Secrets in the Archives – Breaching the personal privacy of the long dead

By Alex Wakelam @A_Wakelam

The natural course of a life leaves an unintentional trail of breadcrumbs. Generally we never think twice of what we leave in the historical record whether it be major life moments (birth, marriage, change of address) or the little things like the discarded bus ticket or receipt for coffee that gets miraculously preserved. These fingerprints on the tapestry of history are the bread and butter of historians and while they aren’t meant for the view of others we don’t really mind their publicity. But we also leave behind more private records; diaries, love letters, disastrous teenage poetry – things that we’d rather no one else see either due to their embarrassing nature or simply because they are entirely private, they should belong only to us.

These private documents remain some of the most important tools for historians. They provide a more personal insight into the world of the past, recording details that are otherwise lost such as the day-to-day timetable of diaries like Samuel Pepys. But more than this they show us how people really felt and what those feelings meant to them. Studies of historical emotions would be essentially impossible without being able to chart how romantic love altered over time in our society. Rarely though is the dilemma of breaching the privacy of the long dead considered. Privacy is often seen as something for the living – the archival records we protect from open view are only those that refer to the living, those that might indirectly affect other living people, or those documents of a delicate nature to governments. The posthumously published diaries and personal papers of the long dead are regularly trawled through by historians from undergraduates to faculty chairs to the casual reader. To an extent, the privacy of those individuals has already been thoroughly destroyed when they were widely published and while as historians we might do better to consider the privacy of those people at all, the protection of it is impossible at this stage. Pepys’s embarrassing secrets have been laid bare for some time.

On a recent relatively routine visit to the archives I came across the personal papers of Spencer Perceval, one of Britain’s most unfairly forgettable Prime Ministers. Amongst his many letters are a collection regarding Queen Charlotte’s debts between himself and various members of the government, principally King George III, the Lord Chancellor, T.J. Mathias the Queen’s Treasurer, and the Queen herself. Most are rather formal; the occasional moments of levity between old friends Perceval and Mathias aren’t particularly telling or personal. However, after the early correspondence many letters open with the word “Private” boldly scrawled across the page. While these are discussions between members of the government this desire for privacy speaks to something more – for one the practice is not repeated in other letters to Perceval on matters such as the debts of the Princess of Wales. In one of the earliest letters (before they start being marked “Private”) the Queen wrote on 3 July 1808 to Perceval (then Chancellor of the Exchequer but the de facto head of the government behind the ailing puppet Prime Minister, the Duke of Portland) to express that in regard to her debts ‘I feel so safe in yr Hands’. She also though expressed her dissatisfaction with the relatively public settling of her daughters’ similar issues: ‘[it] Should certainly never have been mentioned had I not been ignorant of the manner in which that matter was settled’. If Perceval hadn’t got the message, a letter arriving nine days later from Mathias read: ‘The Queen wishes that all that has passed may remain unknown to any one else (i.e. but to yourself and the D. of P.) and that any thing She is to be made acquainted with, may come through Mr Mathias as before.’


The Queen was clearly deeply embarrassed about the debts she had accrued, cautious even of Perceval raising the matter with her husband the King, with many letters listing the many reasons why they weren’t her fault (principally due to inflation). Mathias, Perceval, and the Queen’s letters all refer to the debts as such with variations on Mathias’s 16 July letter, which called them ‘those accounts which are so embarrassing’.

While these secrets are far less awkward than those revealed, say, of Pepys’s pornographic purchases, or Rousseau’s personal fetishes for exposing himself to women in the hopes of being spanked, they mattered to Queen Charlotte and her privacy has generally been protected. Her debts were paid out of the King’s personal income so that no public discussion of it would come to light; these documents have remained unpublished and I have only been able to find two occasions where this collection of letters has even been referenced before (both in biographies of Perceval), neither discussing the Queen’s debts. Breaching the privacy of the past is a necessary sin of history and attempting to treat history with kid gloves diminishes the entire exercise. But it remains worthwhile to at least be cautious about trotting out the more upsetting moments of the lives of our ancestors, only using them to prove valid points and certainly not for cheap laughs when opening a concluding paragraph.

Image: Josh Hallet via Flickr under this Creative Commons license

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