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In an edited excerpt from her last book, Professor of Renaissance Studies Lisa Jardine tells the story of a letter that would not be found.

Illustrations Roderick Mills

This is the story of a paper chase – a seemingly fruitless search in the archives, which eventually yielded a 17th-century letter I had been trying to find for several years. It is a cautionary tale about the trust we historians place in documents and records, and how badly we want each precious piece of evidence to add to the historical picture. And it is a story that illustrates in a number of ways the essential uncertainty that underlies, and ultimately gives purpose to, archival research in the humanities – in spite of the reassuring materiality of the hundreds-of-years-old piece of paper we hold in our hand.

In 2009, at the end of a period working on 17th-century Holland for my book Going Dutch, I was delighted to take up a Fellowship at the Royal Library in The Hague, working on their large holding of the correspondence of the Dutch polymath Sir Constantijn Huygens.

While researching his early career, I came across a sequence of almost illegible letters in French, exchanged in the 1620s between Huygens and someone he addressed – with some familiarity – as “Mademoiselle Croft” (or occasionally just “Croft”).

The letters piqued my curiosity – not least because the assiduous editor of Huygens’ correspondence, J. A. Worp, had chosen not to transcribe them in full in his ‘complete’ edition. As for Margaret Croft, nobody of that name had figured anywhere in any of the Huygens materials I had read until then.

Digital resources yield a richer haul of relevant documents than ever recovered by writing formal letters of inquiry to the custodians of local archives. Yet I could find nothing about Croft beyond the fact that she had been a maid of honour to Elizabeth of Bohemia, wife of Frederick, Elector Palatine and King of Bohemia.

The first of Constantijn Huygens surviving notes to Croft is dated (in Huygens’ hand, in the margin of the draft) 5 August 1627, outside Grolle. Its tone is flirtatious and conspiratorial – perhaps surprisingly, considering that Constantijn had been married for little more than four months at the time. Huygens suggests that he has been encouraged to write because the Count of Hanau – by insinuation, Margaret’s lover or protector – has taken him into his confidence.

The tone of these letters is teasing and familiar. It suggests that the court circles of the King and Queen of Bohemia in which Croft moved, were worlds away from the decorous, middle-class salons of Huygens and his literary friends, such as P. C. Hooft, whose exchanges of letters with educated artistic Dutch women have been closely studied by historians like myself.

This, then, was the context in which I encountered and became intrigued by Madge Croft. To be honest, she remained a puzzle to me, and I continued to worry that the scribbled notes I had transcribed did not contain enough of substance to allow me to understand the circumstances under which they were written, nor to do justice to the relationship between Margaret and Constantijn.

Having so far drawn a blank, it was natural that I should consult the acknowledged expert on Elizabeth of Bohemia, Dr Nadine Akkerman, who pointed me in the direction of an obscure 1909 biography of the Queen of Bohemia in which Margaret Croft’s name does occur a number of times: Mary Anne Everett Green’s Elizabeth Electress Palatine and Queen of Bohemia (an expanded reissue of a brief biographical essay Green had first published in 1855).

Croft appears several times in Green’s book, which has what to us feels like a slightly saccharine, sentimental tone to its conscientious excavation of the lives of prominent ladies from the historical archives. Croft attracts Green’s attention both because of her amorous adventures at court and because she was deemed to be the author of a significant letter, written in French in summer 1625 and intercepted on its way to her cousin in England.

The letter is an eyewitness account, chronicling events on a celebratory tour of North Holland, taken by the leading ladies of the courts at The Hague – Elizabeth of Bohemia and Amalia von Solms, the new wife of the Dutch Stadtholder Frederik Hendrik Prince of Orange – and their entourages. As far as I am aware, this is the only eyewitness account of a “triumphal tour” by the Dutch Stadtholder and his wife, together with Elizabeth and Frederick of Bohemia. Green’s selective quotations from this letter are tantalisingly vivid.

It has to be said, however, that in her biography of the Queen of Bohemia, Green sounds a little reluctant about having to rely on this particular document: As the record of [Elizabeth of Bohemia and Amalia von Solms’] excursion, though minute, was written by a young lady of the Court [Margaret Croft], whose only thought was amusement, we must be content with such details as are afforded in her sprightly narrative, from which all serious subjects are banished.

It is a pity (reading between the lines, we can hear Green saying) that this eyewitness account of an important otherwise-unrecorded journey is written in such a frivolous fashion, thereby detracting from the fundamental seriousness of the occasion.

So I set off to decide about the contents of Croft’s letter for myself. In late 2010, with Green’s State Papers Holland reference number in The National Archives (TNA) in Kew, my colleague at the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, Dr Robyn Adams, and I went in search of the letter. We spent a long, frustrating and fruitless day there, in spite of the fact that we were ably assisted by TNA’s ever-helpful staff, and failed to find any trace of the letter we were looking for. Yet all of us were convinced that it must be there somewhere. All of us were confident that Green must have seen the document, and equally sure that a document once in the TNA would never have been destroyed – it will simply have been misplaced.

I began to suspect it had been misplaced deliberately. Green had clearly been disconcerted by the contents of the letter, and its “sprightly” tone – unseemly perhaps, coming from a lady of Elizabeth’s court. Perhaps she had cannily lodged it out of place in the archive, where it was safe, but where the curious could only find it again with difficulty.

Then, in August 2012, Nadine Akkerman emailed me to say she had come across a published transcription of the Croft letter, quite by chance. It was included as an appendix to Martin Royalton-Kisch’s 1988 facsimile edition of Adriaen van der Venne’s 1620s watercolour picture album. Royalton-Kisch made nothing at all of the letter, but gave the correct State Papers reference – one whole volume away from the one on which Robyn Adams and I had based our search. Instead of being in State Papers Holland, Margaret Croft’s letter was in State Papers German.

Within days, Nadine had retrieved scans of the letter and emailed them to me – oh! the joys of the State Papers online – and I had translated it. You can imagine our excitement. Were we finally going to be able to unravel the mystery of the strikingly active, manipulative role Margaret Croft appeared to play in the lives of several influential men at the courts of England and the Netherlands? Would the letter explain the innuendo in Constantijn Huygens’ notes to Margaret Croft?

The letter Nadine Akkerman and I triumphantly ‘found’ frankly failed to live up to its promise – or rather, our expectations. The letter, which is full of intrigue, gossip and sexual innuendo, reveals that the court circles of the Queen of Bohemia and the Dutch Stadtholder really were as full of intrigue and saucy behaviour as that correspondence I came across between Sir Constantijn Huygens and Margaret Croft had suggested.

But unfortunately it does not seem to add much to our understanding of these powerful circles, led by formidable, ambitious, 17th-century women. Indeed, its indecorousness seems to undercut the story scholars have recently begun to tell of how significant as major players on the political stage figures like Elizabeth of Bohemia actually were.

I cannot, of course, really end by throwing my hands up in the air and, after all that effort and anticipation, simply discard Margaret Croft’s intercepted letter. When I began writing this essay I intended it in part as a cautionary tale to remind us that not everything we scholars undertake in good faith will turn out to yield fruit. Yet in fact another figure has presided in ghostly form over my search – Mary Anne Everett Green, whose tireless efforts cataloguing 41 volumes of State Papers Domestic in the second half of the 19th century made all historians’ subsequent research in this period possible.

Green was one of a band of Victorian women historians who worked assiduously in the archives, retrieving the buried traces of women’s writing from under the mountains of correspondence exchanged through official and unofficial channels by prominent men.

Her reputation for accuracy was legendary. When I had suggested that Green might have deliberately misplaced the Croft letter among the State Papers, I was encouraged in this surmise by Dr Katy Mair, the early modern records specialist at the TNA (and a Centre for Editing Lives and Letters graduate). She had told me that in all her time checking Green’s calendars against the original State Papers she had never found her to have made a mistake in her cataloguing.

During her long professional life, Green moved within a circle of distinguished Victorian men and women of letters. One of those to whom Green became particularly close was the influential novelist, writer and reviewer Geraldine Jewsbury – a name to conjure with in her day, but now mostly remembered only for her passionate friendship, extending over a period of more than 20 years, with Thomas Carlyle’s wife Jane Welsh Carlyle.

In 1880, during her final illness (she had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer some time earlier), Geraldine turned to State Papers archivist Mary Anne Everett Green for help in putting in order the voluminous body of papers and correspondence she had accumulated during her long and active literary life.

Prominent among the items she had treasured over the years was a bundle of intimate letters sent to her by Jane Carlyle. Jane and Geraldine’s long-running relationship had been an intense one. Early in their correspondence Geraldine had written to Jane Carlyle: “Oh, my dear, if you and I are drowned, or die, what would become of us if any ‘superior person’ were to go and write our ‘life and errors’? What a precious mess a ‘truthful person’ would go and make of us, and how very different to what we really are or were!”

Shortly before her death, on Mary Anne Everett Green’s advice, she destroyed the entire bundle of scandalously personal letters from Jane Carlyle. It was, for Green the archival scholar, a matter of propriety, which transcended any responsibilities towards important documents she might feel she had as an archival historian.

The very same women who presided over the painstaking retrieval of the voices of women in the archives for the historical record stood equally vigilant and ready to defend their reputations from the disapproval of posterity. There was decorum to be observed, in the interests of which even the most scrupulous of archivists might be persuaded to tamper with the evidence.

Scholars like myself are bound to acknowledge that Green is the puppet mistress who pulls the strings on our excursions into the State Papers. It is her calendars that inevitably guide our searches, and her omissions and elisions, not to mention the compelling running narrative with which she animates the records, which determine where we venture and where we pass by.

Professsor Lisa Jardine (1944–2015) was a luminary of the Faculty of Arts & Humanities and Director of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters. Her book, Temptation in the Archives: Essays in Golden Age Dutch Culture, is the first Open Access output from UCL Press, the UK’s first fully Open Access University Press.

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  • InboxInbox
  • A UCL beginner’s guide to…A UCL beginner’s guide to…
  • Free RadicalFree Radical
  • Alumni Network launchAlumni Network launch
  • Jeremy Bentham SpeaksJeremy Bentham Speaks
  • The Strong RoomThe Strong Room
  • Extra CurricularExtra Curricular
  • CloisteredCloistered
  • Life, the Universe and EverythingLife, the Universe and Everything
  • This Radical LifeThis Radical Life
  • Paper ChasePaper Chase
  • Beautiful BacteriaBeautiful Bacteria
  • CitiesCities
  • Hello London!Hello London!
  • Lessons for lifeLessons for life
  • In Bentham’s footstepsIn Bentham’s footsteps
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  • London  vs  WorldLondon vs World
Portico Issue 2. 2015/16