Why am I doing this again?

I cannot claim to be an organized person who follows through agendas to their logical conclusions. Instead, more often than not, I find myself running down tangential paths, chasing unicorns or lemurs or hunches of inklings of ticklings of possibilities. Pots of gold at the end of rainbows, that kind of thing.

Recently, as part of the process of tracking extant and lost correspondence through the use of lists of correspondence – ie. comparing lists of letters to extant letters to see what survives, and using such lists to gain more information about both surviving and lost letters (such as names of carriers, routes of conveyance, dates of sending and receipt, etc) – I went through my notes made at the Bodleian library of Bodleian MS Rawlinson D 1035, ff. 6-23. This document is a list of letters sent by Sir Robert Cecil between 12 February 1606 and July 1607. I was interested in the letters sent to Sir Charles Cornwallis, the English ambassador in Spain, so I compared what is listed in the Rawlinson manuscript to other sources I had studied. And this is what I found:

Bodleian Bodleian BL TNA TNA Hatfield House Winwood
Rawl. D 1035 Tanner 75 Cotton Vesp. C SP 9/150 SP 9/213 CP
ff. 6-23 ff. 249-316
ref. ref. ref. ref. ref. ref. ref.
12r ix 469b p. 592 ? II 176
14v ix 479b p. 602 ? 227/267, 276, 278 II 179, pp. 249-253
17r p. 197 ? 206/29; 118/74 II 187, pp. 271-273
19v ix 672 p. 209 ? p. 805 ? II 194
20v 249r x 35-41 p. 215 ? II 198, p. 290/300*
23r 279v (x 146b, 150b) p. 238 ? II 222, 223, p. 325*
23r 279v x 146b, 150b p. 249 ? II 222, 223, p. 325*

Having done this, I came to think: So What? Why had I spent time in compiling this table? Did it tell me something I couldn’t deduce otherwise?

I was forced to concede that no, it did not, and that if I had a motive for making this table other than making sense of (parts of) Rawlinson D 1035 ff. 6-23, I had forgotten what it was. This was particularly the case as there was only one letter in the Rawlinson list which was directly relevant to my thesis – the letter listed on fol. 20v, of 5 February 1607, sent via Bayonne, which was where my man Richard Cocks was, and who would have forwarded the letter to Madrid. So in a sense, this was wasted effort – at least for my present purposes.

Then I started thinking about my findings in light of the question of why do letter-books survive. The sources for my table are as follows:

Bodleian MS Rawlinson D 1035 ff. 6-23: List of letters sent by Cecil, Feb 1606 – Jul 1607 (in a diary/notebook of Thomas Wilson, secretary of Cecil)
Bodleian MS Tanner 75 ff. 249-316: Copies of the correspondence of Sir Charles Cornwallis during his embassage in Spain (contemporary copies)
BL MS Cotton Vespasian C ix and x: The “Official Copy Book” of the in and out letters of Sir Charles Cornwallis, English ambassador in Spain, 1605-7 and 1607-8
TNA SP 9/150: Letter book of Sir Robert Cecil, 1605-1611 (contemporary copies)
TNA SP 9/213: An Entry Book of correspondence received and sent by Sir Charles Cornwallis, Ambassador in Spain, 1605-7 (contemporary copies)
Hatfield House, Cecil Papers: Papers of Sir Robert Cecil, Earl Salisbury, preserved at Hatfield House (originals, drafts and contemporary copies)
‘Winwood’s Memorials’: Memorials of affairs of state in the reigns of Q. Elizabeth and K. James I … from the … papers of … Sir Ralph Winwood, ed. Edmund Sawyer, 1725 (printed book, mostly from Cotton mss)

The BL Cotton manuscripts are official records kept by the secretariat of Sir Charles Cornwallis, and SP 9/213 seems to be another copy. SP 9/150 is a similar volume by Sir Robert Cecil’s secretariat. The originals – together with drafts and file copies – are preserved in the Cecil Papers at Hatfield House (and also for much of the broader correspondence, although not for these letters, in TNA SP 94 and, I think, some among the Cotton mss). Rawlinson D 1035 is a diary/notebook kept by one of Cecil’s secretaries (for personal reference?); Tanner 75 are contemporary copies – for purposes unknown. And finally, Winwood’s Memorials is a printed book based on, for the most part, the letter-books in the Cotton mss.

What is interesting here are the differences between these several sources.

It is interesting to find how Winwood’s Memorials seems to be the most comprehensive source for letter texts. Rawlinson D 1035 may be a comprehensive list – but then it is rather short considering Cecil’s voluminous correspondence; perhaps it is a record of those letters its writer was involved in the composition or delivery of? Why is one of these letters missing from the “Official Copy Book” in the Cotton mss? Did it, too, suffer from the same reasons letters were omitted from copy letter-books, as evident in SP 9/150 and SP 9/213 – namely i) culling letters of ‘less import’ (whatever that means – probably varying greatly between writers and compilers of letter-books), and ii) omission through accident (letters lost in the office, letters lost en route (drafts/home copies would survive), letters not copied due to various reasons such as neglect). (I’m sure there are many other reasons too.) The copies in Tanner 75 were presumably made to order, and thus reflect the interest of the copyist or his client. And the survival of originals is always a matter of chance: these letters do not survive even as copies in TNA SP 94, where most of Cornwallis’s correspondence remains extant, but several can be found in the Cecil Papers – which really are largely state papers and part of the same historical collection as TNA SP.

It would be very interesting to see this kind of comparison and tracing done for an entire collection of historical correspondence. Creating such a list would be laborious and tedious in the extreme, and I am not sure if in the end it would reveal enough about Early Modern letter-writing and culture to justify the work required. It would definitely enable us to learn more about motivations behind the creation of letter-books, and the circulation of letters and copies in the period, among other things. But these insights might better be gained without engaging in a mad scheme of scholarly minutiae – while I (too) am of an antiquarian mindset, I’m not sure I’d like for my life’s work to end up being described as a display of “towering but somehow unvital erudition” (as John Larner called Paul Pelliot’s massive two-volume Notes on Marco Polo (1959-1963)).

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