skins’ have fought against attempts to restrain them – much as the tethered beasts they once were.

Peter Eley
Library and Archives volunteer

Archive’s got talent

January 16th, 2015

If an Archive could talk then I am certain it would boast about the wealth of stories it holds within its walls. Perhaps it would even shout out, drawing our attention to a hidden gem which has lain dormant, patiently awaiting its rediscovery. Sadly this is fantasy, but exciting stories are stumbled upon in due course whilst  Archivists go about their daily work. This is exactly what makes working in an Archive fantastic, as I found out during one of my early tasks as a trainee in St George’s Chapel Archives.

Among the printed music collection is an aged and mottled, but nonetheless beautiful, ‘Choral Songs in Honour of Her Majesty Queen Victoria’. The idea was conceived by St George’s organist Sir Walter Parratt and poet Arthur C. Benson to celebrate Queen Victoria’s 80th birthday. Published in 1899, the work contains the contributions of some big names in British art, music and culture. Etonian Robert Bridges, later Poet Laureate, wrote beautiful words to ‘Hark! Thy world is full of praise’ and composer Edward Elgar contributed with ‘To her beneath whose steadfast star’.  Other famous contributors from the local area also appear, including Etonian Hubert Parry, the Chapel’s assistant organist H. Walford Davies, and, of course, Walter Parratt. Perhaps this work inspired Hubert Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’ written in 1916? Perhaps it also brought together the future successful collaboration between Benson and Elgar who in 1902 composed ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ – another little number which you might have heard of!

What makes this book even more charming is that the owner has gone to the effort of turning it into a scrapbook and autograph album. The owner of the book appears to have been R. F. Martin Akerman, assistant organist at St George’s Chapel (1900-24). Most of the works have been signed by both the lyricist and composer, including Benson, Parry and Elgar. Some of them signed the book in Windsor on 29 May 1900 when there was a performance of the Choral Songs.  The programme which was apparently used by Walter Parratt has been fixed into the inside cover.

There are also some letters to Mr Akerman from some of the contributors who speak about the experience. One of these is a rather scrawled letter from 1931 signed by Elgar, then Master of the Queen’s Music, in which he tantalisingly says he was there when they performed the songs to Queen Victoria. Unfortunately, this is the only glimpse into the actual performance this book reveals. Also included is a letter from Robert Bridges, who is a little scathing about a performance of George Elvey’s choir he had heard in Windsor.

Although somewhat of a conservator’s nightmare, the personal touches which have been added to this significant collection of late 19th century music really make the book come alive and fill the music with even more grandeur. It is a real piece of St George’s archival treasure.

I shall remember this discovery for a long time, and look forward to the next!

Gemma Martin (Archives Trainee)

Alice Chaucer: a survivor in hard times

December 15th, 2014
In the beautiful church of St Mary the Virgin, Ewelme, in Oxfordshire, there is a tomb and alabaster effigy which attracts visitors from all over the world.  Within the tomb lies Alice de la Pole, late duchess of Suffolk (and lady of the Garter), but her posthumous “fame” derives from her maiden name, which was Chaucer. Alice was born c.1404, probably at Ewelme, the only child of Thomas Chaucer (c.1367-1434) and his wife Maud Burghersh (c.1379-1437). Thomas was the son of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400), and he was a man who mattered. His marriage had brought him estates throughout southern England, he was MP for Oxfordshire fourteen times, and was chosen to be Speaker of the House of Commons on five occasions, a record which stood for three hundred years. So, Alice’s background was a very comfortable one, and as an only child she could expect parental favour.

Alice lived her seventy and more years during the turbulent 15th century, and her own life reflects something of the political and dynastic upheavals which afflicted England. We know little about her early life, but aged only eleven, she was married to Sir John Phelip (c.1380-1415). It was not unusual for girls of this age to be betrothed or married, but this was to be a very short marriage, for Sir John died within the year. Alice’s second marriage was to a leading nobleman, Thomas de Montacute, 4th earl of Salisbury (1388-1428), but they had no children and he died when she was still in her mid twenties.

Alice’s third marriage, in 1430, was the one which propelled her to prominence, influence and wealth.  Her new husband was William de la Pole, 4th earl of Suffolk (1396-1450), who later became duke of Suffolk and one of the realm’s mightiest subjects. He’d been made a knight of the Garter in 1421, and Alice herself was first granted Garter robes in 1432 and then again in the years 1434-36 and 1448-49. They had one son, John de la Pole (1442-92). In 1445, she was chosen to accompany Margaret of Anjou (1430-82) to England prior to her marriage to Henry VI, and the two women became friends, at least for the time being. Alice became a leading figure at Henry VI’s court, but eminence fosters jealousy and some saw her influence as malign. This led to demands from parliament for her removal from the royal household.

1450 proved to be the crunch year for Alice and William. The latter was the king’s favourite and had been the chief power in the land, but his policies were increasingly unpopular and his authority was crumbling. Associated with defeat in France and corrupt government at home, he was impeached by the Commons, then sent into exile by Henry VI, mainly for his own safety. However, news of his ‘release’ sparked public anger, and his enemies were not going to let him escape final justice. So, as William was sailing across the channel, his boat was intercepted by another, and the hapless duke was seized, given a mock trial, and summarily executed. Later, his body was found washed up on the sands near Dover.

Her husband’s brutal demise put Alice in a potentially perilous position, and for a time there was danger around her. In a chilling echo of William’s downfall, Jack Cade’s rebels arranged a mock trial of her in London in the summer of 1450. Had the rebellion not fizzled out the outlook for her could have been grim. There were also private attacks on her estates in the 1450s. Yet she survived and went on to prosper. She inherited William’s properties (which included the castle and honour of Wallingford), and was now a wealthy landowner with property in twenty-two counties. Five years after William’s death, the Wars of the Roses began. Perhaps sensing which way the wind would veer, Alice abandoned her Lancastrian allegiance, and switched her loyalty to the Yorkists. Having backed the right horse, by a twist of irony she became custodian in 1471 of Margaret of Anjou, her former friend and patron.

As befitted the granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer, Alice had an interest in the literature of her time. In particular, she was one of a host of patrons of the Benedictine monk and prolific poet, John Lydgate (c.1370-1449). Lydgate was considered to be the equal of Chaucer in his time, but posterity has not been kind towards his output. It seems he was a master of saying nothing very much to excessive length.

Alice de la Pole, duchess of Suffolk, died in 1475, the year in which Edward IV founded the present St George’s Chapel, symbol of the Yorkist ascendancy which she came to embrace. Her life may not be as well documented as we would wish, but we know enough to see her as one of the formidable women of late medieval England.

Simon Harrison  (Archives volunteer)

Thomas Willement’s royal windows

November 17th, 2014

Thomas Willement (1786–1871) was, to quote from his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “pre-eminent among a small group of stained-glass artists, who, in the early nineteenth century, utilized the medieval method of making a stained-glass window from separate pieces of coloured glass bound together with lead strips, rather than, as with eighteenth-century artists, using coloured enamels to paint pictures on glass”.1

In July 1840 the Dean and Canons of Windsor commissioned Willement to design and install four heraldic windows in the Quire in honour of the Knights of the Garter, two on the south side and two on the north, continuing the sequence of windows commenced by Francis Eginton in 1781. Willement,  who was an expert in heraldry as well an accomplished stained glass artist, was an ideal choice for the work, although he made it clear that he wished to design the windows himself, rather than following Eginton’s plainer eighteenth century style. Indeed he made this a condition of his involvement, writing to Canon Cust, the Canon Steward, on 17 July 1840:
Pray use your powerful interest that the Dean’s proposition that the new windows should match the old may not be put into practice, as it would totally prevent me from having anything to do with [the] job- which I am most anxious for, if it can be done by work which will not hurt my reputation.2

The Dean and Canons must have agreed to his terms, for Willement was employed by them for over twenty years, from 1840 to 1861.   During this period, he designed and completed a total of thirty new stained glass windows – ten in the Quire Clerestory, fifteen in the Quire Aisles and five in the Lincoln Chapel –in addition to his restoration of the Great West Window and of several windows in the Oliver King and Beaufort Chapels. All but one of these new windows – the east window in the South Quire Aisle depicting “The Carrying of the Cross” – remain intact.

The series of fourteen windows in the North and South Quire Aisles, of which Willement claimed to be proudest, is of particular antiquarian interest. Depicting members of the English monarchy from the reign of King Edward III (1327-1377) to King William IV (1830-37), Queen Victoria’s immediate predecessor, the sequence emphasised the legitimacy and religious orthodoxy of the English Crown; significantly omitting the last Yorkist king, Richard III, and the post-Reformation Roman Catholic monarchs, Mary I and James II.  A manuscript notebook held in the St George’s Chapel Archives [SGC XVII.9.9], which was compiled by Willement during his employment at Windsor, indicates the wide-ranging sources he used as models for the stained glass royal portraits, whilst his meticulous heraldic research is evidenced by the accuracy of the coats of arms used in his windows throughout the Chapel.

The designs for the “royal windows” in the North and South Quire Aisles follow a similar pattern although they were completed over ten years, from 1844 to 1854.3 The first window installed, in 1844 in the South Quire Aisle, depicts King Henry VI and his Queen Consort, Margaret of Anjou in the central panels of the central row of the three layered window, supported by St George and St Margaret on either side. The top row includes heraldic badges and coats of arms of both the King and Queen, whilst the bottom row windows contain references to the religious and educational activities of the King, including the arms of Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge. The neighbouring window, completed in 1846, centres on portraits of King Henry VIII and his favourite Queen, Jane Seymour, with their son Edward, Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VI) to their left and Henry VIII’s younger daughter, Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I) on their right. The top row windows depict their arms and heraldic badges, whilst the bottom range includes the arms of the six bishoprics founded by the King Henry VIII, an open Bible and the arms of Trinity College, Cambridge. The omission of King Henry VIII’s eldest child, Princess Mary, from the window is deliberate. The final window to be installed , in 1854 in the North Quire Aisle, commemorates the reign of King William IV and his Queen Consort, Queen Adelaide.

The nature and significance of Willement’s stained glass in St George’s Chapel has been assessed in an seminal article by Sarah Brown.  A visit to the Chapel reinforces her enthusiasm for the skilful work of this “under-rated artist”.4

1 Stanley A Shepherd, Willement, Thomas (1786–1871)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/29440, accessed 20 Oct 2005]
2 SGC M.166/1
3 A description of the North and South Quire Aisle windows in contained in an article by Clive Wainwright, ‘Thomas Willement’s Stained Glass Windows in the Choir Aisles’, in the Annual Report of the Society of the Friends of St George’s and Descendants of the Knights of the Garter, 1972.
4 Sarah Brown,  ‘“So Perfectly Satisfactory”: The Stained Glass of Thomas Willement’, in A History of the Stained Glass of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle ed. S Brown (2005) p.111

The letters of Sir Henry Ponsonby

October 17th, 2014

Sir Henry Ponsonby fulfilled the role of Private Secretary to Queen Victoria from 8th April 1870 until his death in 1895 and in doing so became the main source of communication between Her Majesty and those who wished to seek her opinion or permission with regards to certain state affairs. Given the duration of his service in this position, and the level of responsibility devolved to him by the Queen, an analysis of Ponsonby’s work provides a fascinating insight into the workings of the Royal Household and its coordination with other significant bodies during this period.  In 1942, Ponsonby’s son Arthur capitalised on the wealth of information stored in their family records and compiled a biography of his father’s life based on the letters of his time in office.[1]  On completing his publication, Ponsonby the younger passed the documents of Windsor interest to the archives here, describing them as “essentially a St George’s matter”.

Ponsonby’s role was significant in managing the expectations of the Queen herself and those who wished to communicate with her. The letters provided to the archives of St George’s Chapel by Arthur Ponsonby clearly reveal the delicacy required in situations where this communication was paramount to the success of the Queen’s public image. Letters from Randall Thomas Davidson, Dean of Windsor from 1883 to 1891, in particular demonstrate the significance of Ponsonby’s role in serving as his advocate. Wishing to communicate his devotion to the Queen’s wishes, Davidson completes each of his letters without failing to include a line such as “of course, if the Queen has the slightest objection, I will rewrite it in some other way.” [SGC XVII.33.45.29]

The greatest controversy revealed through Ponsonby’s correspondence is undoubtedly that which surrounded the aftermath of the death of Napoléon, the Prince Imperial, who died while serving with the British Army in South Africa in a brutal close-hand attack by Zulu warriors, and the decision to create a memorial to commemorate this shocking event. As A.P. Stanley, the Dean of Westminster, writes to Ponsonby, the gravity of such a situation requires the appropriate action from the monarch in order to “gratify the public feeling of the country” [SGC XVII.33.45.20]. The dangers of separate bodies who manage situations such as this becomes apparent through Wellesley’s comment that “the little Dean, besides, had far too much pluck for this” [SGC XVII.33.45.24] thus demonstrating that, in acting without the coordination of superior figures, great controversy has been caused over a matter of extensive national and international significance. Wellesley writes of the need to show “the personal and private affection of the Royal Family towards [the Prince Imperial]” [SGC XVII.33.45.24], while appreciating the objection of many to the idea of a monument specifically dedicated to a member of  the (exiled) French royal family being erected in Westminster Abbey.

Ponsonby’s significance in such difficult circumstances becomes clear as he coordinates the recovery of this mistake made by the all “too plucky” Dean of Westminster. In serving as the Queen’s secretary, Ponsonby managed those involved and their decisions which aimed to resurrect the initial error of judgement. As Dean Stanley tells Ponsonby, “I wrote immediately a note to Sir Stafford Northcote offering to withdraw permission if the government thought it contrary to the public interest, or else if they wished to take no part in the question to undertake the whole responsibility” [SGC XVII.33.45.20], thus offering to salvage the reputation of the governing body by himself accepting blame. Once again, the delicacy of the situation and the necessity of Ponsonby’s role as the mediator becomes apparent as the Dean tells him, “of course if the Queen decided that it should be stopped and yet did not wish her name to appear in the matter I could then undertake the refusal.” [XVII.33.45.20] Here, Ponsonby acts as the master of communication, coordination and protection of Her Majesty’s public image. In the end, the matter was resolved when it was agreed that the monument to the Prince Imperial should go to St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Initially installed in the Bray Chantry Chapel in 1881, it was relocated to its present position on the south side of the Nave in 1985.

These letters provide a fascinating insight into the workings of the Royal Household and most specifically the role of Sir Henry Ponsonby in his position as Private Secretary to the Queen. Despite the need to battle through the inadequacies of nineteenth century handwriting in order to unravel the intricacies of this relationship, the treasures hidden within the many (almost) illegible pages are well worth digging up.

Ros Leather, work experience student.

[1.] A. Ponsonby Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, Henry Ponsonby, His Life From His Letters, London Macmillan & Co. Ltd, 1942