Prising Open the Casket

John Guy, author of a new biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, explains how working in the archives made him fascinated with sixteenth-century history.

I knew at sixteen that I wanted to be a historian. I’d read the vigorous, exhilarating, at times excoriating debates between Geoffrey Elton and his critics about the Tudor revolution in government. I never looked back.

Elton knew his archival sources inside out, could fire off quotes like an expert marksman, interpret them with passionate conviction and, when the polemic demanded, pounce. His style was famous for its eloquent, oracular diction. I found it utterly compelling.

My sixth-form library – not surprisingly – did not run to the great source compendium, the Calendar of Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII , published in thirty-two volumes. Without access to these bulky tomes, I could not begin to look up the references or listen to Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell speaking for themselves.

I applied to read History at Clare College, Cambridge – Elton’s own institution – and was accepted. But even then, to read the Calendar as a final-year undergraduate was not to see the original documents. Those were held in London at the British Library and the National Archives (Public Record Office).

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