ProQuest digitizes famed Hatfield House archives for a look at the world of Elizabeth I and more

The Royal intrigue surrounding William and Kate’s upcoming nuptials is small potatoes compared to the political and personal dramas that William’s ancestors endured.  For proof, take a look at The Cecil Papers, a new digital archive ProQuest is rolling out.  The company has teamed with the Library and Archives of Hatfield House, the 400 year-old home of Britain’s Marquess of Salisbury, to digitize 30,000 documents collected by two of Elizabeth I’s closest advisers.   

William Cecil, Lord Burghley and his son Robert Cecil, First Earl of Salisbury amassed a collection that includes state papers, political memoranda, legal documents, and treaties as well as hand-drawn maps, tables and letters that include some of the most famous – or infamous, depending on your perspective – in Western European history.  Events such as the Spanish Armada, the Gunpowder Plot and the imprisonment and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, are revealed without the filters of historians.  To wit, Lord Burghley’s draft order that would end Mary’s life — “Receive the person of the said Queen into his charge, and without delay to do execution upon her” — shows his edits and careful consideration of how to position the message.

Download PDF with images of this letter

The documents have been in the Hatfield House Library for hundreds of years.  Far too fragile to handle, they’ve been accessible through two aging microfilm readers.  However, now, libraries can provide access on the web, allowing their users to view them in startlingly clear digital images, dramatically accelerating research opportunities. 

The Cecil Papers are fascinating to a wide range of readers – from professional historians to the merely curious — but it’s very important to understand the impact this broadened access will have on serious research in this area,” said Dr Dan Burnstone, Vice-President of Publishing at ProQuest.  “Digitization of these papers strips away the filters of opinion so that scholars can look at original works and draw their own conclusions.  We may see the emergence of entirely new interpretations of some of the most riveting chapters in British history.”

Among the tens of thousands of items in The Cecil Papers are documents detailing negotiations, correspondence, and questions of marriage relating to Elizabeth, as well as the succession to the throne.  Mary, Queen of Scots’ fate unfolds through a look at the famous “casket letters,” as her son – James VI of Scotland and I of England – begins his journey to power.  Personal lives can be witnessed through the wealth of letters – loving and otherwise – sonnets, and pleas.  Among them is Sir Walter Raleigh’s plea to King James to spare his life, estimated to date from 1603-04.  Condemned to death for his role in a plot against the King, Sir Walter serves himself some humble pie in an effort to dodge the executioner’s axe:  “…this being the first letter which ever your Maiesty receved from a dead man, I humble submit my soul to the will of my supreme lorde & shall willingly and patiently suffer what his great & generus hart shall determine.”   (By the way, it worked… at least until 1618, when King James gave in to pressure and had Sir Walter beheaded.)

Download PDF with image of his plea

Libraries are already adding the Cecil Papers, with the National University of Ireland, among the very first.  “Our historians and archivists are very excited. We are all in agreement that our founding Librarian, James Hardiman, would have been delighted to acquire such a prestigious collection,” said Neil O’Brien, Collection Management Librarian, National University of Ireland, Galway, Ireland.

Lord Salisbury calls the Cecil Papers “One of the glories of Hatfield House” and says “I am delighted that, in conjunction with our partners, ProQuest, we at Hatfield have been able to embark on what we see as an exciting contribution to broadening access to a valuable historic resource.”

Interested?  Check out The Cecil Papers at www.proquest.com.