Seventeenth century letters discovered at Knole
Many amazing discoveries were made during the Inspired by Knole project, including three letters dating back to the seventeenth century hidden under the floorboards at Knole.
Two of the remarkable letters, dated May 1603 and October 1633, were discovered in one of Knole’s attics, the South Barracks, by Jim Parker, a volunteer with the premises and archaeology team.
The third, dated February 1622, was found by building contractor Dan Morrison amongst the debris in a ceiling void close to the Upper King’s Room. The exciting discovery was made as building and conservation work took place in the attics.
An eye into the past
All three letters were written on high quality rag paper, which was popular during the seventeenth century. The 1633 letter is an appeal for domestic items to be sent to Copt Hall in Essex from a house in London, giving an intriguing insight into life in a country house 400 years ago. It is beautifully written, suggesting it was compiled by a distinguished servant.
The letter reads:
Mr Bilby, I pray p[ro]vide to be sent too morrow in ye Cart some Greenfish, The Lights from my Lady Cranfeild[es] Cham[ber] 2 dozen of Pewter spoon[es]: one greate fireshovell for ye nursery; and ye o[t]hers which were sent to be exchanged for some of a better fashion, a new frying pan together with a note of ye prises of such Commoditie for ye rest.
Your loving friend
The connection between Knole and Copt Hall came about by the marriage between Frances Cranfield, daughter of the Earl of Middlesex who owned Copt Hall, to Richard Sackville the 5th Earl of Dorset and owner of Knole in 1637.
The collection at Copt Hall was moved to Knole during the early eighteenth century and forms a substantial part of the collection now in the showrooms.
Records at Knole show that many large items, including trunks of linen and furniture, were moved from Copt Hall to Knole at this time. Trunks filled with papers were stored in the attic after the move, explaining how some may have slipped beneath the floorboards.
The letters weren't the only items revealed under floorboards during the Inspired by Knole project - below the attics in the show rooms, sequins from the Spangled Bed were discovered after centuries of having slipped loose from the magnificent textiles above.
" At Knole our typical finds relate to the maintenance of the house such as wiring and nails or things visitors have dropped such as cigarette packets and ticket stubs. These letters are significant as artefacts but also for the insights they give us into the correspondence of the early seventeenth century."
Spotlight on volunteering
What makes the discoveries even more special is that they were made by Jim Parker who volunteered at Knole for six years, originally as a room steward and then as part of the premises and archaeology teams.
Jim is one of 40 volunteers at Knole trained in a variety of archaeological methods were directly involved in excavations in the house during the project.
Working alongside a professional team from the Museum of London Archaeology, they explored under the floorboards and behind panelling in the Ballroom, King’s Room, Cartoon Gallery and in the attics.
On the day the letters were discovered, the team was sifting through the dusty voids in the attic of the South Barracks. Their only finds had been a few old nails and some small animal bones, probably the remnants of a long-forgotten meal.
" I was very excited to see some pieces of paper hidden underneath some rush matting. The first piece was folded and very dusty. We realised it was a letter and there was writing on it which looked like a seventeenth century hand. I was nicknamed ‘Jimdiana Jones’ after that! "
After 400 years in their humble resting place the letters were ingrained with dirt and needed careful cleaning. Step in Jan Cutajar, a UCL intern on placement at Knole as part of his MSc in Conservation. Knole’s own Conservation Studio was still under construction so Jan worked on the letters at UCL’s specialist labs in London.
First the letters were photographed to provide a record of their original state, then Jan set to work cleaning using delicate brushes, rubber powders and archival document cleaners. As the letters were crumpled they were then placed in a hermetically sealed humidifying chamber to relax the paper fibres before they could be smoothed in a paper press.
" The biggest challenge was the significance of the letters. I was conscious the work had to be of the highest quality. When you think that you’re reading someone’s handwriting from 400 years ago, it sends chills down your spine."
The last letter to be found, dating from 1622, created the greatest challenge: the paper was very delicate and tore during cleaning. In a painstaking process Jan repaired and strengthened it using Japanese tissue paper, famed for its fabric-like strength, to fortify the gaps and tears.
Infra red imaging was also used to help decipher the writing and although the transcript is incomplete the letter seems to be a thank you note to a kind benefactor.
The partial transcription reads as follows:
The xviijth of February 1622
[Received] by us the poore prisoners in [ILLEGIBLE] the [ILLEGIBLE]
[from the] right honourable the Earle of Middlesex our worthy [ILLEGIBLE]
[by the hands] of Mr Ayers the some of three Shillings [ILLEGIBLE]
[ILLEGIBLE] for our releefe & succour for which wee give [good]
[ILLEGIBLE] for all our good benefactors.
Richard Roger [ILLEGIBLE]