An examination of our nation’s history, Treasures of British History reproduces and puts into context the documents that take us as close as we can get to the moments that have made us what we are.
Here, writing for History Extra, Peter Snow explores six of his highlights…
It is astonishing how the ravages of time have spared so many precious pieces of paper. Stored away in archives up and down the United Kingdom is a treasure house of documents that are the lifeblood of British history. They tell us so much about how we came to be what we are. My son Dan and I have handled scores of them, but in writing our Treasures of British History we decided to limit ourselves to the 50 that we judged would give us the broadest picture of this country’s past. Discussion became heated at times, but we’ve ended with a book that is a testament to the extraordinary richness of our historical development in so many fields.
It’s a demonstration, too, of the impact that Britain has had on the rest of the world. Document after document displays how Britain’s men and women in politics, military campaigns, art, literature, engineering and science have helped shape the progress of humanity: Magna Carta, one of the earliest, though primitive, commitments to human rights; an early folio of Shakespeare’s King Lear; maps of the great battles of Blenheim and Trafalgar; and a ticket to the first concert the four Beatles played together in 1962. And it hasn’t always been a history of which Britain can be proud: we’ve a certificate that awards the family of the future Liberal leader William Gladstone compensation for its loss of slaves, and the piece of paper that Neville Chamberlain waved after his meeting with Hitler at Munich in 1938 that gave Hitler the green light to invade Czechoslovakia.
From this rich portfolio I have chosen my six favourite documents…
The earliest message known to have been written by a woman in Britain
I will start with one of the most striking and touching pieces of everyday communication between two people in Roman Britain. Nearly 2,000 years ago – in around 100 AD – a woman wrote in a cursive Roman script inviting a friend to her birthday party. The message was written on a one-millimetre-thick wooden tablet and found with a pile of other tablets preserved in a damp corner of the Roman fort of Vindolanda just south of where the Emperor Hadrian was to build his wall.
Claudia Severa writes to her friend Sulpicia Lepidina: “I give you the warmest invitation… to make this day, my birthday, more enjoyable for me by your arrival… I shall expect you sister. Farewell sister, my dearest soul”. It is the earliest message known to have been written by a woman in Britain and offers a precious glimpse of domestic life in Roman Britain.
A letter from Princess Elizabeth to Queen Mary
My next choice is the letter Princess Elizabeth wrote in 1554 to her half-sister, Queen Mary. The young woman who would later be one of England’s greatest queens is effectively pleading for her life as she waits to be escorted to the Tower of London. There was suspicion that Elizabeth, who was then the heir to the throne, and a devout Protestant, might have been involved in the rebellion against Queen Mary, an equally devout Catholic. “I never practised, counselled or consented to anything that might be prejudicial to your person in any way,” writes Elizabeth. And she ends her letter desperately: “I humbly crave but one word of answer from yourself”.
She was right to be worried. Mary’s almost fanatical Catholicism led to many an execution, but her younger half-sister was popular and was soon released. Mary failed to have any children; her health declined and Elizabeth succeeded her four years after this low point in her fortunes, in 1558. This letter is a touching symbol of the frailty of even the most prominent of subjects under an absolute monarchy.
The Duke of Wellington’s Waterloo dispatch
The duke’s dispatch of 19 June 1815 is a remarkable first-hand account of one of the military victories that shaped the world in the century leading up to 1914. In his typically cool manner Wellington describes the moves he took to defeat the French emperor Napoleon who had dominated Europe for a generation. It was, as Wellington was once quoted as saying, “a damned nice thing – the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life”.
The armies were equally matched and Wellington, a practised veteran in defending against attack, moved tirelessly to keep his line intact. Napoleon never broke through and at around 4pm the Prussians under Marshal Blücher kept their promise to come to Wellington’s aid. “I should not do justice to my own feelings, or to Marshal Blücher and the Prussian army,” wrote Wellington in his dispatch, “if I did not attribute the successful result of this arduous day to the cordial and timely assistance I received from them”.
Blucher and Wellington between them managed to defeat one of the great military commanders in history, and this dispatch is the most evocative memory of that triumph.
George Stephenson’s patent for his steam engine in 1822
I have long been a railway enthusiast, so there was no way Dan and I were going to leave out the man to whom, beyond all others, we owe the invention of the first passenger-hauling locomotive.
George Stephenson’s patent for his steam engine in 1822 shows in very simple terms how his piston-driven machine was going to change the world. Seven years later, the ‘Rocket’ locomotive Stephenson designed with his son Robert began carrying passengers on the world’s first inter-city line between Liverpool and Manchester. Until then few people had travelled more than 30 miles from their home in their lifetime. After Stephenson, journeys of several hundred miles became possible.
There was not a mile of passenger railway in the world before Stephenson, and yet by the end of the 19th century there were half a million miles of track.
Titanic’s call for help
There are few documents that survive today more poignant than the signal received by the SS Burma, a vessel steaming in the North Atlantic on the night of 15/16 April 1912 (the night of 14/15 April UK time).
It was 11.45pm. I have a picture in my mind of a young radio officer receiving this shock signal from a vessel with the call sign “MGY”. He immediately recognised that it came from the huge 45,000-tonne liner Titanic, and it said “We have struck iceberg, sinking fast, come to our assistance”. Titanic was one of the largest, and apparently safest, ships afloat. Its designers had inserted 16 watertight compartments in her hull, which many claimed made the ship unsinkable. But when Titanic struck an iceberg, it made a 330-ft gash in its starboard side, rupturing six of the watertight compartments. It soon became clear Titanic was sinking fast, and those that could took to the lifeboats. But the ship wasn’t even equipped with enough lifeboats to rescue more than half the people on board.
Even worse, although some ships like the Burma, which was a long way off, heard the distress signal, Californian, the only ship close enough to have been of any help at the fatal moment, steamed past unaware that there was a problem. It was the Carpathia, closer than Burma, that picked up the signal and arrived in time to pick up 700 survivors.
The disaster was a wake-up call to the maritime community who immediately ruled that radio operators should keep a watch 24/7 and that all ships should carry enough lifeboats to carry all onboard.
The Falklands surrender
My final pick of the 50 historic documents in the book is the one dated 14 June 1982: the Falklands surrender. Hammered out briskly on a Falklands typewriter, it reads: “I the undersigned, [Brigadier General Menéndez] commander of all the Argentine land sea and air forces in the Falkland Islands unconditionally (crossed out) surrender to Major General JJ Moore CB OBE MC as representative of the Her Majesty’s Government”.
It was the moment of British victory. The islands had been seized only two months earlier, in April, when Argentinian troops invaded. But Argentina was forced to surrender in June the same year after Britain staged one of the most spectacular military campaigns, reoccupying a group of islands no less than 8,000 miles from home. Menéndez asked for the word ‘unconditionally’ to be crossed out in a bid to salvage something of Argentina’s honour. Moore had the grace to agree.
The surrender sealed the success of a campaign that cost the lives of 255 Britons and an estimated 650 Argentinians. But the prize was an emphatic message from then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher to the rest of the world that foreign aggression should not be seen to pay.
So there you have just six of the 50 compelling pieces of British history enshrined on paper that will last for a very long time. Of course there are many more pieces of documentary evidence of a colourful past that we had to leave out. We would like to have included Sir Alexander Fleming’s treatise on his discovery of penicillin and perhaps Edward Elgar’s score of the rousing Pomp and Circumstance march. But we will have to leave all that for another day…
Peter and Dan Snow’s Treasures of British History: The Nation’s story told through its 50 most important documents (Andre Deutsch) is out now.