His Majesty, Mrs Brown: letters from the second catalogue of Bodleian Student Editions

Mike Webb (Curator of Early Modern Archives and Manuscripts) writes:

The second Bodleian Student Editions catalogue is now available online through Early Modern Letters Online (EMLO). These letters were transcribed in the second of the Bodleian Libraries Manuscript and Textual Editing Workshops, held in the Centre for Digital Scholarship in the Weston Library on 1 December 2016. Details of the workshop programme, along with an account of the first workshop, can be found here.

Bodleian Student Editions participants working with the letters

Participants transcribing letters at a Michaelmas term workshop

The letters used in this workshop were in a volume of the Carte manuscripts, which mainly comprises the papers of James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond (1610-1688), Lord Lieutenant of Ireland three times between 1643 and 1685. Six letters written by women to Ormond in April and May 1660 were selected, all in MS. Carte 214. Women used italic script in the seventeenth century as most were not taught the ‘secretary hand’ used in legal and administrative documents of the period, and often in private letters also. Italic hands are easier to read for those not formally trained in palaeography, and so more suitable for these workshops, which offer a wide-ranging introduction to undergraduates and postgraduates of all disciplines, many of whom had never previously worked with original manuscripts.

Once again, the students were fully engaged with the letters and by the end of the day had produced excellent transcriptions. The punctuation and spelling of the originals proved to be challenging—it is often necessary to read the transcript to yourself before you can believe what is in front of you! I found in checking the transcripts that there are so many strange spellings in these letters that inevitably in a short workshop some were accidentally modernised. A good example of unorthodox spelling can be found in a letter from Ormond’s wife, Elizabeth, on 21 May 1660:

I will make the troubell of this leter the briuefer, and only desier, that I may reseve your derections consarninge my comminge over, whoe am the mene time indevoringe to put My Selfe into a redenes to obbay the first sommons that shall Come from you.

As this passage indicates, the letters were written at a significant moment in British history, the Restoration of Charles II. This letter and one from Lady Bristol contained some intriguing references to various women who were not all they appeared to be. One of the pairs of students realised that there was something odd about ‘Mrs Brown’ and suggested this might be a pseudonym for the King. We did not have time in the workshop to confirm this, but the hunch turned out to be correct. Mrs Brown, Mrs Carlton, Mrs Eyres and Frances Parsifall (who, oddly, was the addressee of one of Lady Bristol’s letters) turned out to be none other than King Charles II, Edward Hyde, the Earl of Bristol and Ormond himself respectively. These pseudonyms are listed in the published Calendar of the Clarendon State Papers (another of the Bodleian’s great collections of seventeenth-century state papers). Lady Bristol mentions having written to Mrs Carlton, and sure enough, her letter can be found in the Clarendon papers. Lady Bristol became confused herself with the subterfuge, suddenly changing the gender of her husband ‘Mrs Eyres’ for whom she was seeking a place in the new regime:

let mee beseech your favour and charity in making sure of som place for your absent frind Mrs Eyres with Mrs Browen which can only preserve her … from those misseries that [her deleted] his faithfullnes hath brought on him … for his adhering to Miss Browen, and her father … [i.e. Charles II and Charles I]

Afterwards, we again collected feedback from the participants, who enjoyed the wide variety of activities—there were several requests for more workshops on each of the three strands—and the collaboration with other students:

I think people from different disciplines bring different frameworks of analyses to the table and ask questions you might not think of.

One student highlighted the workshop’s ‘applicability’ to the diverse sources that the participants are studying as its ‘most important aspect’, facilitated by the nature of Early Modern Letters Online as

a valuable corpus that can be put in the context of other projects in other fields.

The opportunity to integrate initial training with increased availability of our collections is immensely important to us at the Bodleian, a sentiment which the students seem to share: one participant wrote

I love that you come out of the seminar with a citable transcription.

—Mike Webb
Curator of Early Modern Archives and Manuscripts, Bodleian Libraries

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