‘The Specter of the Archive’ by Nicholas Popper review

The Specter of the Archive: Political Practice and the Information State in Early Modern Britain by Nicholas Popper explores the Elizabethan revolution in record keeping.

The Tower of London, etching by Wenceslaus Hollar, c. 1647. Rijksmuseum. Public Domain.

Last month I submitted an article on Elizabethan diplomacy to an academic journal. It was the result of several months of research, beginning with the free online calendars and catalogues of the Elizabethan state papers, which helped me locate the relevant sources. Many of these were available on the platform State Papers Online – a treasure trove of digitised manuscripts familiar to every early modern historian – and for those unavailable online, I paid a visit to the British Library in London, where every manuscript is well-catalogued and free to access. Back at home I studied, planned and wrote over the course of several weeks. Submitting the article felt like an achievement.

But, of course, this is the easiest it has ever been to conduct archival research. Tudor and Stuart politicians, gentry and antiquaries would have been baffled and jealous, not only of the existence of the internet, but of the well-preserved records, the clear search tools and the lack of cost. Had one of my ancestors attempted to undertake a similar project in the 1550s, he (and it would almost certainly have been a he) would have been faced with mountains of disorganised manuscripts in derelict chambers, struggling to survive against the triple threat of damp, dust and vermin. This situation gradually improved during Elizabeth I’s reign, under a conscientious Sir William Bowyer. Bowyer oversaw the creation of rudimentary finding aids, such as registers and codices, and began to consistently require visitors to the records office to register, with each paying various fees for access and copying – either two shillings per sheet if copied by a Tower clerk, or the reduced price of eight pence to copy it yourself. Elizabeth also founded the State Paper Office in 1578, which developed most significantly under its Jacobean keeper, Thomas Wilson. The accessibility and organisation of the state papers continued to improve throughout the early modern period in order to keep up with increasing demand.

Nicholas Popper’s book illuminates this world of the state archive, progressing from the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign in the mid-16th century to the Restoration monarchy of the late-17th. As Popper maps the development of the physical archive, he explores the accompanying expansion of writing and record-keeping (which he terms ‘inscription’), arguing that new approaches to inscription transformed early modern England into an ‘information state’, in which government, politics and patronage were shaped by the archive. Keepers and clerks, such as Bowyer and Wilson, chose what materials would be bound, copied and catalogued, and consequently made more accessible to present and future visitors. Statesmen, such as Elizabeth I’s chief minister William Cecil, Lord Burghley, collected recent and historic political papers, and used them alongside printed humanist texts to inform their policy decisions. Other administrators and antiquaries copied and collated political manuscripts as a way of seeking patronage, by offering these volumes to more senior politicians and courtiers. The antiquary Francis Thynne, for instance, compiled a book in honour of Sir Thomas Egerton’s promotion to the lord chancellorship in 1597 as a way of attracting Egerton’s attention and patronage. This volume, based on the Tower records, included the coats of arms of lord chancellors dating back to 716 and archival documents relating to the position from 1205 onwards. And, though inscription was dominated by men, women still contributed to the preservation of the archive through domestic labour: ensuring archival spaces were clean and dry, keeping vermin at bay and dusting the records. One such woman was Goodwife Walsh, who was paid an annual salary of £2 for her work in the Tower Record Office in the 1670s. By participating in the process of inscription, all of these people shaped the information state.

Consequently, Popper’s book puts modern issues surrounding archives and record-keeping into context. Perhaps its most crucial lesson is the subjectivity of the archive. In recent years, certain commentators have often accused historians of ‘rewriting’ history, sometimes to suit a ‘woke’ agenda. This relies on the false assumption that history is a set of immutable facts beyond reinterpretation. As Popper shows, the archives themselves – those apparently solid, reliable records – have always been shaped by their keepers and users. This subjectivity is not a novel concept to historians – indeed, the archives themselves offer a constant reminder in the form of the pencil numberings and endorsements added to manuscripts by the Victorians responsible for the modern archives we know today. But Popper’s book reminds us that this process of collecting, ordering and manipulating began much, much earlier.

The book is also timely in light of the 2023 cyberattack on the British Library. On 28 October a group of hackers called Rhysida rendered many of the nation’s state papers inaccessible for months, both online and at the library, due to the loss of their online ordering system. This attack – carried out with extreme speed – showed that although technology has provided huge opportunities for archival access, it also has its own vulnerabilities. Incredibly, while the effects of this attack remained ongoing, the Ministry of Justice announced their plan to digitise and destroy physical copies of millions of wills dating back to the 19th century. That the nation’s archives have survived, in some form or another, for almost 500 years, is due largely to their physicality. As the movement towards digitisation continues, it seems that this chain may be broken. Future historians may not only lose the wonder of holding centuries of history in their hands, but perhaps even the ability to conduct research at all, if digital files are lost or corrupted. I hope that we learn from the past – and from Popper’s book – to prevent this bleak future from becoming a reality.

  • The Specter of the Archive: Political Practice and the Information State in Early Modern Britain
    Nicholas Popper
    University of Chicago Press, 320pp, £26
    Buy from bookshop.org (affiliate link)


Rosalyn Cousins is a doctoral researcher at the University of Leeds.