Beyond the Embassy Preservation, Consultation, and the Afterlife of Letters
The previous two chapters have focused primarily on the epistolary production of specific individuals abroad: within a constructed letter-book, the papers themselves are often identified as produced and owned by, and thus representative of, one man. In this chapter, I will expand on the idea that they also came to form part of a wider forum of knowledge, and were part of the early modern machine of governance. Placing them in the wider framework of information production and preservation in Elizabethan government helps to explain the motivation for and uses of these epistolary records and behaviours. Accordingly, this chapter considers some of the people and places involved in the management of state papers under Elizabeth, as well as records and collections formed in contexts that are in some way complementary to the diplomatic environment. Bringing the discussion into the realm of domestic government further demonstrates the affinity between foreign and domestic political engagement: Chapter 1 showed that work at home and abroad frequently engaged the same people; this chapter shows they engaged the same epistolary practices and skills. This in turn consolidates the idea that our diplomatic players are better thought of not as selfdefined and cleanly delimited diplomats, but as part of a more capacious category of state actors. These experts and trainees in information management kept the wheels turning for a government increasingly reliant on the gathering, transmission, use, and storage of written material, usually in epistolary form. Elizabethan clerks and secretaries were at the proverbial coalface, and as such represent both knowledge and a way of knowing. This chapter discusses their navigation of the sea of information into which diplomatic letters were unceasing tributaries. As seen in Chapter 1, both these figures and the statesmen that many of them worked for often participated in diplomatic activity abroad. Yet the specification of focus in scholarly work dividing foreign embassies from Privy Council makes it easy to absorb an anachronistic sense of these areas of work as estranged and formalised institutions.1 This chapter will challenge this by exploring the common activities, persons, and administrative processes shared across these contexts, showing that the subjects of earlier chapters are part of a wider picture of state practices and paperwork.
Looking in detail at the letters, letter-books, and manuscript collections of state actors clarifies not only the lack of a stark foreign/domestic distinction, but also a lack of clear opposition between state ownership and private usage. The lack of a public/private distinction has long been understood regarding the contents of early modern letters of a political nature. Yet the complex intermingling of what today we would call public and private concerns and contexts is also found in letters’ use after sending, in the early modern archives and other spaces in which they were held, and even in the positions and activities of our state actors themselves.2 It may seem counterintuitive to see a letter-book identified as the work of one man as part of the machine of governance, but this does not equate to the personalised papers of an individual moving to an unambiguously public context. We have already seen how the former aspect (that is, understanding these as personal papers) is complicated by multiple authorship, collaboration between different embassy figures, multiple audiences, and the self-consciously loaded nature of the diplomatic letter. In this chapter, we will see that, far from being absorbed by a monolithic state, the use of these letters after sending is equally individualised, based not on institutions but on people who inhabit multiple imbricate roles. This helps us to understand the place of diplomatic letters and letter-books, and their potential value to those who used archival collections to trade as information experts.
As seen in earlier chapters, the centralising of information through forming a codex from individual letters is a creative act that results in a new political resource. The creation (or organisation) of an archive is a similarly epistemological act. Whether by design or accident, the centralising of information solidifies the epistolary trace of an individual into an account that is easily viewed as fixed or comprehensive, open to use as precedent, evidence, and narrative. Exploring the use of diplomatic letters after sending, and of others like them, exposes this movement and its consequences ever more clearly. By explaining the use of these papers and others in domestic government, I show what was at stake for the agents and ambassadors of the earlier chapters as they wrote their letters and compiled their letter-books. Their epistolary products could be valued as currency in this environment, and could form part of collections whose ownership bestowed and conveyed political power. I therefore examine several textual sources that give insight into how early modern archives functioned and how contemporaries used and viewed the papers stored within. These include a manuscript index to Sir Francis Walsingham’s library of state papers, surprisingly unexamined by scholars, as well as Privy Council ‘formulary’ books, or clerkly letter collections typically thought to model style for the composition of letters. Analysis of their contents suggests that, more than simple pro forma guides, these books could inform policy, which confirms both the importance of letters and letter collections in domestic politics and the status of these clerks as powerful civil servants. Unpicking the use of letters in the archives of state shows that early modern diplomatic activity is correlative with domestic
Beyond the Embassy 165 political administration: the same clerks, councillors, and would-be crown agents inhabit both spaces, either as part of a position in government or as a method to develop skills and win patronage.
The chapter begins with an account of early archives of state papers to explain where the papers of the previous chapters could end up, and who might have used them. These archives and the papers within them, whether apparently official collections or in notionally private hands, formed the active information state and as such conveyed political power on those who managed and navigated them. The next section seeks to show that diplomatic letter-books were part of this world of paper by looking in depth at the office of the Principal Secretary. Here we find similar practices regarding the creation of letter-books and the recording of key information, as well as evidence for the submission of letter collections and reports to this office on completion of an embassy. This speaks to both the close affinity between foreign and domestic areas of information production, and to the value of collections of diplomatic letters in the home government. Turning from treatises on ideal administrative practice to surviving records of Francis Walsingham’s own library of papers reveals more of the whole of which diplomatic letters and epistolary practice were a part. The second half of the chapter considers the material object of the clerkly precedent book through a series of case studies; these volumes of letters, comparable to the ambassadorial letter-book, show that such collections were understood to be directly and indirectly essential to the workings of government. Finally, I discuss how the use of letters in government and the personally freighted nature of correspondence combine in the case study of Henry Sidney’s letters, where the creation of a physical book of letters itself indicates a desire to extend and preserve political influence. The centralisation of knowledge, whether in books or libraries, is thus a marker of intention and authority, particularly in a government that operated on an information trade that encompassed those at home and abroad.