In their own words: 6 of history’s most fascinating letters
From a scribbled warning about the Gunpowder Plot to a typed letter condemning the lack of lifeboats on the Titanic, the National Archives holds many of the most significant letters ever written. Here, we share extracts from six such letters, to shine a spotlight on history's key events…
Containing more than 80 letters, postcards and telegraphs written by historical figures including Queen Elizabeth I, Catherine Howard, Karl Marx and Winston Churchill, In Their Own Words: Letters From History (first published in 2016) recaptures a lost world in which correspondence was king.
Drawing on more than 200 kilometres of records from the National Archives, the collection reflects on major historical events and developments, including the declaration of the Second World War, the death of Antarctic explorer Captain Oates, the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the trial of Nelson Mandela.
Here we bring you extracts from the book highlighting six of its most intriguing letters…
Discovering Tutankhamun’s Tomb, 1924
‘Would it not be a gracious, a kindly thing and a very diplomatic thing to do for the British Government and the Egyptian Government,’ American citizen G W Chance wrote to the Foreign Office on 7 January 1924, ‘to salute with Military honors, the remains and tomb of one of Egypt’s Rulers just discovered’. The Eastern Department of the Foreign Office dismissed the suggestion with a casual ‘external evidence would point out to his being the possessor of a weak mind,’ but the American’s idea was actually quite in line with the spirit of his time.
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It all started in the Valley of the Kings, on the West Bank of the Nile in the south of Egypt. The Valley, which pharaohs chose as their place of eternity from the 16th century BC, is a fascinating place; among the most desolate, scorching hot spots on the planet, it is also one of the most truly magical. British archaeologist Howard Carter and his sponsor George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, were given permission to dig in the Valley of the Kings in 1915. They went from one frustrating, fruitless season to the other until, on 4 November 1922, they discovered the entrance of a tomb with intact seals – that of 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Tutankhamun.
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It would take Howard Carter and his team about 10 years to excavate the tomb properly, partly because after the discovery of the first virtually intact tomb of the Valley, a wave of Tutmania swept the entire planet, firing the imagination of the world. Heaps of gold, a boy king, mysterious deaths... The story of King Tut (which became his affectionate nickname) was perfect to put the grim years of the First World War behind for the general public. It was also perfect to become the focus of esoteric theories and very strange suggestions such as the one made by Chance.
‘The reverence that all people of the world have for the abiding places of the dead, may be sneered at by some, but this sentiment is not to be brushed lightly aside,’ Chance wrote, adding: ‘Shakespeare felt its possible lack, when he protected his last resting place by a curse on him who moved his bones.’ Indeed, many of the numerous visitors the archaeologists had to contend with were animated by a decidedly morbid curiosity fuelled by the increasingly strong rumours of an ancient curse leading to the death of anyone getting too close to the young pharaoh. Now, as disappointing as it may sound, curses were, at best, infrequent in Ancient Egypt; Lord Carnarvon did die on 5 April 1923 in Cairo (the story says that the lights flickered, and that his hound in Highclere Castle howled at the precise moment of his death), but the medical report attested his unfortunate demise was due to septicaemia following an insect bite rather than to an ancient spell cast by a long-dead king. Besides, one cannot help but notice that Carter died in 1939, 17 years after disturbing Tut’s rest.
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Everyone, however, is sensitive to the fantastic, and Chance, who thought it was vital to ‘think a little seriously of these things, instead of considering the discoveries recently made in Egypt only as a source of cheap jokes and shallow witticisms,’ shouldn’t be blamed too much. ‘While some may say that it is a far cry from that generation to that of Ancient Egypt,’ as he put it, Tutankhamun is still one of the most widely known pharaohs in the world; his famous solid gold death mask adorns many cheap T-shirts, pens and snow globes. He has truly achieved eternity – albeit a tacky one.
Braveheart: A letter from the King of France regarding William Wallace, 1300
The name William Wallace conjures up an image of a swaggering Scottish hero, ready for battle. But Wallace was also a diplomat. In the letter, just three lines long, the King of France, Philip IV, tells his agents at the court of the Pope in Rome to assist ‘William le Walois of Scotland, knight’, in the business that he has to carry out. This raises the tantalising possibility that this tiny letter was in Wallace’s personal possession more than 700 years ago.
William Wallace was born into a noble Scottish family in the later 13th century. During his childhood, the Scottish kingdom was ruled, largely peacefully, by Alexander III. But at his death in 1286 the sole heir was his infant granddaughter, Margaret, daughter of the King of Norway. Known as the ‘Maid of Norway’ she died on her journey from Norway to Scotland in 1290, leaving no clear candidate for the succession. The future of Scotland was thrown into confusion as several men from elite families laid claim to the kingship.
Edward I of England took advantage of the Scottish situation to assert ever-greater claims to overlordship in the kingdom until, in 1296, he finally invaded. The early stages of the campaign were a great success, and the Scottish coronation stone, the symbol of its independent kingship, was removed from Scone and taken to Westminster Abbey.
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Edward I then turned his attention to France. But all was not over in Scotland. Unrest spread in early 1297 and William Wallace emerged from the shadows of history. In May, he killed William Heselrig, the English sheriff of Lanark, and the symbol of English authority in the region. The killing galvanised the Scots – many more joined the fight against the English, and Wallace became the leader of a full-scale rebellion. He joined forces with another rebel, Andrew Murray, and together they led a Scottish force against the English army at Stirling Bridge in September 1297. The English resistance was superior in numbers and led by an experienced warrior, John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey and Edward I’s lieutenant in Scotland. The two armies faced each other from opposite sides of the Forth, separated by a narrow bridge. The Scottish army waited, holding its nerve, until the English forces began to cross the bridge. When enough of the army had crossed, the Scottish charged down, surrounded this vanguard, and took control of the end of the bridge, preventing reinforcements from arriving. The English troops who had crossed the bridge were slaughtered or drowned in the Forth; those who had not beat a hasty retreat, led by de Warenne.
Wallace’s triumph at Stirling Bridge cemented his reputation, and the Scottish rebels under his leadership went from strength to strength, driving the English out of Scotland. He led a large-scale raiding party into England in late 1297, plundering and laying waste to tracts of the northern counties. Documents of the time referred to him as the ‘guardian of Scotland’.
To counter the rebels, in the summer of 1298 Edward I led an army into Scotland. Wallace was keen to avoid pitched battle, but Edward was determined to take the fight to the Scots and in July tracked the Scottish army to Falkirk where the strength and tactics of Edward’s forces won the day and Wallace left the field defeated.Perhaps because of this defeat, Wallace resigned the guardianship of Scotland, but continued to argue for his country’s independence from England, pursuing his aims through diplomacy. By the end of 1299, Wallace was in France, trying to persuade Philip IV to support the Scots against Edward. France and Scotland were old allies, and in November 1300 the French king wrote this letter. It is likely that it was carried by Wallace who perhaps travelled with it to Rome to present the Scottish case against the claims of Edward I. In early 1301 a Scottish delegation was in Rome doing just that, although we cannot say for certain that Wallace was among this group.
By 1303 Wallace was back in Scotland taking a leading role in the military campaign against Edward I. The English King was determined to capture this symbol of Scottish independence, and Wallace was finally taken prisoner in Glasgow in August 1305. He was taken to London and tried at Westminster for treason. Found guilty, he was hanged, disembowelled and cut into quarters. His head was displayed on London Bridge, and four parts of his body were distributed to four different towns in Scotland. Payments to the men who conveyed these quarters were coolly noted in the records of Edward I’s Exchequer.
"Philip by the grace of God King of the French to our loved and faithful our agents appointed to the Roman Court, greetings and love. We command/ you to request the Supreme Pontiff to consider with favour our beloved William le Walois [Wallace] of Scotland, knight/ in those things which he has to transact with him. Given at Pierrefonds on Monday after the feast of All Saints.
7 November 1300. Fourth letter of the King of France"
Class antagonism onboard the Titanic, 1912
When Titanic sank in the early hours of Monday 15 April 1912, many questions were raised. It was one of the largest, most luxurious ships in the world, boasting better facilities than any other liner, and yet it sank on its maiden voyage when it collided with an iceberg. How did it happen? Why did it happen? Why had so few passengers been saved? And why did first-class passengers have a better chance of survival than those travelling in second and third class? More than 1,500 passengers and crew had died in the freezing ocean, and relatives, friends and onlookers alike were looking for answers in the wake of the tragedy.
Among those concerned was Benn Tillett, the author of this letter. A famous trade union leader, he was hugely critical of the allegedly ‘vicious class antagonism’ that had led to the disproportionate loss of life among third-class passengers. Had the officers loading the life rafts deemed richer passengers more important than poorer ones? Benn Tillett clearly believed this to be the case. And the survival figures do show that the more a passenger had paid for his ticket, the greater his chance of survival. Indeed, fewer than 25 per cent of all third class passengers survived.
Whether these figures can be attributed solely to ‘class antagonism’ and a ‘callous disregard of human life’ is debatable, however. Practical factors were at play too. In designing the ship, the architects had ensured that passengers of different classes would not mix, and to this end certain stairways were barred off with metal gateways. In theory, these gateways could be unlocked by a key-holding crew member. In practice, on the night disaster struck, there were no staff available to open the gateways, and as a result, hundreds of passengers were trapped below deck and drowned as water gushed in. Since the third class accommodation was furthest from the boat deck, in many ways this group had the least chance of survival even before class differences were considered.
Tillett’s letter outlines some of the key reasons why more lives weren’t saved, and petitions the Marine Department to introduce more rigorous safety regulations in future. He complained that higher-class passengers were given priority in the lifeboats, which is definitely true, but more indicative that the loading of the lifeboats in general was completely mismanaged. The first raft launched, for example, took just 28 people, even though it had the capacity for 65. The crux of the issue, however, as Tillett explains, was simply the lack of sufficient lifeboats. Though it had been recommended to the designers that the Titanic should have 64 such vessels, the number was reduced to just 20 in order to keep the decks clear and to give the ship a more streamlined appearance. As a result, the Titanic ended up with lifeboats that could take only a third of the ship’s capacity. Not only this, but ships passing through iceberg-infested waters normally slowed down or stopped entirely when travelling at night. The Titanic’s crew had received warnings about icebergs from other nearby ships but, in spite of this, carried on at full tilt – partly to show what a marvellously fast vessel she was. Consequently, the impact on collision with the iceberg was much more severe than it might have been.
Mere weeks after the supposedly ‘unsinkable’ Titanic had been launched, people like Tillett understandably emphasised the need for safety over speed, and the importance of sufficient lifeboats over aesthetic considerations. By the end of April 1912, the draw of being the first ship to have a heated swimming pool and the luxury of 11-course dinners in first class seemed somewhat less appealing if the ship’s crew could not safeguard the lives of its passengers.
A warning about the Gunpowder Plot, 1605
This letter was sent to the Catholic Lord Monteagle, on 26 October 1605. The writer warned him to avoid the state opening of Parliament due in a few days’ time and remain at his estate for the purposes of safety. Despite being instructed not to ignore the warning contained in the letter and to burn the evidence, Lord Monteagle gave the letter directly to the Privy Council and King James I in Whitehall. His actions did not prevent the plotters from going ahead with their plan.
During the reign of Elizabeth I, it was extremely difficult for Catholics to practise their religion owing to harsh fines and the risk of imprisonment. Catholic priests were banned and arrested by government spies. When James I of England and James IV of Scotland ascended the throne they hoped for greater freedom to practise their faith, but unfortunately this did not happen. In 1605, a group of discontented Catholic noblemen led by Robert Catesby – including John Wright, Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy, Guy Fawkes, Robert Keyes, Thomas Bates, Robert Wintour, Christopher Wright, John Grant, Ambrose Rookwood, Sir Everard Digby and Francis Tresham – decided to blow up the King and Parliament. After the explosion, the group planned to lead an uprising in the Midlands. They would kidnap Princess Elizabeth, James’s young daughter, at Coombe Abbey with the intention of using her as a figurehead through whom they could rule the country and restore the rights of Catholics. However, their explosives expert, a mercenary called ‘John Johnson’ (also known as Guy Fawkes) was disturbed in the cellar below the Houses of Parliament with a large quantity of gunpowder.
The plotters escaped from London. Robert Catesby was killed after a shoot-out at Holbeach House in Staffordshire, where they had gone into hiding. The remaining members of the group were captured and tried at Westminster Hall; eight of them were found guilty and executed by January 1606. The plot increased the popularity of James I, and it became even more difficult for Catholics to practise their religion or participate in civil society. Today it remains a myth that Guy Fawkes was the main plotter, an idea perpetuated by the celebrations which take place every year for Bonfire Night on 5 November.
"My lord, out of the love I beare to some of youere frends, I have a care of youre preservacion, therefore I would aduyse you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift youer attendance at this parliament, for God and man hath concurred to punishe the wickedness of this tyme, and thinke not slightly of this advertisement, but retire yourself into your country, where you may expect the event in safety, for though there be no apparance of anni stir, yet I saye they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament and yet they shall not seie who hurts them this cowncel is not to be contemned because it may do yowe good and can do yowe no harme for the dangere is passed as soon as yowe have burnt the letter and i hope God will give yowe the grace to mak good use of it to whose holy proteccion i comend yowe."
Letters to the police from ‘Jack the Ripper’, 1888
On 31 August 1888, a woman named Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols was found dead in London’s East End; her throat was slashed and her body disembowelled. This was the first murder by so-called ‘Jack the Ripper’. Eight days later Jack struck again, and Annie Chapman was discovered in a backyard in Spitalfields. Like Polly, she had had her throat cut and her guts had been removed.
Nearly a month after Polly’s death, on 29 September, a letter arrived at the Central News Agency, claiming to be from the killer. The writer taunted the police with an early theory that the killer was another wanted man who went by the name of ‘the Leather Apron’. The author went on, boasting how he had evaded capture and ending with a taunt that he was ready to it again and detailing one of the mutilations he would perform.
Shortly after this letter came to the police, the murderer claimed two further victims. The body of Elizabeth Stride, a tall woman known as ‘Long Liz’, was found in Berner Street. Just 45 minutes later, a second body was found close by in Mitre Square. The body of Catherine Eddowes had been severely maimed and part of her innards had again been removed.
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The very next day, the police received another ‘Ripper note’. This time it was smeared with blood: ‘I was not [kidding] dear old Boss when I gave you the tip, you’ll hear about Saucy Jacky work tomorrow double event this time number 1 squealed a bit couldn’t finish straight off had not time to get ears for police. Thanks for keeping last letter back till I got to work again. Jack the Ripper.’
Believing that both the letters were written by the serial killer, the police decided to publish them, in the hope that someone might come forward and identify the handwriting. To this end, the letters were printed in the press.
However, instead of producing any helpful information, the publication of these letters led to a huge stream of letters from would-be Jack the Rippers, containing crude, threatening messages, stating their intention to murder again.
Most of the copycat letters were signed ‘Jack the Ripper’ and they borrowed the language of the original two – repeating the use of ‘Boss’, and ‘ha ha’, as well as the threats to mutilate the bodies of their future victims. The quality of the writing in the letters varies hugely: some pay heed to grammatical rules and the spelling is accurate, others are littered with spelling mistakes; some are legible, others are not.
One further murder, of Mary Jane Kelly, five weeks later on 9 November, inspired a new spate of letters from copycat Jack the Rippers, but this stream of correspondence eventually slowed to a trickle.
It is mystifying to consider why so many people wrote to the police pretending to be the notorious mass murderer. What motivated them to pen these appalling letters? Perhaps surprisingly, given Jack the Ripper’s purported hatred of prostitutes, the only two copycats who were caught were both women: one from Bradford, the other from South Wales. Obviously it’s possible that the first two letters were written by the murderer himself, but they also might have been written by a well-informed journalist in the hope of attracting attention to the story. This latter scenario seemed more plausible to the police, and they believed that a journalist called Tom Billing was the author.
The huge volume of Ripper letters, as well as their evidently varied styles and levels of literacy, suggests that a good number of people were assuming the Jack the Ripper persona on paper. But what made them want to be associated with such brutal and violent crimes remains a mystery.
I keep on hearing the police have caught me but they won’t fix me just yet. I have laughed when they look so clever and talk about being on the right track. That joke about Leather Apron gave me real fits. I am down on whores and " [sic] quit ripping them till I do get buckled. Grand work the last one was I gave the lady no time to squeal. How can they catch me now. I love my work and want to start again. You will soon hear of me with my funny little game. I saved some of the proper red stuff in a ginger beer bottle over the last job to write with but it went thick like glue and I can’t use it. Red ink is fit enough I hope. Ha ha. The next job I do I shall clip the ladies ears off and send to the police officers just for jolly wouldn’t you. Keep this letter back till I do a bit more work and give it out straight. My knife’s so nice and sharp I want to get to work right away if I get a chance. Good luck.
Jack the Ripper. Don’t mind me giving the trade name."
The return of Napoleon Bonaparte’s remains to France, 1840
Napoleon Bonaparte. The name alone was enough to send a shiver down the spine of any true born Englishman. One of the greatest military commanders in history, he almost single-handedly brought Europe under French hegemony and represented one of the most dangerous enemies Britain ever had to face. This letter, written nearly 20 years after Bonaparte’s death, records a little-known postscript to these momentous events and helps to signify a burying of the hatchet between Europe’s two greatest powers.
For almost two decades Napoleon Bonaparte was a central figure in one of the most turbulent periods of European history. He was hugely influential in providing the military success that prevented the French Revolution from being crushed and exported the revolutionary ideals to the rest of Europe. In time Napoleon became increasingly powerful, taking the position of First Consul and eventually Emperor of the French. There were a series of European coalitions put together in opposition to the aggressive policies of France, and although Napoleon was able to defeat these he was never able to attack his most persistent enemy, Britain. In the end it was attempts to enforce economic warfare against Britain that led to Napoleon’s downfall through his ill-fated invasion of Russia. He was initially exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba, but after his return and eventual defeat at the hands of the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo he was sent to the remote Atlantic island of St Helena.
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Napoleon died on St Helena in 1821 and had recorded in his will that he wished his remains to be returned to Paris. For a number of years the French government resisted calls for this to take place because they were worried about the impact of the mass outpouring of public support which would naturally accompany any such move. By 1840 the French government felt that the nationalist fervour which would be unleashed by the return of Napoleon’s remains would be beneficial to them politically, and so in May they sent a request to the British government.
This letter is a draft, preserved in the records of the British Foreign Office, of the response of Lord Palmerston to the French desire to ‘remove from St Helena to France the Remains of Napoleon Buonaparte’. He wrote that ‘H. M. Gov[enmen]t will with great pleasure accede to this request.’ As a result of this, the French government, with much fanfare, sent a warship to St Helena to collect Napoleon’s remains. These were then returned to Paris where, in front of a vast Parisian crowd, they were reinterred at Les Invalides on 15 December 1840.
Foreign Office 9 May 1840
HM. Govt having taken into consideration the Request made by the Govt of France for permission to remove from St Helena to France the Remains of Napoleon Buonaparte, your Exly is instructed to assure Monsr Thiers that HM Govt will with great pleasure accede to this Request.
HM. Govt hope that the readiness with which this answer is given, will be looked up in France as a Proof of the Desire of HM Govt to extinguish every Remnant of those national animosities which during the life of the Emperor arrayed the French and English People in arms against each other; and HM. Govt trust that if any such Feelings still continue anywhere to exist, they may be buried in the Grave to which these Remains are about to be consigned.
HM. Govt will concert with that of France the arrangements necessary for carrying this Removal into effect.
I am Sir.
These extracts were first published by HistoryExtra in 2016, and taken from In Their Own Words: Letters From History. The book, published by Bloomsbury, is authored by a team of 24 archivists, each with a particular area of specialism. You can find out more about the National Archives here
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