Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Work Experience at the National Archives

This summer I had the amazing opportunity of completing a work experience placement at the National Archives in Kew, just outside of London. For any students of history - or even for anyone with just the slightest bit of interest in their family tree! - the National Archives is basically where all British records are carefully stored and archived, and can be accessed by the general public. The Archives houses some incredible documents, which I'll be demonstrating later on in this article.

Although I'm not necessarily certain I want to work for the National Archives as a career option, or anything like that, I thought that it'd be a great chance to see what it's like to work in Great Britain's most important archives, particularly because, as a student of history, you get the chance to come across some quite amazing things. The work experience itself included tasks such as:

Producing and returning original documents accurately from the repository floor to the reading rooms
Using computer systems to log and track document movements accurately
Working in a customer service environment
Learning how we preserve and care for documents
Learning about document relocation processes
Working as an effective member of a team

By far the most exciting part of the work experience came on my last day, when I was very kindly shown a sample of some of the Archives' most famous treasures, which I'm going to now share here. For me the real highlight was a letter written by the twenty-year old Princess Elizabeth Tudor to her sister, Queen Mary I, from the Tower of London in 1554 where she was housed as a traitor for her suspected role in the Wyatt rebellion:

Above: Elizabeth Tudor's letter to her sister Queen Mary, 1554, the Tower of London.

In it, Elizabeth promises that she is 'your Highness's most faithful subject, that hath been from the beginning, and will be to my end'. Most famously, she crossed half of the letter off to prevent an act of forgery.

Above: Elizabeth Tudor's signature to her sister.

It is difficult to underestimate just how crucial this letter was perceived to be by Elizabeth as a means of demonstrating her loyalty to her sister and proving her innocence. The Wyatt rebellion had severely challenged Queen Mary, showing to her her subjects' hostility to the prospect of a marriage with the Spanish king Philip and the intensity of fears about the restoration of Roman Catholicism. Elizabeth knew that this letter may have been her only chance of saving her life.

Above: Edward VIII's letter of abdication, 1936.

Another incredible document to see first-hand was King Edward VIII of England's letter of abdication in December 1936, when he notoriously gave up the English throne because he was forbidden to marry his lover, the American Wallis Simpson. For those of you who've seen the immensely enjoyable film The King's Speech, starring Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter, you'll know that the throne eventually passed to Edward's younger brother, George, who was, of course, the father of our present Queen. It's quite something, to understand that Edward was so besotted by Wallis that he was willing to give up the crown in order to marry her.

Above: Hitler's signature on the eve of war, September 1939.

Another, perhaps more harrowing, document to see up close was a letter penned in German on the eve of the Second World War in 1939, signed by Adolf Hitler. The war, of course, was viewed as necessary both by Hitler as a means of extending Germany's power throughout Europe, and by the Allies as a means of combating Hitler's influence and increasing power which they feared and dreaded. The war took millions of lives, and comprised six years of brutality, savageness, murder and betrayal.

Above: American Declaration of Rights, 1776.

A less bleak and more awesome sight was that of the American Declaration of Rights, set forth in 1776, a period when many countries were beginning to shake off their allegiance to traditional monarchies and seek to establish their own rights (France, of course, was one). The Declaration has proved supremely controversial since it was passed, but one cannot deny that it was an incredible monument in America's history.

Above: the Pope confirms Henry VIII as Defender of the Faith, 1521.

It is surely ironic that the Pope chose to confirm King Henry VIII of England as Defender of the Faith in 1521 when, only six years later, that king would set in motion the processes which, by virtue of his divorce of Katherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn, would culminate in the English Reformation, and shatter traditional religion in England forever. But no one could have foreseen that in 1521, and indeed, Henry reacted with horror and outrage to the spread of heresy by Martin Luther some years previously, and worked hard to establish himself as a devoted and traditional Christian. This earned him the approval and good-wishes of the Pope.

Above: Queen Mary and King Philip, 1554.

Mary Tudor's decision to marry the Spaniard Philip in 1554 alienated her from her English subjects, who viewed with alarm the possibility of a Spanish king consort on the English throne. The marriage itself was loveless and tragic, with the queen unable of bearing children, and she eventually died just four years after their wedding, alone and embittered. Yet these colourful documents convey a glamorous and united view of the marriage, representing peace and happiness between England and Spain, even if the reality was far darker.

Work experience at the National Archives was an excellent chance to view some of the most important and significant documents in global history up close. It was a great opportunity and I viewed some documents I never thought I'd have the opportunity of seeing.

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