Putting History in its Place at The University of Chester

Since 2014 the Department of History & Archaeology at the University of Chester has been rediscovering its specialism in the history of place, space, and landscape. Hosting the Royal Historical Society Symposium in 2017 played an important part in that process. Papers delivered at that Symposium by Oleg Benesch, Elizabeth Tingle, and William Whyte have recently been published in TRHS 6th Series, XXVIII (2018).

In this blog post the Symposium organizers – Jenny Hillman, Tom Pickles, and Katherine Wilson – reflect on the various ways that Chester has been putting history in its place.

Cyclical history

The author of Ecclesiastes 1:9 famously declared that ‘What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.’ This is certainly true of histories of place, space, and landscape at Chester. Before our arrival, Graeme White and James Pardoe had run a very successful MA in Landscape, Heritage, and Society with close connections to the Chester Society for Landscape History. Sadly this MA had been discontinued by when we were appointed. Soon after his arrival at Chester in 2013, Tom was treated to a fantastic day touring the sites in Cheshire that Graeme used for fieldtrips for his medieval landscapes module and which contributed to the genesis of Graeme’s wonderful book, The Medieval English Landscape 1000-1540 (Bloomsbury, 2012).

To foster collaborations across disciplines and build on existing strengths, the Department decided to launch a new inter-disciplinary MA in Past Landscapes and Environments (affectionately known as MAPLE). Shared between History and Archaeology, MAPLE channels expertise in landscapes from prehistory to the twentieth century and fosters skills in the theory and practice of landscape analysis. Thinking Through Landscapes and Environments considers western and non-western histories of place, space, and landscape, taking in approaches like sensory history, psycho-geography, and environmental history. Investigating Past Landscapes explores practical skills in documentary and cartographic research, Geographical Information Systems, LiDAR and aerial photography, and onomastics.

The RHS Symposium 2017

HISTSYMP-9To capitalise on this energy, we applied to host the Royal Historical Society Symposium under the title ‘Putting History in its Place: Historic Landscapes and Environments’. Observing that ‘All human action is emplaced within historically specific and contingent landscapes and environments’ we made the bold claim that ‘These are not merely canvasses on which human action is played out, but constitute active social and cultural agents in producing change.’ The Symposium was designed to encourage historians to speak across the regional and period divisions that often shape our research.

HISTSYMP-1The Roundtable

Before the Symposium, members of the History staff at Chester contributed to a roundtable event based on our own landscape research interests, ranging from Clare Hickman on gardens in eighteenth-century medical history, to Tim Grady on First World War British internment camps, to Hannah Ewence on British Jewish identity and urban landscapes in twentieth-century Britain, and Rebecca Andrew on regional identity and rural landscapes in inter-War and post-War Britain.

The Keynotes

At the Symposium, three scholars well-known for their work on landscapes gave keynote lectures focusing on the medieval, early modern, and modern periods. John Blair drew on his Leverhulme funded project on Anglo-Saxon settlement to ask and answer the question ‘Was there such a place as Anglo-Saxon England’ through a formidable range of approaches to the relationship between material culture, landscape, and identity. His brilliant book from this project is now available as Building Anglo-Saxon England  (2018) has recently been shortlisted for the 2019 Wolfson History Prize. Elizabeth Tingle explored embodied holiness and long-distance pilgrimage in the Catholic Reformation ranging across an impressive body of European evidence to recapture the experience of religious travel. William Whyte outlined a persuasive thesis on the current scholarly ‘re-enchantment of the world’, pointing out that we have been here before, gently chastising us for our assumptions about agency and landscape, and suggesting historians should reconstruct ‘regimes of materiality’. His latest book Unlocking the Church: The Lost Secrets of Victorian Sacred Space (2017) followed close on the heels of the Symposium.

The Papers

Alongside these keynote addresses a series of papers by scholars from Britain and North America and grouped by theme encouraged discussion across regions and periods. For the Landscape and Identity panel, we were taken from the early modern woodlands of New England (Julie Schlag, Hull) and early modern coastal wetlands of Atlantic Canada (David F. Duke, Acadia) to the nineteenth-century agricultural landscape of Handley, North Dorset (Leo Baker, Bristol). To consider Sacred and Liminal Spaces we were transported from late medieval Canterbury Cathedral (Dee Dyas and John Jenkins, Christianity and Culture, York) via early modern parish churches (Emma Wells, York) and early modern Dutch landscapes of urban life and execution (Anuradha Gobin, Calgary), to landscapes of grave-digging in nineteenth- and twentieth-century England (Stuart Prior, Britsol and Helen Frisby, UWE). In the final panel on Place and Affect, we visited the frontier settlements of Chester (Graeme White, Chester), the urban castles of Japan in the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth century (Oleg Benesch, York), and later twentieth-century British nuclear bunkers (Jonathan Hogg, Liverpool, and Jessica Douthwaite, Stirling/ Imperial War Museums).

The Legacy

Organizing the Symposium helped us to reinforce existing collaborations and generate new ones; these results are visible in a number of ways.

  • Spiritual Landscapes and Pilgrimage: Jenny Hillman and Elizabeth Tingle have co-edited a volume of essays on spiritual journeys in medieval and early modern Europe. “Soul Travel” is now in press with Peter Lang (Oxford) and features contributions from scholars across the UK and Europe.
  • Early Christian Churches and Landscapes: Tom Pickles was just beginning his AHRC funded Research Network, ‘Early Christian Churches and Landscapes’, which has since held two conferences and four workshops to lay the foundations for a new digital database of the evidence for churches before 1100 across Britain and Ireland.
  • The Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries: Katherine Wilson successfully landed another AHRC funded Research Network focusing on ‘The Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries, 1000-1700’. This is considering how an object-centred approach might help us to escape the traditional periodisations and explanations for historical changes to material culture. It is about to hold its second workshop.
  • A Sense of Chester: Clare Hickman and Rebecca Andrew worked with Barry Taylor and Amy Gray-Jones (Archaeology) and the Storyhouse Chester to put on a series of events for the Being Human Festival 2017. These encouraged members of the public to join a virtual foraging expedition and learn how prehistoric people used their senses; to experience Dr John Hope’s eighteenth-century botanical teaching sensorium; and to record and share their sensory experiences of twenty-first century Chester.
  • Diverse Narratives: Building on their AHRC subject-centre grant through further funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Tim Grady and Hannah Ewence have continued to pursue their project on Diverse Narratives: Cheshire in World War I. This has raised awareness amongst the local communities of Cheshire that they are surrounded by a landscape reflecting and commemorating the participation of minorities in the War, and has included a parallel project to increase knowledge and understanding of the Handforth internment and prisoner of war camp.

LGBT+ and History in the UK

In the middle of February 2019, as many historians were marking LGBT+ History month, a small team of historians under the aegis of the Royal Historical Society started work on a new investigation, focussing on the experience of LGBT+ historians and on the teaching of LGBT+ histories in UK universities. Led by Professor Frances Andrews, the Society’s first Vice-President for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, the first aim of this working group is to build on the outstanding efforts of those recently dedicated to Race, Ethnicity and Equality and Gender, completed in 2018. Those reports draw on large scale surveys of the profession to offer reliable data on the current situation and guidance for academic historians on how to address and diminish barriers to equality in the discipline.  We hope to create something similar.

At this stage, the working group has many more questions than answers. We recognise that, like the catch-all categories of ‘BME’ or ‘Women’ investigated in the Society’s previous reports, historians identifying as LGBT+ have different and potentially very divergent experiences. Some will be comfortable being out at work, with colleagues and/or students, others will be unable to be. Anecdotal evidence suggests that ECR historians find it particularly difficult to be out, and worry that it will affect their career prospects. As an identity that can be hidden, being gay or bi- leaves some academic historians feeling unsupported and unsure who to tell. Trans identities have been much in the news, and the controversies have probably touched many of us, even if only in discussions of gender neutral toilets or how to teach trans-histories. But how well do History departments support trans and non-binary colleagues and students and those who may identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual? What about colleagues and students who have other diverse gender or sexual identities?

When it comes to what we teach, many academic historians may be keen to teach LGBT+ histories, and will want to see those histories taught as part of the mainstream. Students may be keen to explore them. But LGBT+ historians may not want to ‘have’ to teach those histories themselves.  Are such concerns ever discussed in departmental meetings or reviewed when curriculum changes are introduced? How does it feel to be an LGBT+ academic working in a UK History Department in 2019? And how might things be improved? How do intersectional identities affect us and our students?

In the next couple of months the working group will be drawing up a questionnaire, to be circulated to fellows and members in the early summer. By then our questions will be more sharply formulated and, we hope, will offer the opportunity for a serious conversation about these issues.

In the meantime, if you have suggestions we would love to hear from you!

If you have any feedback on these initial ideas, or would like to contribute to the working group, please contact Frances Andrews by email: fea@st-andrews.ac.uk.

Royal Historical Society Responds to TEF Review

First introduced by the government in England in 2017, and open to all UK higher education providers, the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) is designed to:

  • better inform students’ choices about what and where to study;
  • raise esteem for teaching;
  • recognise and reward excellent teaching;
  • better meet the needs of employers, business, industry and the professions.

Section 26 of the Higher Education and Research Act (2017) provided for an independent review of the TEF.  The Secretary of State for Education appointed Dame Shirley Pearce of the LSE to conduct this review, supported by an advisory group, and she issued a Call for Views on 18 January 2019, with a closing date of 1 March 2019. The Royal Historical Society submitted a response, and this is now available in full on our website.

As our response to the review (and indeed our own commitment to rewarding excellent teaching within the history profession) makes clear, the Royal Historical Society welcomes initiatives which raise the status of teaching and reward teaching excellence. However, we remain unconvinced that TEF  should be used to inform students’ choices or that, as it is presently configured, it is best suited to enhance teaching and learning provision.

In particular we have concerns about:

  • whether Subject-Level TEF will provide meaningful information to prospective history students;
  • the absence of any engagement with “learning gain” acquired by students studying history at university;
  • the use of NSS core metrics which, by indicating student views on teaching rather than assessing teaching itself, are inadequate proxies to assess ‘teaching excellence’, particularly in the light of studies that identify substantial levels of bias in student evaluations;
  • the bunching of History with other disciplines (such as Archaeology) which have their own disciplinary norms in terms of teaching, underpinning premises and conceptual framework. To conflate these disciplines will not provide accurate information for potential students, a central purpose of TEF;
  • the impression of competition in the same ‘race’ implied by the award of Gold, Silver and Bronze evaluations, notwithstanding the use of benchmarking in TEF evaluations (which mean that institutions are not ‘competing’ on the same ground);
  • statistical flaws in TEF as identified by the Royal Statistical Society.

As ever, we welcome feedback from our members and the wider historical community on this response and any other policy issues.

Condemned to Become: the Future of the Past in Berlin

colla prizeMarcus Colla is a final year PhD student at the University of Cambridge. His research looks at the legacy of the Prussian state in communist East Germany. Marcus was awarded the Alexander Prize for 2018 for his article ‘Prussian Palimpsests: Architecture and Urban Spaces in East Germany, 1945-1961,’ Central European History, Vol. 50, (2017), 184-217. Here, he considers how Berlin has dealt with its contested past in its urban landscape.

In 1910, the critic Karl Scheffler memorably described Berlin as a city ‘condemned forever to become and never to be’: a site in perpetual and restless flux, ever-transfiguring itself into something new. Today, massive projects such as the expansion of the government quarter and the ill-starred international airport bear testament to the city’s latest transformation, this time into a truly national capital and a cosmopolitan centre of culture.

But Berlin’s new urban identity is not geared to the future alone. At the city’s historic core, the €600 million ‘reconstruction’ of the eighteenth-century City Palace is now nearing completion. As a historian concerned with the fate of historic architecture in post-war Germany, this project raises a number of fascinating questions about the way that the capital of the reunified state has dealt with its contested past in its urban landscape. My research explores the demolition of a number of buildings after 1945 that have in recent years reappeared on the streetscapes of Berlin and Potsdam – the City Palace included. But can an understanding of these buildings’ histories help explain why they are now being resurrected?

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The Fernsehturm. Credit: Polaroidville on Unsplash

There are many layers to the history of the site of the City Palace: once the seat of the Prussian Kings and German Emperors, the original structure was demolished by the communist government of East Germany (the GDR) in 1950. On its foundations they ultimately built the Palast der Republik (‘Palace of the Republic’) – a distinctively 1970s construction that served as both the seat of the GDR’s rubber-stamp parliament and a social and entertainment complex. But with the demise of their regime in 1990, the Palast itself was rendered aesthetically and functionally obsolete. Packed with asbestos, it finally met the wrecker’s ball in 2008. The Palast’s departure left unheeded the protests of many Ossis (‘Easties’) and their supporters, who perceived in this round of demolition a concerted attempt by imperious Westerners to erase East Germany’s history from the narrative of the new, unified state.

Now, the City Palace is re-emerging as the ‘Humboldt Forum’: a museum and research space whose dedication to world cultures and ethnology is designed to capture modern Germany’s forward-looking, cosmopolitan identity. In the temporal kaleidoscope of twenty-first century Germany, past, present and future are densely entangled. .

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West facade of the new Berlin City Palace (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The physical resurrection of the Palace has not been able to silence criticism entirely. For a site so pregnant with cultural potential, many Berliners are astonished by the lack of imagination the project betrays. Future generations, some muse, may be mystified by what they see. Will they falsely perceive the building as an authentic emblem of a baroque Berlin, a quaint antique of the city’s Prussian past? Or will they see it as a distinctly twenty-first century phenomenon; a curious postmodern composite born of nostalgia and cultural apathy?

Or is there perhaps something more radical and even ‘anti-historical’ at play? The reconstruction of the Palace, after all, has not just entailed the obliteration of the Palast der Republik: by symbolically reversing the original destruction of 1950, it also seeks to right a perceived historical wrong. Back in 1991, the historian and journalist Joachim Fest expressed a common sentiment when he argued that ‘if the destruction of the Palace was supposed to symbolise the victory’ of communism, then ‘reconstruction would symbolise its failure’. This represented a longing for ‘authenticity’, motivated by a desire for permanence and finality after a century of war and division. Berlin, such critics pleaded, must finally be allowed to ‘be’.

Sadly for these critics, the conflict over the past is not one that can be won or lost. As future visitors to Berlin will doubtless appreciate, history has a tenacious capacity to reassert itself. If one stands today at the western edge of the new City Palace, one is met by a striking vista. Before you, the palace’s cupola ascends elegantly from a mire of cranes and scaffolds, while the colossal dome of the Berlin Cathedral sparkles just a few metres to the north. The historic confluence of royal and spiritual power could not be more boldly expressed. But there, rising in the background between both structures, is the distinctive silhouette of the Fernsehturm: a 368m space-age needle that bespeaks communism’s lost dreams of technological and creative supremacy. Like laughter secreting from the coffin of history, it will haunt the backdrop of every photograph hence. Over one hundred years of trauma may separate Scheffler’s observation from the Berlin of today, but it continues to bear a sobering truth: Berlin is not a city that can simply be.

Mobile Emotions

Dr Katie Barclay won the Royal Historical Society’s 2018 David Berry Prize for her essay on love and friendship amongst lower order men in eighteenth-century Scotland. Here she reflects on the larger project that the essay emerged from and its insights for contemporary academic emotional economies.

barclay.jpgThis week, as well as writing this blogpost for the RHS, I am working on a book chapter on the emotional economies of migrant workers – the vagrants, chapbook wo/men, and door to door salespeople that were a feature of the early modern European landscape. Of interest to me is how an economy and ‘lifestyle’ that relied on the hospitality and charity of the wider community shaped the personal lives and relationships of this key group, and the ways that such mobility informed a particular understanding of the early modern self. It is a history that reflects on the capacity of individuals to find a ‘place’ on their journeys through time and space, but also of the emotional and practical labour involved in such placements. My work particularly focuses on Scotland, my homeland, but a home left behind in my own itinerant travels as a worker in the modern academic landscape.

The inspiration for this post was a request from the RHS blog editors to reflect on the research challenges of being a Scottish historian, currently based in Australia, and with a career that has required significant mobility as I – like much of the modern academy – has sought to find an institutional home. I suspect this may have been a request to reflect on the importance of a decent camera to enabling research to move swiftly on short trips back to archives located thousands of miles from your residence (very important – an iPhone won’t cut it), but, as a historian of emotion and mobility, I interpreted it as a moment to reflect on the themes that drive my research – of emotion, mobility, place, community.

I submitted my PhD in 2007, graduated in 2008. I was offered a permanent – continuing as Australian’s style it – contract in 2017, after ten years of post-qualification scholarly life. In many ways, it has been a remarkable career – ten years of full-time, well paid, research ‘only’ work, before finally moving into a standard teaching/research contract. Most of it has been supported by research fellowships that not only paid my wages but provided funds to enable travel between the place where I worked and that which held the source material for my research. I am very privileged. Yet, as I have noted elsewhere, even for those of us who find ourselves at the ‘top’ of the ladder, a decade of insecure work – work that relies on a process of constant achievement of the next paper, the next book, the next grant – has its own particular tolls on mental and bodily health. As part of a broader system of ‘precarity’ – economic insecurity – living on research fellowships acts as a slow wearing of the self, an erosion of the ability to find comfort and particularly to find place.

The converse of this, of course, is that humans are pretty good at finding place. Histories of mobility and migration have highlighted the ways that movement can be destabilising and that the labour involved in placing roots, finding familiarity, producing ‘home’ is real and significant. But it also highlights the success of migrant communities, their ability to adapt to new landscapes, environments and economies, to make connections with other migrants and local communities, not least ties of love and family. Mobile migrant workers are perhaps particularly interesting in this respect as a group who often tramp the same routes, stay with the same people, build relationships and friendships built on an openness to newcomers but bounded by strict rules of hospitality that encourage onward movement. Thus, even for the very mobile, some sort of ‘place’ was often enabled within these communities, if not for everyone.

For the modern academic – and in many other industries too – mobility is hailed as a social and economic good. The conservative impulses that tighten borders, limit visas, and restrict movement are regarded unfavourably, for lacking business sense as well as their racism. New scholars are not only warned that mobility will likely be vital if they wish to remain with the academy but are sold it as a research good – it will broaden their experiences, produce new research networks, deepen knowledge and understanding. (That the ability to move is a privilege that those bound to place and people cannot achieve is often ignored). And the benefits of moving are all true. One of the wonderful things about having worked in Scotland, England, Ireland, Australia and Denmark and experienced seven institutions is the relationships I have built, the insight I have gained into academic practices and cultures, and benefits these have brought to my research findings.

Yet, one of the challenges of mobility is also that building relationships takes significant labour and it produces real emotional connections – we might call them friendships – that are severed, if not entirely, with every move. Finding a place in a new institution also involves by necessity a period of unsettling and settling – those moments of trying to find your new routine, learn new faces, figure out your role in a new set of group dynamics, and ultimately build the bonds that enable communities to function. It is a process that is underpinned by an experience of being out of place and its attendant anxieties and over-thinking, a mental experience that can be likened to the muscle pains of trying a new set of exercises at the gym. Over time, you even learn to identify that experience – to know that this process of settling is what is involved in finding ‘place’ – but it doesn’t seem to make it any easier.

Like any bodily labour, it also has larger impacts on the self. With every move, the labour of finding place seems harder, the desire to do it again reduces. The longer you stay in one place the more comfortable you become and the more the idea of leaving impacts on your general wellbeing, on the sense of precarity produced by insecure labour. I am sure some may say that such a comfort produces complacency. And maybe it does. But bodies need time to rest and recover. They also need the security that being in ‘place’ and having community enables – a community that is generally not formed by long cultural beliefs about family obligation to its members – but through the emotional labour we do with those around us when we arrive. Thus mobility becomes a remarkable privilege, not accessible to all and with real benefits and pleasures, but also a form of work that contributes to the challenges of negotiating the precarious economy.

For highly mobile workforces, and many of the institutions I have been part of contain as many or more migrants as locals, the mobility of the academy also has implications for institutional cultures. The people you meet at work are not just colleagues but become your family, your support network, your safety net. If we currently complain that the expectations of the current academy are unsustainable for a life beyond it, mobility further dislocates you from the world outside – making bonds beyond are not impossible but the labour far harder, requiring more effort. At its best, it is a system where you find family at work, but at its worst, it reinforces the abuses of the dysfunctional home. Such emotional bonds complicate lines of power, heighten disagreements between colleagues, and lead to romantic connections in places where the ethically-minded might suggest they should not be. This too is what it means to find ‘place’ in the academy.

I return then to my eighteenth-century mobile workers and I wonder whether the rules of hospitality and charity that enabled such movement were any less fraught, less challenging, than they are today. I reflect on the ways that their emotional economies might have also produced precarious selves, exhausted not just by the journey but the emotional labour that it required en route. Yet, as I reflect on the relationships I have made in the institutions I call home, I also remember the rewards of such expansive networks, of ties and connections that cross borders, and of the charity and hospitality that are as vital to the functioning of university cultures, as the research.

Dr Katie Barclay is a Senior Lecturer in the ARC Centre for the History of Emotions and Department of History, University of Adelaide. You can follow her on Twitter @KatieEBarclay.


Top image: from R. R. McIan, Gaelic Gatherings; or The Highlanders at Home (1848).

Propose a Camden Volume

RHS Literary Director Andrew Spicer explains the process of proposing a volume to our Camden Series of edited primary sources.


The Royal Historical Society publishes two volumes in the Camden Series each year, more than 325 have appeared to date. But the Society is always on the look-out for new proposals! The aim of the series is to make available to historians, researchers and students, editions of historical sources or unpublished manuscript material on an aspect of British history. Each volume is peer-reviewed and is accompanied by a scholarly introduction to the subject and the material.

The Camden Series predates the RHS: some 160 volumes were published by the Camden Society, established in 1838 ‘for the publication of early historical and literary remains’. The societies amalgamated in the late nineteenth century with the first two jointly published volumes – the papers of Sir Edmund Nicholas, and on the Archpriest Controversy – appearing in 1897. The chronological range of the series has broadened out from the initial focus on the medieval and early modern periods to embrace the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and since the 1980s, the twentieth century as well, up to the observations of the archbishop of Canterbury’s envoy to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. As part of the RHS’ 150th anniversary last year, we worked with Cambridge University Press to make a collection of volumes from the series freely available.

The term ‘British’ history is rather broadly defined. It encompasses not only sources relating to individuals and institutions within the islands of Britain and Ireland but has also come to include British interests – whether diplomatic, legal, military, political, religious, etc. – outside the archipelago as well as the affairs and activities of Britons and Irish people overseas. The series is also becoming more inclusive – although there is always plenty of scope for improvement – with volumes, for example, on the diaries and writings of early modern women. In 2011, the society published the minutes and papers relating to the building of the East London mosque in the early twentieth century reflecting on the aspirations of the Muslim community in London to have a mosque that befitted the capital city of a world empire. The most recent volume is Jo Ann Moran Cruz’s An Account of an Elizabethan Family: the Willoughbys of Wollaton by Cassandra Willoughby, 1670–1735. An indication of the range of subjects covered by the recent volumes can found on the RHS and Cambridge University Press websites.

What is it like to work on a Camden volume? My fellow RHS Literary Director Richard Toye recently co-edited the diaries of the Liberal politician Cecil Bisshopp Harmsworth (1869–1948), the younger brother of the influential newspaper proprietors Lords Northcliffe and Rothermere. Besides the insights it provides on Westminster politics, the volume also details the constituency life and electioneering of an MP in the early twentieth century. In the RHS Newsletter, Toye describes what it is like to turn a manuscript into a Camden volume, reflecting on both the challenging and satisfying aspects of the process. The volume has increased awareness of Harmsworth’s career, such that he is now to be included in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Typically, volumes for the Camden Series are between 80,000 and 120,000 words in length, including the introduction and all the normal scholarly apparatus. Shorter texts will be considered but those under 60,000 words are more appropriate for a Camden Miscellany. Each volume requires an introduction providing details about the edited source, including where appropriate how and why it was generated, as well as contextualising and assessing the significance of the material. The volumes are published by Cambridge University Press both in hard copy and are available electronically through their Cambridge Core platform.

The RHS considers proposals throughout the year, although the main forum for discussion are the Publications Committee meetings in late February and September. Proposal forms can be found on the RHS website; these need to be submitted with a sample of the edited source material for peer review. Responsibility for the Camden Series is divided between the literary directors with me (Andrew Spicer) overseeing the medieval and early modern volumes, and Richard Toye those relating to the period after 1750. If you have an idea for a volume, please get in touch (literary.directors[AT]royalhistsoc.org); we are happy to discuss potential Camden publications in advance of a formal proposal.

Prof. Andrew Spicer
RHS Literary Director
Oxford Brookes University

New Camden Volume on Elizabethan Family

Jo Ann Hoeppner Moran Cruz describes the extraordinary insights into an Elizabethan family provided in her new volume in our Camden Series of edited primary sources, and how she has used its material in undergraduate teaching and for training graduate students.

morancruzMy new Camden volume, An Account of an Elizabethan Family: The Willoughbys of Wollaton by Cassandra Willoughby (1670–1735), opens a window on Elizabethan marriage, gender and patriarchal expectations. Through an edition of surviving sixteenth-century copies and original letters and accounts from the Middleton family archives, we view intimate details of the marriage of Elizabeth and Francis Willoughby. The marriage was, not to put too fine a point on it, difficult, tempestuous and, in the end, destructive. Among the indignities that Elizabeth Littleton Willoughby suffered were imprisonment in her own home (to be guarded by the servants), an impecunious banishment from her family, ongoing demands for obedience from her husband, and enduring undermining by her sister-in-law. With her reputation at stake, Elizabeth sought support from Queen Elizabeth and stood on the strength of her Littleton family heritage, arguing with her husband that her first allegiance was to the Crown rather than to him. As the introduction concludes, however independent-minded Elizabeth Willoughby tried to be, she could not afford to forego the support of her father, brothers, husband, sons-in-law, or male friends of the family. Her struggles through twelve pregnancies, resulting in six surviving daughters, left her sick in body and ill in spirit. While this edition also continues with details of Francis Willoughby’s hurried and financially disastrous second marriage, as well as with details from the lives of their six daughters, it is Elizabeth Willoughby who steals the show.

The edition tells the Willoughby family story through the pen of a descendant, Cassandra Willoughby, who, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, copied down, synthesized and described letters and accounts of the family from the 1540s forward. The cache of materials from which Cassandra drew her Account was mostly located at Wollaton Hall outside Nottingham, one of the principal residences of the family. The text provides an intimate portrait of a family that was, at times, and perhaps particularly for the women, an unhappy one. Within a patriarchal society, Elizabeth Willoughby, married at age eighteen, essentially failed to flourish, and her six daughters, who often seem to have been as strong-willed as their mother, were left, together with their husbands, to pick up the pieces.

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Wollaton Hall (Wikicommons)

Years back I chanced upon a 1911 Historical Manuscripts Commission volume containing a description of the privately-owned Middleton family archives, which are now kept in the University of Nottingham’s Manuscripts and Special Collections. My initial interest in the Middleton material focused on what the surviving documents could tell us about education in the Tudor period; the surviving materials offer details with regard to books, music, schooling and literacy. Beginning with accounts for primers and other elementary books, Cassandra’s manuscript, together with surviving account books and other materials in the Middleton archives, provide evidence for schooling, the reading interests of the family, the library that they built up, and a culture in which correspondence played a pivotal role. But further exploration of this archive of letters, deeds, marriage settlements, wills, inventories, and other personal and administrative documents, suggested that it would be worthwhile to go beyond these interests to a larger exploration of the family.

The letters in particular, whether written by household staff, corrected by staff, written in the hands of family members or received by them, are fascinating to read and certainly captured the attention of Cassandra Willoughby when, at age 17, she moved into the imposing but neglected family residence of Wollaton Hall. Cassandra’s compilation or Account is written in a clear late seventeenth-century/early eighteenth-century hand, unlike the original letters from the sixteenth century, which she clearly had some difficulty reading. As a consequence, the manuscript itself (or a good copy of it) is an excellent place for scholars to start with the archives and for students to start with a paleographical project. It gives students an initial experience reading a handwritten primary text. Various of the graduate students I have worked with have tried their hand at editing aspects of the material, and this has been valuable training for their own research careers.

I have used the text both at the undergraduate and graduate level where it has been much discussed by undergraduates and has been a mine of information for graduate students who are interested in the experience of women in Elizabethan culture. Undergraduates have read the Account in a course on Women in Medieval and Early Modern England, and also in an undergraduate course on Women and Power in Europe, 800-1600. They read it within a larger contextual understanding of the role of women in late medieval and early modern culture. They may also read it from the perspective of the life of members of the upper-gentry in Elizabethan England. It is a perfect vehicle for teaching undergraduate students about the richness of archival work, the inherent human interest of history, the values of an upper-class Elizabethan family, and specifics with regard to the material life of the time – clothing, travel, food, entertainment, and houses.

Both undergraduate and graduate students are intrigued by the personalities of the writers, the varieties of marriages described in the text, the way wives and daughters were treated and sometimes abused, the agency of the women, the role of Queen Elizabeth and much more. Not only does the text provide insight into the Willoughbys, but it also includes remarks on other family members and neighbours and their marriages. The text is rich in information on the role of servants within the household, including orders for the household staff, wages, personal correspondence, rivalries, gossip, intrigue, and social status. Most recently a graduate student has become interested in the culture of correspondence and has been engaged with the correspondence surrounding the 1587 marriage of Dorothy Willoughby and Henry Hastings. The manuscript tells us something about the religious leanings of particular families and individuals and how they negotiated the boundaries between Catholics and Protestants of various persuasions. It provides extensive examples of land sales, loans and indebtedness (particularly as a consequence of the construction of the new Wollaton Hall) to the point that some members of the family spent time in debtors’ prison. Correspondence with the royal court, particularly with Lord Burghley, and issues rising to a national level, as well as the politics of local authorities and rivalries are embedded in the text.

For those who might want to examine an expanded chronological perspective, the introduction to this volume provides information and sources to explore. For family letters prior to the 1540s, Mary A. Welsh has published Willoughby letters from the first half of the sixteenth century in the Transactions for the Thoroton Society, vol. 24 (1967): 1-98, while A.C. Wood published, in 1958, The Continuation of the History of the Willoughby Family by Cassandra Duchess of Chandos which is the second volume of Cassandra’s Account and takes her family story into the 1690s. Perhaps the best secondary source, that provides an entrée into the family dynamics as well as an in-depth study of the renovation of Wollaton Hall, is Alice Friedman, House and Household in Elizabethan England: Wollaton Hall and the Willoughby Family (Chicago, 1989).

Published with the permission of the present Lord Middleton, this volume makes accessible to a wider audience Casandra Willoughby’s account of her ancestors. It provides not only invaluable insights into the day to day life and tribulations of a prominent Elizabethan family, it also reveals the exceptional character, spirit and misfortunes of Elizabeth Willoughby.


Dr Jo Ann Hoeppner Moran Cruz is Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University.