The reliability of “Winwood’s Memorials”

The three-volume Memorials of affairs of state in the reigns of Q. Elizabeth and K. James I, collected (chiefly) from the original papers of … Sir Ralph Winwood, edited by Edmund Sawyer, published in 1725 (2nd ed. 1727), is a hugely convenient work for those working on late Elizabethan and early Stuart State Papers, since it prints hundreds of letters from the English diplomatic correspondence with Ambassadors on the continent. However, it is not a reliable source of information, and one should bear this in mind. Not that there is such a thing, of course! But my gripe to you today is a simple one. Observe:

Winwood, vol. 2, p. 357 (1727 ed.):

TNA SP 94/14 f. 214, draft of the same letter:

Now, regular (?) readers will know that I have a Thing About Dates, and here, too, it is a date that is the matter at question. In Winwood, Sawyer has Cecil say his last letter to Cornwallis was of the “6th of September.” In the draft in the State Papers, however, the date for the same letter is given as “27. of Septembre”.

Okay, you say, so Sawyer printed the wrong date. So what? Well, if you are charting a correspondence – consisting primarily of when letters were sent and received, and to some extent of the paths they took and who they were carried by – and particularly if you are trying to establish the transmitting of information, three weeks makes a world of difference, even in the Early Modern period, even for distances such as that between London and Madrid. For instance, when there was a real emergency at either end, news of which would be transmitted immediately, reconstructing the sequence of events today becomes frustrating to the extreme if dates do not match. Particularly since the matter is compounded by the usage of Old Style and New Style dates, which add a ten-day bracket to every date anyway..

In the end, I suppose more important than one antiquarian-minded scholar’s griping at imperfect editions, is the fact that it is cases like this – coming across and resolving conflicting sources – which helps develop one’s understanding of the inherent unreliability of the surviving records of the past.

(By the way, ironically, the letter from Cecil to Cornwallis of 27.9.1607 does not survive as a draft in TNA SP 94/14, but it is printed in Winwood (1727 ed.), vol. 2, p. 340…)

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