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).

I took Elton’s Special Subject on ‘Thomas Cromwell and the Enforcement of the Henrician Reformation’, and then progressed to be one of his small army of PhD students. At last I was able to work on the documents, to ransack the archives and major research libraries holding Tudor materials, which meant travelling as far afield as Washington DC and Los Angeles. In my first year as a research student, I won a scholarship to visit the Huntington Library, where the Ellesmere Manuscripts had been acquired. I stayed in America for six weeks and spent every moment, apart from Sundays when the archives were closed, studying my documents. I’ve never worked harder in my life. It was so exciting to hear the voices of the past.

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