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Archives and Information in the Early Modern World$

Kate Peters, Alexandra Walsham, and Liesbeth Corens

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266250

Published to University Press Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266250.001.0001

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date: 27 May 2020

The Early Modern Secretary and the Early Modern Archive

The Early Modern Secretary and the Early Modern Archive

(p.105) 5 The Early Modern Secretary and the Early Modern Archive
Archives and Information in the Early Modern World

Arnold Hunt

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

It was the secretary who handled the delivery of incoming letters, drafted and copied outgoing correspondence, filed papers for retention and, quite literally, held the keys to his master's secrets. This chapter reviews the current state of scholarship on the early modern secretary and asks what we can learn from the material traces that these invisible technicians left on the documents that passed through their hands. Secretaries sought to differentiate themselves from mere clerks by developing a more sophisticated range of techniques for the handling and retrieval of written documents, and the rise of the secretary as a distinct profession was therefore accompanied by the emergence of a new technology of the archive.

Keywords:   secretaries, archives, secrecy, filing, notebooks, indexing, state papers, clerks

THE SECRETARY’S FINGERPRINTS are all over the early modern archive. Secretaries played a pivotal role at virtually every point in the life-cycle of an early modern letter: from its initial drafting to its copying, sealing, and dispatching, and from its receipt to its eventual filing, storage, and preservation. But if they were technicians of the archive, they were, in Steven Shapin’s phrase, invisible technicians, whose role in making and shaping the archive is largely hidden from sight.1 This invisibility was partly self-sought. The ideal secretary was imagined to be merely an instrument in his master’s hand: Sir Francis Walsingham’s secretary, Nicholas Faunt, wrote that the secretary should serve his master as ‘his own penne, his mouth, his eye, his eare, and keeper of his most secret Cabinet’.2 This has been perpetuated by modern archivists and cataloguers who have, for the most part, been content to take secretaries at their own valuation, as invisible servants silently obeying their master’s orders. The rules for the arrangement and cataloguing of modern archives in the British Museum (now the British Library), still in use until relatively recently, stated that ‘in a few cases the personality involved is of such a subordinate nature that his or her papers may be merged with the rest and no special placing is necessary. This is usually the case with wives or secretaries.’3

Yet Faunt’s description of the secretary as the ‘keeper of his [master’s] most secret Cabinet’ is a reminder that the secretary could also be a highly influential figure. It was a commonplace in the early modern period that the word ‘secretary’ (p.106) was intimately related to the word ‘secret’. The secretary’s role as a keeper of secrets was, in turn, closely linked to his role as a keeper of archives; for, as Isidore’s Etymologies noted, the defining feature of an archive was that, like a strongbox, it was hidden and secret:

A strongbox (arca) is so called because it prevents (arcere) and prohibits seeing inside. From this term also derive ‘archives’ (archivum) and ‘mystery’ (arcanum), that is, a secret (secretum), from which other people are fended off (arcentur).4

The image of the secretary as invisible servant has thus supported that of the secretary as the power behind the throne, keeper of the secrets and guardian of the arcana imperii. This has found modern expression in the classic British sitcom Yes Minister, where the running joke is that the secretary is more powerful than his political master. Here, in the first episode, is Sir Humphrey Appleby introducing his Minister to the power structure of the Civil Service—a hierarchy which turns out to consist of secretaries all the way down:

‘I am the Permanent Under-Secretary of State, known as the Permanent Secretary. Woolley here is your Principal Private Secretary. I, too, have a Principal Private Secretary, and he is the Principal Private Secretary to the Permanent Secretary. Directly responsible to me are ten Deputy Secretaries, eighty-seven Under-Secretaries and two hundred and nineteen Assistant Secretaries. Directly responsible to the Principal Private Secretaries are plain Private Secretaries. The Prime Minister will be appointing two Parliamentary Under-Secretaries and you will be appointing your own Parliamentary Private Secretary.’

‘Can they all type?’ I joked.

‘None of us can type, Minister’, replied Sir Humphrey smoothly. ‘Mrs McKay types—she is your secretary.’5

The contrast between the all-powerful bureaucrat (typically male) and the humble typist (typically female) would have been instantly familiar to the secretaries of the early modern period, who were at pains to distinguish themselves from mere servants, scribes, or scriveners. For all their invisibility, early modern secretaries had a keen sense of status. When Edward Reynolds, one of the Earl of Essex’s secretaries, felt himself unjustly overlooked by his master, he complained to Anthony Bacon of his ‘poor creditt, somewhat blemmished by so many of our profession’, confident that Bacon, as a fellow secretary, would understand and sympathise with his sense of wounded professional pride.6

The invisibility of the early modern secretary is perhaps best encapsulated in the well-known painting of the Somerset House Conference, commemorating the signing of the Anglo-Spanish peace treaty of 1604. The painting shows the (p.107) English and Spanish delegates seated together at a table, pen and ink at the ready, but, as Mark Taviner has pointed out, it completely omits the backstage army of clerks and secretaries and the mountain of paperwork that must have accompanied them.7 What can we gain by putting the secretaries and their archives back into the picture? First and most obviously, it can help us recover the collaborative nature of early modern statecraft, just as Shapin’s notion of the invisible technician has done for early modern science. But it can also help to clarify the nature of the administrative and archival transformations that took place in early modern Europe. In The Tudor Revolution in Government (1953), Geoffrey Elton singled out, as one of Thomas Cromwell’s key innovations, the creation of a private office where his correspondence was ‘written and received, endorsed, classified and filed away’, yet, as he went on to admit, the organisation of this private office was ‘not likely ever to emerge from obscurity’.8 At the heart of Elton’s Tudor revolution, there lay a bureaucratic void which more recent work on early modern state formation and the rise of the ‘information state’ has, so far, done little to fill.9

This is not to suggest that early modern secretaries have been neglected by modern scholarship. On the contrary, there is a growing body of research on this topic, much of it of very high quality.10 But as Alan Stewart wrote in 2009, it has ‘tended to focus on the notional relationship of secretary and master rather than on the detail of how the secretary worked with his master’.11 In this chapter, I want to extend this line of research by looking not just at the relationship between masters (p.108) and secretaries (notional and actual) but also at the role of the secretary as record-keeper and what this might tell us about the physical organisation of early modern archives. As a helpful jumping-off point, we might turn to Alan G. R. Smith’s 1968 study of the Cecils and their secretaries, which delivered an implicit critique of Elton by arguing that the organisation of the Principal Secretary’s office was as much personal as bureaucratic: ‘the very essence of the Cecils’ secretariats was that they were not bureaucratic machines: the secretaries were appointed and dismissed entirely at the discretion of the two Cecils, who determined, as they thought fit, the number of secretaries and the organisation of their work’.12 In what follows, I want to build on this important insight by offering a genealogy of the public archive that is fundamentally private and personal, rooted in the relationship between masters and secretaries and in the culture of secrecy that lay at its heart.

The Early Modern Secretary

The word ‘secretary’ made its way into the English language in the later Middle Ages as a translation of the Latin secretarius. In the English–Latin dictionary known as the Promptorium Parvulorum, compiled around 1440, ‘secretary’ is defined as a ‘man of privyte’, someone entrusted with private or confidential matters.13 The word is used in this sense in Nicholas Love’s Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ (c.1400), where Peter, James, and John are described as the ‘specyall secretaryes’ of Christ. In the course of the 15th century the word began to move closer to its modern meaning, as it began to refer to a clerk or scribe employed to write letters. A crucial step in this direction came with the emergence of the king’s secretary (secretarius regis) as the keeper of the king’s signet and the overseer of his private correspondence. By the 15th century many noblemen and gentlemen had a secretary attached to their household: Sir John Fastolf, for example, employed William Worcester as his personal attendant and man of business, and Worcester described himself as Fastolf’s ‘secretarius’, though other sources merely refer to him as a servant.14

Historians of English government from T. F. Tout onwards have noted the transformation of the king’s secretary, in the course of the early modern period, from a confidential clerk into one of the great officers of state. Tout’s student Florence Evans remarked in 1923 on the ‘sudden and remarkable increase in the position and importance of the principal secretary’ during the reigns of Henry VIII and his (p.109) successors.15 But it was left to Elton to breathe new life into this ‘commonplace of administrative history’ by arguing that it was, above all, Thomas Cromwell who turned the secretaryship into a prime-ministerial position and thus laid the foundations for ‘a new kind of government in which bureaucracy has become the guiding principle’.16 Yet the rise of the secretary was not just an English but a European phenomenon, associated not just with the bureaucratisation of government but with the rise of reason-of-state theory and its emphasis on secrecy as a key feature of successful statecraft.17 Indeed, the very word ‘secretary’ led many writers to argue that the secretary must by definition be a keeper of secrets: ‘by the very etimologie of the word it selfe, both Name and Office in one, doe conclude uppon secrecie’.18 Sir Robert Wingfield’s advice to Henry VIII in 1516, ‘the name of secretary hath the fowndation upon the knowledge of such thinggis as ought to be kept secret’, was echoed by numerous writers in the reason-of-state tradition, such as William Vaughan, in The New-Found Politicke (1626), who remarked that ‘the excellencie and high worth of a Secretarie consists not (as many thinke) in the speaking with elegancie, but in being secretly silent with fidelitie’.19

But this fixation with secrecy also reflected a deep insecurity about the social status of the secretary. Nowhere is this more clearly expressed than in Stefano Guazzo’s courtesy book, La Civil Conversatione (1574), translated into English by George Pettie as The Civile Conversation (1581), where Guazzo highlighted the difference between the social position of secretaries in Italy and France. In Italy, ‘the Secretaries of Princes are had in great honor, and justlie, for that they are partakers of their inward thoughtes, and the keepers as it were upon trust of their honor and estimation’; in France, on the other hand, ‘he that hath a servant which can coppie out writings, and keep count of his revenewes in a booke, he giveth him forthwith the name of Secretarie’. He illustrated this with an anecdote from his own travels in France suggesting that even a menial servant who possessed basic literacy skills might now be termed a secretary:

Being to chaunge horses in a certaine place, the Postmaister came unto him, and called twice aloude (Secretary) and forthwith there came out of the Stable a foule greate Groome with a pen and inkehorne at his girdle, and a pen at his eare, who had charge given him to make readie three horses: whereupon the Secretarie set hand (p.110) to the harnesse, and sadled one of them, and two other servants did the like: one of which, your Brother [i.e. Guazzo] asked why his maister made the Secretarie dresse horse? who aunswered, that his maister tooke him for a Groome of the stable, and for their companion about the looking to the horse: but for that hee could write and keepe a reckoning of the horses which were let out, his maister had likewise made him his Secretarie.20

This is confirmed by the testimony of Montaigne’s adopted daughter Marie de Gournay, who noted in the preface to her father’s Essays that the title ‘secretary’ was now commonly used even in the households of the lesser gentry.21 Guazzo added that when he travelled to noblemen’s houses in France in the service of his master Luigi Gonzaga, ‘he was soone let in, if he termed himselfe one of the Dukes Gentlemen, but if he named himselfe Secretarie, they made him tarrie longer, and regarded him the lesser’.22 It should not surprise us to find early modern secretaries beset by status anxiety, for the truth was that a great deal of their time was likely to be spent in the routine copying and filing of letters. John Florio’s English–Italian dictionary exposed the troubling slippage between the secretario (defined by Florio as ‘a secretarie, a secret keeper’) and the lowly scrittore (defined as ‘a writer, a scrivener, a clarke, a secretarie, a notarie’).23

Secretaries responded by constructing a more illustrious ancestry for themselves. Looking back into the past, they discovered secretaries in positions of power and influence all over the classical and biblical world. Philemon Holland’s translation of Livy’s History of Rome refers to ‘the Chancellor, or kings principal Secretarie’ where the original refers merely to a scribe (scriba); similarly, his translation of Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars refers to the Emperor Claudius’ servant Narcissus as ‘his Secretarie or enditer of Epistles’ where the original merely calls him a letter-writer (ab epistulis).24 The most audacious attempt to insert the secretary back into the ancient past came from another classic of the reason-of-state genre, Bodin’s Six Books of the Commonwealth, which argued that the major offices of state in 16th-century France were virtually identical to those in ancient Israel, differing only in name, not in function. In the words of Bodin’s English translator, Richard Knolles:

We read in the booke of the kings … that Azarias the sonne of the high priest Tsadoc was neere vnto the person of Salomon to instruct him in matters concerning Religion; that Iosophat was chiefe of his councell, or his Chauncellour; that Eliphore, and Aiah were his Secretaries for the estate [French: secretaires d’estat; Latin: ab epistulis]; (p.111) that Banaia was his Constable; and Azarias the sonne of Natan his Lieutenant generall ouer the gouernments of the twelue Tribes.25

Secretaries, it seemed, were to be found at the elbows of Roman emperors and Israelite kings—even though, in reality, the origins of the modern secretary cannot be traced back much further than the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.

The 16th century also saw the publication of a substantial body of advice literature for secretaries, beginning with Francesco Sansovino’s Il Segretario (1564), adapted and translated into English by Angel Day as The English Secretorie (1586) and into French by Gabriel Chappuys as Le Secrettaire (1588).26 In large part these were practical manuals on letter-writing, explaining how to compose letters, how to address and seal them, and so forth. But they served the further purpose of raising the status of the secretary from a mere pen-pusher to a trusted adviser and companion. Day began his treatise ‘Of the parts, place and office of a Secretorie’ by observing that the secretary had a dual relationship with his master, ‘being in one condition a servant … and being in a second respect as a friend’, an ambiguity beautifully portrayed in Anthony van Dyck’s portrait of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, with his secretary, Sir Philip Mainwaring.27 This belongs to a distinguished tradition of double portraits of masters and their secretaries. It was modelled on Titian’s portrait of Georges d’Armagnac dictating to his secretary, Guillaume Philandrier (c.1540), which in turn was modelled on Sebastiano del Piombo’s portrait of Ferry Carondelet and his secretaries (c.1510–12).28 But whereas, in these earlier portraits, the secretary is shown looking up at his master, Van Dyck places Wentworth and Mainwaring virtually at eye-level with each other. Mainwaring becomes the embodiment of Day’s ideal secretary, ‘a man choyce and of woorthie estimate, abilitie and judgement’, not a mere copyist of his master’s words but a collaborator in the act of writing.

This placed the secretary in a unique position outside the normal conventions of social hierarchy. As Alan Stewart has shown, it caused Day to make major revisions to successive editions of The English Secretorie in order to explain how a secretary could be simultaneously a servant and a friend. ‘The limits of Friendship (as it might be obiected) are streight, and there can be no Friend where an inequalitie remaineth. Twixt the partie commaunded and him that commaundeth, there (p.112) is no societie, and therefore no Friendship where resteth a Superioritie.’29 This was true, Day admitted, but if the master–secretary relationship was based on a genuine ‘sympathie of affections’, it could eventually ripen into love, so that ‘notwithstanding the inequalitie of estate or condition’, the secretary might ‘in that place of service in which he continueth, bee reputed in processe of time to become as a friend’.30 This understanding of the master–secretary relationship could take on strong homosocial or even homoerotic overtones; indeed, Robert Cecil went so far as to compare it to ‘the mutual affections of two lovers, undiscovered to their friends’. Day was therefore forced to make further revisions in an effort to clarify the true definition of friendship, emphasising on the one hand the extraordinary intimacy of the master–secretary relationship—‘a sympathie of affections firmelie united together … [such that] what the one coveteth, the other desireth’—while insisting on the other hand that it was not to be confused with the unnatural friendship of ‘men utterly vicious and lewdly given, consorting in wickednes and other base exercises, in which each spendeth his life, or desperatlie dieth one for another’.31

The intimacy of the relationship also created problems for male secretaries serving female employers, who were constantly vulnerable to accusations of sexual impropriety—fatally so in the case of David Riccio, secretary to Mary Queen of Scots, who was murdered by Mary’s husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, after it was rumoured that he and Mary were lovers. John Dinley, secretary to Elizabeth of Bohemia, ran into similar problems when his privileged access to the queen aroused the jealousy of her husband, the Elector Frederick, who complained that Dinley’s lodgings were too close to the queen’s private apartments.32 At the other extreme, William Fowler, secretary to Anne of Denmark, had difficulty gaining access to the queen and was eventually reduced to communicating with her via her ladies in waiting.33 It should not be assumed from these examples that secretaries were always male. There are many instances of women taking on a secretarial role: for example, Theodore Beza and John Knox both employed their wives to write letters for them when illness prevented them from writing in their own hand.34 In Ben Jonson’s comedy The New Inn (1629) the chambermaid Prudence is described as ‘secretary to my lady’, suggesting that it may not have been uncommon for gentlewomen to employ a female servant as their secretary. Yet in principle, if not always in practice, the master–secretary relationship tended to be perceived as male/male. The idea of a female secretary was (p.113) sufficiently incongruous for Jonson to extract some comedy from it, by making it one of a succession of offices—‘Mistress Secretary’, ‘Mistress Steward’, and ‘Gentlewoman of the Horse’—humorously cross-gendered from male to female.35

By the mid-16th century the secretarial profession had become established as a career path for clever and ambitious young men. Sir Thomas Smith complained in 1549 that many men sent their sons to university merely to ‘have a little of the Latin tongue, and then they will take them away and bestow them to be clerk with some man of law, or some auditor and receiver, or to be a secretary with some great man or other’.36 Meanwhile, leading noblemen and statesmen started to build up larger teams of secretaries to handle an ever expanding volume of business. In France, Joan Davies has identified about a dozen individuals who served as secretaries to Henri I de Montmorency between 1563 and 1614, suggesting that Montmorency probably had two or three secretaries working for him at any given time.37 The secretariat of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, was of a similar size, consisting of either three or four men, two of whom had specialist roles (Henry Maynard as foreign secretary and Michael Hickes as patronage secretary) while the others had more miscellaneous duties.38 The secretariat of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, underwent a major expansion in 1586–7 and consisted of ten men at its largest extent, several with specialist roles, including Arthur Atye as chief secretary and Jean Hotman as French secretary.39 The only comparable example in Elizabethan England, as Paul Hammer has shown, was the four-man secretariat of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, formed in 1594–5 when Essex was bidding to replace Burghley as Elizabeth’s leading councillor.40

Essex’s secretariat has attracted much attention from modern scholars because of the intellectual calibre of its members.41 Whereas Burghley’s secretaries were disparaged, not entirely fairly, as ‘base penn clarkes’, Essex’s secretaries were selected for their intellectual talents in order to equip their master with his own private think-tank. As one of their number, Edward Reynolds, remarked, ‘his Lordship is furnished with divers able and very sufficient Secretaryes, namely Mr Wootton a linguist of great experience, Mr Cuffe, a great philosopher, and (p.114) Mr Temple, a man not inferior for a Secretary to eyther’.42 There was, predictably, some rivalry among the members of this high-powered intellectual quartet: Reynolds suspected that the ambitious Henry Wotton was trying to supplant him, and even considered resigning in 1596 when it seemed that a newcomer, Edward Jones, was likely to be appointed as a fifth member of the secretariat. But as Hammer has noted, service with Essex proved to be a valuable apprenticeship for several of his secretaries who later rose to high office in the Jacobean period. Henry Cuffe was implicated in Essex’s revolt and executed with his master in 1601, but several of his colleagues were more fortunate: Reynolds, who handled Essex’s domestic correspondence, went on to become a clerk of the privy seal, while Wotton, who handled much of the earl’s foreign correspondence (Reynolds described him as ‘Secretary for Transilvania, Polonia, Italy, Germanye’), rose to become ambassador to Venice and later provost of Eton.

These are by no means the only examples of secretaries rising to high office in their own right. Sir Ralph Winwood got his start as secretary to Sir Henry Neville when the latter was ambassador to Paris, and went on to become English resident at The Hague and, in 1614, Principal Secretary of State. Similarly, Sir Isaac Wake got his start as secretary to Sir Dudley Carleton, and went on to succeed his master as ambassador to Venice. The master–secretary relationship was thus very much more than the usual patron–client relationship, as it gave statesmen and diplomats the opportunity to groom their protegés for promotion and place them in positions of influence. Writing of secretaries in his Discourse of Court and Courtiers (1633), Sir Edward Peyton commented that ‘there can be nothing more honorable to the master than to breed up his servant in such abilities as he may afterwardes doe service to our Monarchye’, adding, in a vivid turn of phrase, that in this way ‘the servants reputation is brick-walled … to his masters honour’.43 Robert Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy, cast a more jaundiced eye over the same phenomenon: ‘these persons rise like Prentises one under another, as in so many tradesmens shops, when the master is dead, the fore-man of the shop commonly steps in his place’.44

The papers of one of Isaac Wake’s secretaries, Peter Moreton, provide a unique insight into the training of a secretary in the early 17th century. Moreton, the younger son of a Cheshire gentleman and a graduate of Christ’s College, Cambridge, accompanied Wake’s wife to Italy in 1624 and stayed on as a member of Wake’s household in Venice. Wake gave him wages of 13 ducats a month and sent him to Padua for several months to improve his language skills, promising that ‘when he can either write or copy Italian, I shall find worke for him to his liking’. This, he explained, was the same course of study which he himself had followed (p.115) when serving as Carleton’s secretary in Venice fifteen years earlier.45 Moreton quickly progressed from copying dispatches to more responsible work. In 1627 Wake sent him to London to report on affairs at court, and, on his return to Italy, expressed his confidence in him by granting him access to his personal library and archive of diplomatic papers. As Moreton wrote to his father in December 1627:

I haue found his loue to mee above my expectation, & hee hath oft professed his desire I shold profitt with him. Hee concealeth nothing from mee of all the negotiations of the Princes of Christendom (for hee hath extraordinarie Intelligence from all parts) & I haue the libertie not onely of reading, but coppying for my owne use what I like: the like accesse I haue to his books, where are rarities which grow in few other soiles.46

By 1628 Wake regularly chose Moreton to accompany him when he travelled outside Venice, and Moreton reported that ‘hee is pleased continually to make mee sitt at his table, using mee with as much familiaritie as I could desire’.47 But Moreton’s subsequent career also reveals the precarious situation of the private secretary who depended wholly on his master for preferment. In 1632, just as Wake was being tipped to succeed Carleton as Principal Secretary of State, he died suddenly in Paris, leaving Moreton without a patron. Moreton spent the next ten months as a hanger-on at court, unsuccessfully seeking a new secretarial post, before eventually being appointed as travelling companion to the Earl of Desmond (younger son of William Feilding, 1st Earl of Denbigh) on a tour of Italy in 1633. He was lucky to end up with a second-rank diplomatic appointment as English agent at Turin.

The profession of secretary, despite the opportunities that it offered for rapid social advancement, was thus a highly insecure one. The ideal of the secretary as his master’s friend and collaborator was not always realised in practice. Giambattista Guarini’s Il Segretario (1594) acknowledged that the secretary might feel resentful at having ‘many good things in his work blotted out at his master’s pleasure’, and advised him to think of himself as a tailor, whose task was simply to cut his clothes according to his customer’s requirements.48 The one-to-one relationship between master and secretary was also coming under increasing strain in larger households where the secretary was more likely to be working as a member of a larger team. Over the course of the early modern period the role of the secretary therefore underwent a subtle shift, as secretaries began to position themselves as expert advisers with academic, linguistic, or technical skills. One consequence of this was that the secretary’s role as archivist and record-keeper came into increasing prominence.

(p.116) The Secretary in the Archive

The rise of the secretary in the late Middle Ages was accompanied, at least in some quarters, by the more systematic preservation of private archives.49 These two developments were not unconnected. It was widely observed that the word secretarius had a double meaning, referring both to the person of the secretary and to the physical space where documents were stored. This led Guarini to argue that the secretary must, by definition, also be an archivist:

Hence you may see how poorly secretaries understand their profession when they divide the office of Archivist [Archivio] from that of Secretary [Segretario]. He alone has the duty of keeping the key, and the office, and makes himself so familiar with the register that he knows how to lay his hand on any document in current use, and can at every wish or thought, by day or night, conveniently enter and there at his leisure turn to these charters or those writings, making himself the master of them … This is his workshop, his storehouse, or in a word, to use the ancient term, his Secretary [Segretario], from which he takes not only his name but the instruments of his work, the force of his pen, the foundations of his office.50

Angel Day likened the secretary to the closet, ‘the most secrete place in the house … a place where our dealings of importance are shut up, a roome proper and peculiar to our selves’. Just as the secretary was a keeper of secrets, so the closet was a repository of secrets. Day went on to draw a parallel between the moral integrity of the secretary and the physical integrity of the closet: ‘Unto every secrete there is required a Closet … To a Closet, there belongeth properlie, a doore, a locke, and a key: to a Secretorie, there appertaineth incidently, Honesty, Care, and Fidelitie.’51

The closet could be a small, intimate room set apart for private study and reflection. Alternatively, as Stewart suggests, it could be ‘a secret nonpublic transactive space between two men behind a locked door’, the private office where the master and the secretary dealt with matters of business.52 But it could also serve as the storage space where the secretary kept his master’s archive. Richard Brathwaite’s instructions for the government of a noble household, probably written in the early 17th century, imagined the secretary’s closet as a room lined with filing cabinets for incoming and outgoing correspondence:

He is to have a Closet with Cubbardes of drawing boxes and shelves, therin and upon to place in dew order all Letters received from the Kinges Maiestie, from the Lords of the privy counsell and from other Noble men and gentlemen. Likewise all copies (p.117) of letters written by his Lordship to his Maiestie, or any of the rest above written, he having written upon every of them breefelye parte of the contents with their dates, that he may readily finde them when he hath occasion. Also to place in order all Roles and Recordes of Musters, of Subsidies, and fifteenes, all rates for provisions to serve the Kings Maiestie his house leased upon the Shire wher his Lorde dwelleth, or dealeth in as the Kinges Levetennant, or as a Justice of the peace. Examinations of fellons taken before his Lord, and other Justices, Commissions, Coppies of warrants sent out to head Constables, and other Officers. Recordes how Embassadors or great Strangers have bene entertained either in Courte or with great Lordes. Negotiations amongst great States and Embassadours, Intelligences, with divers other things of like kinde and nature: All are to be writen upon and placed in decent order.53

Brathwaite was careful to distinguish this from the muniment room where the estate records were stored. This too was an archival storage area, lined with filing cabinets, but more like a strongroom, with stone or brick walls and an iron door, ‘the better to defend it from danger of fire’:

In this Chamber should be cubbards of drawing boxes, shelves, and standards with a convenient Table to write upon: and upon every drawing boxe is to be written the name of the Mannor or Lordship, the Evidence wherof that box doth containe. And looke what Letters patentes, Charters, deedes, Feofementes or other writinges or Fines are in every box a paper role is to be made in the saide box wherin is to be sett downe every severall deede or writing, that when the Earle or any for him hath occasion to make search for any Evidence or writing, he may see by that Role whether the same be in that box or noe. In the Standerds and upon the Shelves are to be placed Courte Roles, Auditors accompts, Bookes of survey etc. Also empty boxes both for letters patents, and other Evidences when ther is cause to carry them out of that chamber.54

The closet was the secretary’s special domain. The muniment room, on the other hand, was under the master’s sole control, and Brathwaite made it very clear that it ‘belongeth not to the Secretarye his place’ to enter it unsupervised. On rare occasions it might be necessary for others to enter the muniment room in the master’s absence, but under no circumstances should any document be removed without a written receipt signed by at least two persons, ‘for the Earle ought to have more care of the safe keeping of his Evidences than either of his plate or jewells’.

The implication of Brathwaite’s remarks is that, at least in larger households, the secretary would have sole responsibility for the archives, storing them in his (p.118) own cabinet or closet and bringing them out where necessary to place before his master. Guarini advised the secretary to begin each day by going over all the letters and papers he had in hand, sorting them by date, place, and person and summarising their contents, ‘weighing the words, gathering together the arguments, comparing them with past things on the same subject, and news and reports from the same place and other places’, before taking them to his master for instructions on how to reply. Like a good steward dressing the food before placing it on the table, the good secretary would arrange and digest his papers before presenting them to his master, so that business could be dispatched as quickly and efficiently as possible.55 As Day pointed out, he should be ‘alwayes as neere and as readie as may bee, in his ordinarie attendance’, for ‘being upon a sudden to be used, it is needfull he be alwayes at hand’, and ‘his absence cannot therefore any long time be spared’. But it was also his duty to respect his master’s privacy by not disturbing him with business ‘in times when hee is soly disposed to particular studies, or otherwise busied in matters of estate or counsell’.56 The impression given here is of the secretary as a perpetual hanger-on, waiting on his master at regular intervals with a batch of letters to be read or signed. In these circumstances it is not surprising that the secretary should have taken charge of the filing, organisation, and physical custody of the archives.

The Principal Secretary’s archive is a case in point. This was a creation of the Elizabethan period: before that time, as Robert Beale later recalled, the archive generated by the Privy Council was kept ‘not in the Secretarie’s private custodie’ but in a ‘chamber in Westminster’. This chamber, known as the ‘studie’, was furnished with a series of cupboards and ‘tilles’ (filing drawers) containing bags of letters roughly sorted by subject or country.57 Soon after becoming Principal Secretary, however, William Cecil (later Lord Burghley) seems to have taken personal control of the archiving of incoming letters. Roughly scribbled on the back of a letter in 1565, in his own hand, is what appears to be a plan for the filing of his correspondence, consisting of ‘letters to the Queen’s Majesty generally’, with sub-sections for France, Spain, Scotland, and Germany, ‘letters to the Council’, ‘letters to my self’, divided between ‘public causes’ and ‘private suits’, and finally ‘requests or complaints’, divided between ‘private suits to the Queen’s Majesty’, ‘for strangers born’, ‘for causes of the wards’, and ‘examinations of matters’.58 This calls into question R. B. Wernham’s assertion that the Elizabethan secretaries took little interest in the systematic archiving of documents, and that (p.119) such archives of the secretary’s office as do survive are ‘the result rather of failure to destroy than of any positive purpose to preserve’.59 Burleigh certainly understood the importance of good information management, and the impression of slovenly record-keeping may simply be a reflection of the fact that his archive has been broken up and its original order obscured by centuries of reshuffling and reorganisation.

The organisation of Burleigh’s personal archive remains obscure, but under Sir Francis Walsingham (Principal Secretary 1573–90) the secretary’s archive suddenly emerges into the limelight. An index of Walsingham’s papers compiled by his secretary Thomas Lake (himself a future Principal Secretary) provides a remarkable insight into the scope and structure of the archive at its fullest extent, probably around 1588.60 It begins with a list of ‘all the written bookes in the Chests or abroad’, divided into five sections: ‘France and Flanders’, ‘Scotland’, ‘Ireland’, ‘Books of Home matters’, and ‘Books of Diverse Matters’. This is followed by a list of the unbound papers held in two locations, the majority in ‘the study at London’ and a smaller proportion ‘upon the shelves at Court’. A visitor walking into Walsingham’s London study would have encountered a series of filing-boxes organised by subject, such as ‘the boxe of Musters’, ‘the boxe of Piracies’, ‘the boxe of Religion and matters Ecclesiasticall’, ‘the boxe of Ireland’, and ‘the boxe of Germany’. Some of these formed sizable archives in their own right: opening ‘the boxe of Navy, havens, and sea causes’, for example, would have revealed, among much else, a substantial mini-archive relating to the rebuilding of Dover harbour, consisting of three bundles of letters marked A to C, and five bundles of ‘Plotts, discourses and Devices’ marked A to E.61 The principle of distribution between London and the court is not clear (material on Ireland, for example, could be found in both locations), but the overall impression is of an archive in constant motion. The bulk of the archive was clearly held in the London study, but papers may well have travelled with Walsingham or been brought to him wherever he happened to be.

This represents a dramatic step forward for the Principal Secretary’s archive, both in scale and organisation. Norman Jones has described Burleigh’s archive as ‘the brain of the Elizabethan state’, but if anything it is Walsingham’s archive that best fits this description; there is a sense of purposeful design, a conscious effort to establish good archival practices, that had not been present before.62 Where had it come from? William Davison’s disgrace in 1587, which left Walsingham as effectively the sole Principal Secretary, may have played a role in prompting Walsingham to reorganise his archive and transfer most of it into his private custody. But the sense of a mind at work behind the archive is surely due, in (p.120) large part, to Robert Beale, Walsingham’s brother-in-law and occasional deputy as Principal Secretary, whose interest in record-keeping is manifested in his own collection of papers, one of the very few Elizabethan archives to survive virtually intact in its original arrangement and binding. A booklist in one of Beale’s notebooks includes a copy of ‘Il Secretario’ (probably one of the treatises by Sansovino or Guarini) alongside guides to letter-writing and notarial protocols; and Beale himself contributed to the contemporary secretarial literature in his ‘Instructions for a Principall Secretarie’ (1592), preserved in his own archive.63 The highly practical nature of the ‘Instructions’ is made clear in the opening sentences, where Beale states that he will not attempt to describe the character of the ideal secretary as ‘that argument hath been handled by others’; rather, his concern is with the day-to-day running of the office and the routine administration of business, including the keeping of records.

Beale’s ‘Instructions’ is one of a pair of treatises on the office of Principal Secretary, both of them written in the early 1590s, not long after Walsingham’s death, and given limited circulation in manuscript. The other, Nicholas Faunt’s ‘Discourse touching the Office of Principal Secretary of Estate’, was the work of an experienced member of Walsingham’s inner circle, who had begun his career as one of Walsingham’s foreign agents before joining his private office in 1582. The existence of two such detailed treatises is significant in itself, suggesting that the operation of Walsingham’s office was perceived as being unusually elaborate and in need of explanation. However, there are hints in both treatises that the secretary’s office was under increasing strain in Walsingham’s last years, due to the sheer quantity of incoming correspondence (Faunt, for example, remarks on the ‘confusion or losse’ resulting from ‘an exceedinge and unnecessarie multitude of papers as hath beene seene in that place’), and both Beale and Faunt seek to address this problem by laying down systematic procedures, not just for the filing of documents but for the indexing and digesting of their contents.64 Implicit here, though never fully spelled out, is a sense that the secretary’s workload now required a new set of skills: as well as the moral virtues of trust and discretion which had traditionally defined the secretary’s office, it now depended on the control and command of information. In writing their treatises, Beale and Faunt were recommending themselves for future employment under Walsingham’s successor, by displaying their expertise in this new field of information management.

What can these treatises tell us about the technologies of early modern record-keeping? Faunt advised the Principal Secretary to employ two servants (or, as we might say, under-secretaries), the first of whom was to be entrusted with secret matters, and the second with ‘the dispatch of ordinarie matters’. The first undersecretary would be continually on the move, fetching papers ‘to and froe from (p.121) one Cabinett to another’ and delivering messages. The second under-secretary, by contrast, would be permanently stationed ‘in the chamber where the papers are’, endorsing them ‘as they daily come in’ and dividing them into three main categories, ‘home lettres which are the greatest multitude, Councell matters concerninge anie private or publique cause, and Divers matters which conteine peticions to the Secretarie, discourses, proiects, relacions, declarations or informacions of private or publique causes etc.’. He was to sort the incoming letters into bundles every morning, and then, when they had been dealt with, clear them off the table and move them into ‘some chest or place’, so that ‘there bee noe hinderance or confusednes in the searchinge of them when the Secretarie shall sitt downe to doe anie thinge or answere manie thinges’.65 Beale recommended a similar procedure for the archiving of loose papers in the Privy Council records. The papers were to be tied up in a bundle at the end of each month, and the clerk was to keep a record of the contents of each bundle ‘in forme of a Calender, so as by the said Calender he may know in what month and bundell to finde that which shalbe asked for, with a blancke on the other side of the saide booke to note to whom anie of the sayde lettres may be delivered, if anie send for them’.66

To keep track of current business, Faunt advised the Principal Secretary to use a set of paper notebooks, including a ‘journal’ recording the date of all incoming and outgoing correspondence, and a ‘memorial book’ for matters requiring immediate action. One of Walsingham’s memorial books has survived and precisely matches the description given by Faunt, ‘a generall memoriall Booke in paper lyeinge beefore him, so sone as hee riseth from his Bed or whilst hee lieth in his bed if occasion soe require in which hee may sett downe or cause to bee sett downe all things presently accurringe or that upon anie occasion shalbee remembred’.67 Here, for example, are the entries for a typical day, 22 July 1584, with a cross marked against several items, in accordance with Faunt’s instructions ‘to marke out with the penne soe manie as are dispatched’:

To writt to the L. Hunsdon

+ To writt to mr Topclyffe

To wryte to mr dygges

To delyver mr Renowldes 20 l.

+ To wryte to the L. Cobham

+ To make note of those thinges that are to be communicated to my L. Treasurer

To gather the Councell causes togither and to sett down the principall matters

To write to the Earle of Bedfourd68

(p.122) This was, in effect, Walsingham’s to-do list. Small enough to be carried about (though not quite small enough to be slipped easily into a pocket), it would have accompanied Walsingham at his work, so that, to quote Faunt again, ‘as hee setteth downe beefore his papers this booke may be present unto him althinges alreadie remembred and give him accasion to remember and sett downe other thinges’. A later owner described the book as ‘a Leiger Book out of the secretaries office’, a reminder that this style of note-taking had its origins in mercantile ledgers and day-books, where items were set down in order of occurrence rather than being classified under subject-headings. Walsingham made little effort to organise his notes in any systematic way; a brief attempt to distinguish between ‘publicke’ and ‘privat’ business was not sustained for more than a couple of pages. This was hardly surprising, for, as Faunt observed, ‘the matters there are infinite and cannott bee moved and brought in by order and method’.69

For organising the archive, however, a more systematic method was required. Faunt and Beale were both acutely aware of how easily documents could be misplaced if they were taken out of the file. As Faunt noted: ‘there hath beene found of late great Confusion in the keepinge of loose papers though they bee digested into bundells or otherwise kept in Coffers. For the onely lending of them forth which must needs fall out sometimes, is verie oftentimes the Cause and meanes of their losse which beeinge of greate use, and not to be found thus Regestred the service thereby is greately hindered.’ The solution proposed by both writers was to extract information from the ‘loose papers’ and place it in a series of written books which could be used for ready reference without having to refer back to the original documents. For ‘forraine services’, Faunt recommended a book of treaties and ‘sundrie bookes of paper’ covering diplomatic negotiations with France, the Netherlands, Scotland, and other countries; and for ‘home services’, a further set of books containing a survey of England, naval affairs, civil defences, crown revenues, crown expenditure, and the law courts. Beale, likewise, suggested that the secretary should provide himself with a set of ten or twelve books on such topics as religion and recusancy, coastal defences, ordinance, the navy, Wales, the Council of the North and the Scottish borders, the Channel Islands, and Ireland. Such books could be multiplied indefinitely: Faunt envisaged further volumes on coinage, weights and measures, ‘discoveries and newe invencions’, descriptions of foreign countries, and ‘devices, plottes, and proiects of sundrie natures’.70

These archival procedures left their traces on the written documents themselves. At the point of receipt, incoming letters were docketed with a brief summary of the contents, written either on the back of the letter or on a separate ‘by-paper’.71 (p.123) Later, at the point of filing, they were refolded and endorsed with a filing note recording the name and date and occasionally the subject of the letter. Anyone who has worked on early modern records will be familiar with these endorsements, which appear in similar fashion on countless letters in many different archives, suggesting a high degree of uniformity in early modern record-keeping practices.72 The letter was folded to form a tall oblong, with the blank side facing outwards and the endorsement written along the top edge, so that the secretary could read it easily as he ran his thumb down a bundle of documents. The endorsement generally begins with the date, showing that the letters were originally filed in chronological order. Again this followed procedures that were already well established among merchants and tradesmen, as John Mellis explained in his handbook A Briefe Instruction and Maner How to Keepe Bookes of Accompts (1588):

It is also necessarie that you have a chyst in your counting house for your letters, wherein you shall put them as soone as you have read them, and written the day of receite on the backe side, till the month be ended, and gather all that yee received that moneth, and fold them somewat large, and binde them in a bundell.73

The endorsements on letters can sometimes provide crucial clues to their archival origins. Simon Adams has used the endorsements by Leicester’s secretary Arthur Atye to identify Leicester’s papers bound with other material in the Cotton manuscripts. Similarly, the endorsements on Burleigh’s papers may tell us something about how they were originally filed. Most of Burleigh’s incoming correspondence bears an endorsement by one of his secretaries (typically referring to ‘my master’ or ‘my lord’) but a small minority of letters are endorsed in Burleigh’s own hand. Burleigh was well known for keeping a small secretariat (‘Burthen not yourselfe with too many clercks or servants’, Beale was later to write; ‘the Lord Treasurer Burghley, being Secretary, had but two or three’), so this may simply be a reflection of his stubbornly conservative habit of filing his own paperwork.74 However, it is possible that the documents endorsed by Burghley come from a cabinet of confidential papers that he kept under his personal control, separate from the main body of his archive.

An endorsement from 1613 also offers an insight into the filing of state papers in the Jacobean period. The period 1613–15 saw an upheaval in the administration of Jacobean foreign policy, as the royal favourite, Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, attempted to divert the flow of incoming diplomatic correspondence away from the Principal Secretary’s office. The newswriter Thomas Lorkin reported in July 1614 that Somerset ‘continues to receive all the pacquets, to order the dispatches, (p.124) and in a manner disburdens the Secretary [Sir Ralph Winwood] of the whole care of foreign affairs’. Winwood, furious at being excluded, had tried to ‘putt himself in some action’ by offering ‘to send some instructions to Trumbull his Maiesties Agent at Brussels’, only to be told by Somerset ‘that he should not need to trouble himself with the care therof, for he would doe whatsoever was requisite therin himself’.75 Not surprisingly, English diplomats abroad quickly become aware of Somerset’s hijacking of the bureaucratic machinery: in July 1613 Sir Dudley Carleton wrote to Somerset that since ‘my dispatches to his Majesty do pass through your Lordship’s hands’ he had spared himself the trouble of making a separate copy of the dispatches to send to Somerset personally. We cannot know for sure what impact this had on the archiving of diplomatic correspondence, but another of Carleton’s letters to Somerset provides a clue. The letter is endorsed, apparently in Somerset’s hand, ‘to his Majesty’, and then corrected: ‘to myself’. This seems to suggest not only that the filing of incoming letters was under Somerset’s direct control, but that the official dispatches were being filed in close proximity to Somerset’s own private papers.

By the beginning of Charles I’s reign the secretary’s office had regained control over foreign correspondence. A letter to Sir John Coke from one of his clerks, Humphrey Fulwood, gives a detailed description of the duties expected from Coke’s under-secretary, including those relating to record-keeping, which on the face of it suggests that the organisation of the records had not changed significantly since Walsingham’s time. It bears witness to the existence of a working archive from which items were regularly being retrieved:

First the copying from your honors hand, wrighting as yow shal dictate, the wrighting out faire, and entring into a booke, of al ordinary letters, and dispatches to Ambassadors … as also orderly to keepe, al such Letters, and other things, as shalbe receaved from Ambassadors, or others, of like nature, so as, upon the sudden they beeing cald for, they may be forthwith found.


Thirdly, the keeping of al such wrightings, as concearne the severall States abroad, with whome we have correspondence: as also al wrightings domestique, concerninge his Majesties service, as businesses for the Councel Boord, businesse concerning recusants, with the like, and each of them to keepe, by themselves apart, readie to be produced upon demaund.76

Even at this stage, however, the secretary’s archive was as much personal as institutional in its method of organisation. The death of Coke’s long-serving secretary Gilbert Thacker in June 1628 left the archive temporarily inaccessible, as no one apart from Thacker had access to it or knew how it was arranged. Coke was away in Portsmouth at the time, and explained to Lord Conway that he was unable to retrieve any documents, as ‘my secretarie Thacker who only was acquainted (p.125) with the maner of keeping my papers’ had died, and ‘the key of my chamber wher al such papers are kept is locked up wher non can com at it til my return’. In 1639, when the Earl of Northumberland attempted to eject Coke from his lodgings in Whitehall, Coke pleaded that his chamber was filled with ‘Trunks, baskets and presses ful of papers, and if your Lordship shal but looke in at the window, you will see soe manie and soe mingled that the sorting and removing can not bee done in my absence or in a short time.’77

The storage of state papers in Coke’s own chambers illustrates the fluid boundary between public and private archives in this period: a point noted by Beale, who argued for a clear distinction between state and private papers, ‘that is, a separacion betweene those thinges which are her Maiesties Recordes and appertaine unto her and those which a Secretarie getteth by his private industrie and charge’. He urged the Principal Secretary to keep state papers ‘aparte in a chest or place and not to confound them with his owne’, adding that ‘the want of so doinge was the cause that upon the death of Mr Secretarie Walsingham all his papers and bookes both publicke and private weare seazed on and carried away, perhapps by those who would be loath to be used so themselves’ (a reference to the confiscation of Walsingham’s papers by Cecil and his fellow Privy Councillors).78 At first sight, Beale’s distinction between public and private records strikes a surprisingly modern note. Yet it is clear from the context of his remarks that he was not so much concerned with establishing a central bureaucratic archive as with ensuring access to documents that could be used as precedents to train younger clerks and secretaries. His chief objection to the confusion of public and private, and to the removal of public records into ‘private bookes’, was that it left no means ‘to see what was donne before or to give anie light of service to yonge beginners’ and no opportunity for ‘instruction and bringinge up of others’.

This is reflected in Beale’s own archive, much of which consists of formularies and precedent-books copied out of the Privy Council registers and other records of state. It was collections such as these that Beale had in mind when he wrote of ‘Notes and heades wherto a Secretarie may referre such thinges as he may gett and be acquainted with in the time of his service’. Even if he had no ‘present use’ for them, the secretary ‘shall doe well to inquire and looke after such thinges, to cause some of his Clercks to wright them out and, for avoidinge of confusion, to digest them into such heades to serve his turne wher ther shalbe neede’. The preparation of these registers, Beale suggested, could be a useful exercise for younger secretaries-in-training: ‘Some you may traine up … in wrightinge out and compilinge such bookes as are necessarie for your service, whom uppon preferment of your other servantes, and after some time of proofe, you may call neerer unto you as they shall deserve and you shall see cause.’ What (p.126) Beale was proposing was, in effect, the creation of a knowledge bank to assist the work of government. But this was not a public but a private archive, one that the secretary could use both to support his claim to special expertise in statecraft and to train up his personal servants and future successors.

Beale’s view of secretaries as information specialists was echoed by Francis Bacon in his Advancement of Learning (1605), where he drew a distinction between two radically different methods of organising knowledge: one that grouped together ‘those things which are next in Nature’, the other ‘those things which are next in use’. These two methods, Bacon suggested, were complementary: the first was suitable for general knowledge, the second for more pragmatic and purposeful knowledge:

For if a secretary of Estate, should sort his papers, it is like in his study, or generall Cabinet, he would sort together things of a Nature, as Treaties, Instructions, &c. But in his Boxes, or particular Cabinet, hee would sort together those that he were like to use together, though of severall Natures.79

This remark gives us a useful insight into the archival practices that Bacon would have encountered in government service. But what is also significant is that he should have used this as the master analogy for his own division of information ‘in this general Cabynet of knowledge’. Secretarial filing practice, in other words, provided Bacon with a powerful way of thinking about the organisation of the world of learning.


In his survey of the public records in the 16th and 17th centuries, R. B. Wernham drew attention to ‘a growing official and public interest in having the records properly preserved and reasonably accessible’. He attributed this to several factors: the rise of litigation, leading to greater demand for searches of legal records; the development of diplomacy, requiring a more systematic preservation of dispatches, negotiations, and treaties; and, last but not least, the constitutional conflicts between crown and parliament, which acted as a stimulus to historical and antiquarian research.80 The heroes of this story were pioneering archivists like Arthur Agarde, keeper of the Exchequer records, and the two Thomas Wilsons, keepers of the State Paper Office. Their adversaries were the Principal Secretaries, along with private collectors like Sir Robert Cotton, who repeatedly thwarted their efforts to organise and centralise the state papers by siphoning them off into (p.127) private hands. It was partly due to the ‘habits of Secretaries’, Wernham suggested, that the progress towards a central record repository was so slow and erratic. But the evolutionary process that began in the 16th century with the establishment of the State Paper Office at Whitehall finally reached its consummation in the 19th century with the founding of the Public Record Office.

Recent scholarship has not seriously challenged this account of a growing archival consciousness in early modern England. If anything, it has strengthened it by showing how central archives like the State Paper Office could be used to serve the ends of governance and policy formation. In a recent article, Nicholas Popper has argued that this was the period when ‘the acquisition and accessible storage of textual records emerged as a central component of English government’. He recognises, like Wernham before him, that successive Principal Secretaries were extremely reluctant to cooperate with this project by handing over their papers to the State Paper Office. But he argues that this did not matter, as Sir Thomas Wilson, with the backing of Sir Robert Cecil, aggressively pursued the papers of previous secretaries and ultimately succeeded in acquiring most of what he wanted. ‘Under Wilson’s control, the State Paper Office became an organized and efficient archive capable of pursuing and absorbing an ever-expanding volume of textual materials, ensuring that the paperwork generated by England’s political engine flowed into an orderly archive.’81

This interpretation has much to recommend it. It was in the early modern period that a distinction between public and private records—indeed, the very notion of ‘state papers’—began to take shape. Randolph Head has explored the writings of a number of late 17th-century scholars who developed a set of rules which they termed the ius archivi, designed to test the evidential value of charters and other written documents. One of the tenets of the ius archivi was that the ‘public faith’ of a document could only be guaranteed by its presence in a public archive. Some writers argued that a private archive could not, properly speaking, be called an archive at all: ‘private cabinets [scrinia] do not merit the name archive, since they lack public faith’.82 By the 19th century this notion of the archive as essentially public in character had crystallised into orthodoxy. Charles Knight’s Political Dictionary (1845) defined an archive as ‘a chamber or apartment where the public papers or records of a state or community are deposited: sometimes, by a common figure, applied to the papers themselves’. The alleged relationship of the word ‘archive’ to arcanum and secrecy was dismissed as ‘manifestly false and absurd’. Archives, the Dictionary declared firmly, were ‘public documents’ and, as such, should be open to public inspection.

The importance of carefully preserving all documents that relate to transactions which affect the interests of the state and its component members is obvious; and (p.128) next to the preservation of such documents, the most important thing is to arrange them well, and render them accessible, under proper regulations, to all persons who have occasion to use them.83

But the public/private distinction was not construed in the early modern period as it would be today. Beale, as we have already seen, advised the Principal Secretary to separate ‘that which is publicke and that which is private’ by keeping ‘those thinges which are her Majesties Recordes’ apart from ‘those which a Secretarie getteth by his private industrie and charge’, yet in terms of subject matter, as Taviner points out, ‘Beale’s own collection of papers was almost entirely “public” in character when viewed from a modern perspective.’ This was by no means unusual. It was common practice for Elizabethan and Jacobean public servants to retain large quantities of ‘state papers’ in their own possession or that of their secretaries. Two of the most important Elizabethan archives were handed down in this way: Leicester’s archive to his secretary Arthur Atye, Burghley’s archive to his secretary Sir Michael Hickes. A generation later, Sir Isaac Wake bequeathed his papers to his long-serving secretary John Wilkinson, with a smaller batch of papers passing into the hands of another of his secretaries, Richard Browne. This pattern of inheritance was noted by Sir Thomas Wilson, who complained in 1617 that ‘at the death of Secretaries and men imployed for the state … the servants of secretaries and such men have embesseled and reserved [their papers] to their own use’.84 But Wilson’s view that this constituted an unlawful embezzlement of crown property was not widely shared. To other contemporaries, it seemed a matter of common sense that the secretary who had handled the papers in his master’s lifetime should take custody of them after his master’s death.85

And while the theorists of the ius archivi upheld the authority of the public archive over the private cabinet, there was an alternative tradition that saw things the other way round. As Noah Millstone has shown, the tradition of ‘politic thinking’ in early modern England was inherently esoteric in nature; it assumed that the public face of politics was merely superficial, and that a true understanding of state affairs could only be gained by looking beneath the surface.86 This approach to politics was reflected in the genre of the ‘cabinet opened’ which explored the history of state affairs through the contents of private cabinets. Collections such as Cabala, sive Scrinia Sacra (1654), Scrinia Sacra; Secrets of Empire in Letters of Illustrious Persons (1654), and Scrinia Ceciliana: Mysteries of State and Government (1663) allowed readers to eavesdrop on the private correspondence (p.129) of Elizabethan and early Stuart statesmen, which was deemed to be more authoritative precisely because of its private character.87 It is in collections such as these that we should look for the origins of the notion of ‘state papers’. These were understood not as public documents belonging in a public archive, but as private documents offering, by virtue of their private nature, a privileged insight into politics and government. To see secretaries as preventing these documents from reaching their natural home in a central archive is fundamentally to misunderstand their role as record-keepers. The significance of secretaries was that, as keepers of their master’s cabinets, they held the keys to the secret mysteries of statecraft.

What, then, became of the secretary’s role as keeper of the secrets? David Vincent’s compelling history of secrecy in modern Britain argues that the concept of ‘official secrecy’ arose from the exponential growth of official correspondence in the 19th century. Between 1825 and 1850, the correspondence dealt with in the Home Office multiplied fourfold, and in the Foreign Office threefold. ‘In the higher reaches of the service, it was becoming physically impossible for the Secretary of State to maintain the routine followed by Palmerston in the 1830s of personally dealing with every letter.’ This meant that it was no longer possible to keep confidential correspondence within the restricted circle of a private office; it had to be dealt with by a larger bureaucracy, and therefore needed new safeguards.88 Yet within this modern ‘culture of secrecy’, as Vincent terms it, there remained traces of an older culture of secrecy that was personal rather than bureaucratic. As Disraeli wrote of his secretary Montagu Corry:

The relationship between a Minister and his Secretary is, or should be, among the finest that can exist between two individuals. Except perhaps the married state there is none in which so great a confidence is involved, in which more forbearance ought to be exercised, or more sympathy ought to exist.89

When Churchill’s principal secretary, John Colville, took an overview of the Prime Minister’s private office at the end of the Second World War, he counted six private secretaries (including one patronage secretary and one parliamentary secretary), three male clerks, three female clerks, and sixteen typists. ‘Yet we seem to be understaffed’ was Colville’s comment—and no wonder. Churchill’s core secretariat in 1945 was roughly the same size as those of Cecil and Leicester in the late Elizabethan period.90 The master–secretary relationship had survived all (p.130) the institutional reforms of the 19th and 20th centuries to remain firmly embedded at the heart of the wartime command structure.

This intermingling of the personal and the bureaucratic is not a new phenomenon. It goes back to the early modern period, when secretaries invented a role for themselves as information specialists and developed new archival practices to handle the storage and retrieval of information. The two aspects of the secretary’s role, as secret-keeper and record-keeper, have always been closely intertwined—or in the words of Sir Humphrey Appleby, consciously or unconsciously echoing his Renaissance predecessors: ‘The very word Secretary means one who can keep a secret.’91


(1) S. Shapin, ‘The Invisible Technician’, American Scientist, 77 (1989), 554–63, revised and reprinted in A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1994), chapter 8.

(2) ‘Nicholas Faunt’s Discourse Touching the Office of Principal Secretary of Estate’, ed. Charles Hughes, English Historical Review, 20 (1905), 499–508, at 501.

(3) L. J. Gorton, ‘Arrangement and Cataloguing of Modern Historical Papers in the British Museum’, Archives, 8 (1967), 2–7, at 6. Gorton’s cataloguing rules were still current when the present writer joined the British Library as a curator in 2005.

(4) Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, ed. and trans. S. A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, and O. Berghof (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 401.

(5) J. Lynn and A. Jay, The Complete Yes Minister (London, British Broadcasting Corporation, 1984), pp. 14–15.

(6) Reynolds to Bacon, 19 August 1596: Lambeth Palace Library, MS 658, ff. 228–9.

(7) M. Taviner, ‘Robert Beale and the Elizabethan Polity’, PhD Thesis (University of St Andrews, 2000), pp. 173–4 (available at http://hdl.handle.net/10023/3709, accessed 30 September 2017).

(8) G. R. Elton, The Tudor Revolution in Government: Administrative Changes in the Reign of Henry VIII (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1953), p. 304.

(9) Studies of the information state include E. Higgs, The Information State in England: The Central Collection of Information on Citizens since 1500 (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); J. Soll, The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2009); P. Slack, The Invention of Improvement: Information and Material Progress in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015).

(10) General discussions of the early modern secretary include: J. Goldberg, Writing Matter: From the Hands of the English Renaissance (Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 1990), pp. 231–78; R. Rambuss, Spenser’s Secret Career (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 29–61; H. R. Woudhuysen, Sir Philip Sidney and the Circulation of Manuscripts (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1996), pp. 66–87; S. S. Nigro, ‘The Secretary’, in R. Villari (ed.), Baroque Personae (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 82–99; A. Stewart, Close Readers: Humanism and Sodomy in Early Modern England (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1997), pp. 170–87; G. Hoffmann, Montaigne’s Career (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1998), pp. 39–62; D. Blow, Doctors, Ambassadors, Secretaries: Humanism and Professions in Renaissance Italy (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2002), pp. 155–80.

(11) A. Stewart, ‘The Making of Writing in Renaissance England: Re-thinking Authorship through Collaboration’, in M. Healy and T. Healy (eds), Renaissance Transformations: The Making of English Writing (1500–1650) (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2009), pp. 81–96, at p. 84. The gap identified by Stewart has now begun to be filled by some detailed case studies of particular secretaries, notably Christopher Burlinson and Andrew Zurcher’s painstaking reconstruction of Edmund Spenser’s duties as secretary to Lord Grey: see Spenser, Selected Letters and Other Papers, ed. C. Burlinson and A. Zurcher (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. xxx–lvi.

(12) A. G. R. Smith, ‘The Secretariats of the Cecils, circa 1580–1612’, English Historical Review, 83 (1968), 481–504, at 500.

(13) The Promptorium Parvulorum, ed. A. L. Mayhew (London, Early English Text Society, 1908), p. 404.

(14) K. B. McFarlane, ‘William Worcester: A Preliminary Survey’, in J. Conway Davies (ed.), Studies Presented to Sir Hilary Jenkinson (Oxford, 1957), pp. 196–221, at 199–200.

(15) F. M. Grier Evans, The Principal Secretary of State: A Survey of the Office from 1558 to 1680 (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1923), pp. 21–2. See also J. Otway-Ruthven, The King’s Secretary and the Signet Office in the XV Century (Cambridge, University of Cambridge, 1939), p. 7.

(16) Elton, Tudor Revolution, pp. 126, 312. On the origins of Elton’s thesis, see I. Harris, ‘Some Origins of a Tudor Revolution’, English Historical Review, 126 (2011), 1355–85.

(17) On secrecy and reason of state, see J. R. Snyder, Dissimulation and the Culture of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2009).

(18) Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, ed. J. S. Brewer, 35 vols (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1810–79), vol. 2, p. xciv; A. Day, The English Secretorie (London, 1607), R6r (p. 103).

(19) W. Vaughan, The New-Found Politicke, Disclosing the Secret Natures and Dispositions as well of Private Persons as of Statesmen and Courtiers (London, EEBO, 1626), F3r (p. 37).

(20) S. Guazzo, The Civile Conversation, trans. George Pettie (London, 1586), L5r (p. 85).

(23) J. Florio, A Worlde of Wordes, or Most Copious and Exact Dictionarie in Italian and English (London, 1598), pp. 358, 361.

(24) The Romane Historie written by T. Livius of Padua (London, 1600), F2v (p. 52); Suetonius, The Historie of Twelve Caesars (London, 1606), Q1r (p. 169). In Thomas Cooper’s Latin dictionary, Thesaurus Linguae Romanae et Britannicae (London, 1578), ‘Ab epistolis’ is translated as ‘A secretarie: he that receyveth princes letters, and maketh aunswere unto them.’

(25) J. Bodin, The Six Bookes of a Common-weale, trans. Richard Knolles (London, Impensis G. Bishop 1606), p. 360 (2H8v); for the French text, see Bodin, Les Six Livres de la République, ed. C. Frémont, M.-D. Couzinet, and H. Rochais (Paris, Fayard, 1986), III. 172.

(26) Chappuys’s Le Secrettaire has recently been published in a critical edition by Viviane Mellinghoff-Bourgerie (Geneva, Librairie Droz, 2014).

(27) A. Day, The English Secretorie (London, 1607), R6v (p. 104); K. Hearn (ed.), Van Dyck and Britain (London, Tate Publishing, 2009), p. 123.

(28) M. Jaffé, ‘The Picture of the Secretary of Titian’, Burlington Magazine, 108 (1966), 114–27. See also Blow, Doctors, Ambassadors, Secretaries, pp. 155–61, where the paintings by Titian and Piombo are discussed and illustrated together. Van Dyck could have seen both these paintings in English private collections: the Titian belonged to the Earl of Northumberland, the Piombo to the Earl of Arundel.

(31) R. Cecil, ‘The State and Dignity of a Secretary of State’s Place’, in Thomas Park (ed.), Harleian Miscellany (London, 1809), vol. 2, pp. 281–2; Day, English Secretorie, S2v (p. 112).

(32) N. Akkerman, ‘Opening up the Queen of Bohemia’s Cabinet: A Study of her Secretariat’. My thanks to Dr Akkerman for sharing this unpublished essay with me.

(33) W. Fowler, Works, ed. H. W. Meikle, J. Craigie, and J. Purves (Edinburgh, Scottish Text Society, 1914–40), vol. 3, pp. xxxv–xxxvi.

(34) J. Dawson, John Knox (New Haven, CT, and London, Yale University Press, 2015), p. 121.

(35) B. Jonson, The New Inn, ed. J. Sanders, in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012), vol. 6, p. 208.

(36) Sir Thomas Smith, A Discourse of the Commonweal of this Realm of England, ed. M. Dewar (Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1969), p. 24.

(37) J. Davies, ‘The Secretariat of Henri I, Duc de Montmorency, 1563–1614’, English Historical Review, 115 (2000), 812–42.

(39) S. Adams, ‘The Papers of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester: II. The Atye-Cotton Collection’, Archives, 20 (1993), 131–44.

(40) P. Hammer, ‘The Uses of Scholarship: The Secretariat of Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex, c. 1585–1601’, English Historical Review, 109 (1994), 26–51.

(41) On Essex’s secretariat, see Hammer, ‘The Uses of Scholarship’, and L. Jardine and W. Sherman, ‘Pragmatic Readers: Knowledge Transactions and Scholarly Services in Late Elizabethan England’, in Anthony Fletcher and Peter Roberts (eds), Religion, Culture and Society in Early Modern Britain: Essays in Honour of Patrick Collinson (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 102–24.

(42) Reynolds to Anthony Bacon, Dec. 1596: Lambeth Palace Library, MS 660, ff. 214–15.

(43) Peyton, ‘A Discourse of Court and Courtiers’, BL Harleian MS 3364, f. 63v.

(44) R. Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. T. C. Faulkner, N. K. Kiessling, and R. L. Blair (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1989), vol. 1, p. 309.

(45) Isaac Wake to William Weld, 14/24 January 1625: BL Add MS 33935, ff. 75–6.

(46) Peter Moreton to his father, 9 December 1627: BL Add MS 33935, f. 208.

(47) Peter Moreton to his father, 30 June 1628: BL Add MS 33935, ff. 232–3.

(48) Giambattista Guarini, Il Segretario Dialogo (Venice, 1594), pp. 4–5.

(49) McFarlane observes of William Worcester that ‘the group of people with whom he lived was, as far as we know, the first to keep its private correspondence on a scale which neither untidiness nor accident can explain’ (‘William Worcester: A Preliminary Survey’, p. 221).

(50) Guarini, Il Segretario, H2v (p. 60). My thanks to Peter Davidson for his assistance with the translation of this passage.

(53) [Richard Brathwaite], ‘Some rules and orders for the government of the house of an Earle, set downe by R.B. at the instant request of his loving frende M.L.’, BL Add MS 29262, f. 6r. For commentary on this passage, see Woudhuysen, Sidney, p. 85 (casting doubt on the attribution to Brathwaite); and J. Daybell, The Material Letter in Early Modern England (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 219.

(54) ‘Some rules and orders’, f. 6r. See Daybell, Material Letter, p. 224, and on muniment rooms, T. Aston, ‘Muniment Rooms and their Fittings in Medieval and Early Modern England’, in R. Evans (ed.), Lordship and Learning: Studies in Memory of Trevor Aston (Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2004), pp. 235–47.

(57) D. E. Hoak, The King’s Council in the Reign of Edward VI (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1976), pp. 160–1; C. S. Knighton, ‘The Principal Secretaries in the Reign of Edward VI: Reflections on their Office and Archive’, in C. Cross, D. Loades, and J. J. Scarisbrick (eds), Law and Government under the Tudors: Essays Presented to Sir Geoffrey Elton (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 163–75.

(59) R. B. Wernham, The Making of Elizabethan Foreign Policy, 1558–1603 (Berkeley and London, University of California Press, 1980), p. 19.

(62) Jones, Governing by Virtue, p. 65.

(63) Beale, ‘Instructions for a Principall Secretarie’, printed in C. Read, Mr Secretary Walsingham and the Policy of Queen Elizabeth (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1925), vol. 1, pp. 423–43.

(66) Beale, ‘Instructions’, p. 426.

(70) Faunt, ‘Discourse’, pp. 50407; Beale, ‘Instructions’, p. 429.

(71) Beale, ‘Instructions for a Principall Secretarie’, p. 425: ‘It hath bine the manner that the Secretarie should abbreviate on the backside of the lettres, or otherwise in a bie paper, the substantiall and most materiall pointes which are to be propounded and answered.’ For discussion and illustrations, see Spenser, Selected Letters and Other Papers, ed. Burlinson and Zurcher, pp. xxxviii–xl.

(72) On filing and endorsement, see Daybell, The Material Letter in Early Modern England, pp. 218–20. Daybell elsewhere comments on ‘the diverse complexity and plurality of secretarial practices’ (p. 83), but the uniformity of filing practices is an exception to this rule.

(73) John Mellis, A Briefe Instruction and Maner How to Keepe Bookes of Accompts after the order of Debtor and Creditor (1588), F6r.

(74) Beale, ‘Instructions’, p. 427.

(75) Lorkin to Sir Thomas Puckering, 21 July 1614: BL Harl. MS 7002, ff. 340–1.

(76) Fulwood to Coke [October 1628]: BL, Add MS 64897, ff. 121–2.

(77) Coke to Northumberland, June 1639: BL Add MS 64920, f. 34. For background, see M. B. Young, Servility and Service: The Life and Work of Sir John Coke (Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 1986), p. 260.

(79) Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, ed. Michael Kiernan (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2000), p. 133.

(80) R. B. Wernham, ‘The Public Records in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries’, in L. Fox (ed.), English Historical Scholarship in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Oxford, Oxford University Press for Dugdale Society, 1956), pp. 11–30.

(81) N. Popper, ‘From Abbey to Archive: Managing Texts and Records in Early Modern England’, Archival Science, 10 (2010), 249–66, at 251, 262.

(82) R. C. Head, ‘Documents, Archives and Proof around 1700’, Historical Journal, 56 (2013), 909–30.

(83) Political Dictionary (London, Charles Knight, 1845), vol. 1, p. 102, ‘Archive’.

(84) Quoted in A. Stewart, ‘Familiar Letters and State Papers: The Afterlives of Early Modern Correspondence’, in J. Daybell and A. Gordon (eds), Cultures of Correspondence in Early Modern Britain (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), pp. 237–52, at p. 244.

(85) The custom persisted into the early 19th century, when a substantial portion of William Pitt’s official papers passed into the possession of his private secretary William Dacres Adams.

(86) N. Millstone, ‘Seeing like a Statesman in Early Stuart England’, Past & Present, 223 (2014), 77–127.

(87) Eve Tavor Bannet, ‘“Secret History”: Or, Talebearing Inside and Outside the Secretorie’, in Paulina Kewes (ed.), The Uses of History in Early Modern England (San Marino, CA, Huntington Library, 2006), pp. 367–88.

(88) D. Vincent, ‘The Origins of Public Secrecy in Britain’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th series, vol. 1 (1991), pp. 229–48, at p. 233; see also D. Vincent, The Culture of Secrecy: Britain 1832–1998 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998).

(89) Quoted in N. Waterhouse, Private and Official (London, Jonathan Cape, 1940), p. 186.

(90) John Colville, The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries, vol. 2, 1941–1955 (London, Sceptre, 1987), p. 249 (entry for 23 May 1945).