Collection of diplomat’s seventeenth-century newsletters reveal insights into early English history and statecraft
By Elon Lang
I must thank you for the chocolate and snuff you intend to send me, if it be perfumed with anything but orange or jessamin [jasmine] flowers, I had rather have plain, for I find all musk etc. hurts my head.
William Bridgeman, Clerk to the English Secretary of State, London, to Sir Richard Bulstrode, Brussels, May 23, 1686 (PFORZ-MS-0317)
In a series of over 150 letters that the Ransom Center is publishing online as part of the Carl H. Pforzheimer collection of English manuscripts, clerks from England’s Office of the Secretary of State reveal the intimate relationship they enjoyed with one of England’s chief diplomats in Northern Europe during the last quarter of the seventeenth century. This diplomat was Sir Richard Bulstrode, a nobleman loyal to the Stuart dynasty throughout his life, who fought on the side of the Royalists during the English Civil Wars and supported the Jacobites after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. He was an immensely pragmatic and skilled lawyer and politician who managed to maintain official government positions even during the Commonwealth Period.
Passages from letters like the one quoted above illustrate just how Bulstrode’s political savvy operated. He and his agents took care to interweave practical and personal matters into his official dealings with his government superiors and their clerks. For example, it seems like it was quite common for Bulstrode to procure luxury commodities from the markets of Europe for these clerks as a favor for keeping him up to date on significant political news from London. As can be seen in the second item pictured below, which is part of a series of official communiqués that ask him to perform certain diplomatic tasks for the realm, the clerk acknowledges receipt of a chocolate and snuff shipment in between news about the apprehension of a military embezzler in Bruges and the results of an important trial involving the Church of England (PFORZ-MS-0318).
Newsy tidbits in letters were not the only way Bulstrode kept his finger on the pulse of English politics, though. These letters represent just one small part of how Bulstrode sought to satisfy his voracious appetite for news. His main sources for current events from his homeland were handwritten newsletter services. At the Ransom Center, 1,469 newsletters that were sent to Bulstrode between 1667 and 1689 comprise the largest portion of the Pforzheimer collection of English manuscripts. Originating in London, these newsletters form direct parallels with the letters from the Secretary of State’s office in that they reveal the same sorts of personal relationships that Bulstrode fostered with his official correspondents. For example, in two newsletters from 1679 (PFORZ-MS-1008 and PFORZ-MS-1023), a clerk includes personal notes thanking Bulstrode for sending chocolate to him and his boss, Sir Joseph Williamson. Williamson was able to provide his subscribers an insider’s perspective on current events because, along with his journalistic enterprises, he also served a term as Secretary of State and maintained a high position at Court.
Surviving manuscript newsletter collections the size of Bulstrode’s are rare and significant to historical research. This is because, until 1695, there were no independently printed newspapers in England and only one official Gazette controlled by the government. People in Bulstrode’s era who wanted uncensored news had to rely on what could be gathered from personal correspondence through the thrice-weekly post. To meet the growing demand for reliable reporting, a few entrepreneurs in London set up newsletter services to mail proprietary information to subscribers about proceedings in parliament, activities of the military and royal family, and court gossip that could not be printed in the public newspaper.
Bulstrode subscribed to two different newsletter offices that are represented in our collection. The smaller of the two sets is from the office of Edward Coleman, who was executed for treason during the anti-Catholic fervor stirred up by Titus Oates in the autumn of 1678. The larger set is from the office of Sir Joseph Williamson, who, as an entrepreneur, was deeply connected to the burgeoning printing industry in London, and, as mentioned above, also served as Secretary of State from 1674 to 1679. The way Williamson set up his service, subscribers paid annual fees based on how frequently they wished to receive newsletters, but they were also obliged to mail accounts of news and politics back to London from their estates around the realm or stations in Europe. If subscribers were diplomats like Bulstrode, they received discounted service rates but were asked to send both first-hand accounts and printed newspapers from their localities. This information not only provided newsletter offices with news for future letters, but—for Williamson—it also provided valuable intelligence for his statecraft.
Taken together, these letters and newsletters in our collection preserve one of the world’s largest records of early correspondence journalism. Historians like Professor James Winn of Boston University are using the wealth of information in the collection to study the details of the Restoration period of English history. In his forthcoming book on Queen Anne of Great Britain, for example, Winn is using these documents to help pin down the precise course of events that led to Anne’s marriage to Prince George of Denmark. This match for Anne occurred after a rumored engagement to Prince George of Hanover (who became her successor to the throne), and an unwanted courtship by the Earl of Mulgrave.
In the two newsletters from February and December 1680 pictured below (PFORZ-MS-1133 and PFORZ-MS-1219), the writer reports about Anne’s rumored engagement to George of Hanover—which turned out not to be true. Newsletters from autumn 1682 (such as PFORZ-MS-1392) reveal how Mulgrave’s pursuit of Anne may have gotten him expelled from court. Fortunately for Mulgrave, after Anne’s marriage to George of Denmark in July 1683 (discussed in PFORZ-MS-1460), Mulgrave staged a political comeback. As the newsletter from August 20, 1683, describes: “The Earl of Mulgrave has kissed the king’s and duke’s hand, and does now make the Court very constantly” (see PFORZ-MS-1466).
The newsletters also illustrate how such seemingly petty politics in the late years of the Second King Charles’ court were conducted against the terribly bloody and vindictive background of the Duke of Monmouth’s Rebellion in 1683. As the newsletter below from August 24, 1683, offers:
There was a very warme discourse the beginning of this weeke, that the duke of Monmouth would surrender himselfe, but it seems it was a mistake; but this much [break] I am informed from very good hands, that the duke of Monmouth has offered to come in & declare all he knows upon promise of pardon, but that it was rejected; & certainely the duke of Monmouth after the ill steps he has made ought not to pretend to capitulate with the King, ag.t whom he has in so high a degree offended.
Newsletter from the office of Sir Joseph Williamson, Whitehall, to Sir Richard Bulstrode, Brussels, August 24, 1683 (PFORZ-MS-1467)
The Ransom Center’s digital publication of the Bulstrode letters and newsletters marks the first time a large collection of seventeenth-century newsletters has been made freely available to a mass viewing audience with item-level descriptions. While the newsletters have been commercially microfilmed and partially transcribed in the past, these publishing efforts have all been incomplete and out of chronological order. This has made using newsletters for research incredibly difficult for scholars. As part of the Ransom Center’s effort to describe and digitize the Pforzheimer collection, the Center reorganized all 1,469 letters by date and recorded all of the days mentioned in each newsletter in database records for each individual item. One consequence of this activity has been the discovery of over two dozen “lost” newsletters that had been neither microfilmed nor transcribed in the past.
The Center’s cataloging and digitization efforts will provide unprecedented levels of access to primary source documents for seventeenth-century history. The online publication of the Bulstrode newsletters, along with the Pforzheimer collection of English manuscripts, will provide a needed service to scholars and teachers and open up information to readers looking to discover important details and ephemera about English politics and culture during the Restoration. As other archives that hold major newsletter collections—such as the Folger Shakespeare Library—begin to publish them with item-level descriptions online, the Ransom Center will be able to open the door to a reexamination of an origin narrative for independent correspondence journalism in England.
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