Doing research at the Royal Archives

I recently paid my first visit to the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle. Doing research there is a wonderful experience, so I thought it would be useful to blog about it here.

I work on eighteenth-century British history and the Royal Archives is a key repository for this period, since it houses the records of George III’s court, as well as every royal family that followed. During the nineteenth century, the growing royal papers were not housed very systematically, but following the death of Queen Victoria the decision was made to archive them in the Round Tower at Windsor Castle, where they remain to this day.

I was lucky enough to be awarded a fellowship by the Georgian Papers Programme, for my project on ‘Shoes and buckles at the Georgian court’. This fellowship helped me to get to the archive, since Windsor is a 3 hour trip from Northampton so required an overnight stay, and my project will require several visits.

Working at the Royal Archives requires more prior planning than most archives. Space for researchers is limited so you are advised to book well in advance, and security at the site is tight so researchers have to apply for clearance in advance. The castle is a functioning royal seat and a major tourist attraction: the archive is part of this bigger operation and has to work within these considerations.

I had never been to Windsor before and it is striking how the castle dominates the town – it is right in front of you as you leave the railway station. On arrival, I walked past the long queue of tourists and made my way to the Pass Office. I located the small door and made my way up a narrow flight of stairs to collect my visitor’s pass. (If like me, you enjoy the Hogwarts-like experience of gaining access to archives in magnificent old buildings, you are in for a treat.)

File:Round Tower, Windsor Castle, England - Nov 2006.jpg

The Round Tower, Windsor Castle (source: Wikimedia Commons)

At the gate I showed my pass for inspection and made my way through the castle grounds to the Side Door, where I was buzzed into the door at the foot of the Round Tower. At the top of another long flight of steps I was greeted by Oliver Walton, the curator and co-ordinator of the Georgian Papers Programme, who introduced me to the archive and its workings.

As with any archive, on your first visit you have to learn the archive’s rules and how to order material. There is currently no searchable catalogue for most of the papers, but there are finding aids and a card catalogue. I immediately got lucky with the card catalogue, which gave me the reference to some petitions lodged by bucklemakers in Birmingham and Wolverhampton, who were imploring the royal family to continue wearing buckles after they went out of fashion in the 1790s.

It is advisable to order material in advance of the visit, so I had requested the correspondence of Prince Frederick, Duke of York. This was fascinating material, and it was exciting to leaf through a box of letters from the likes of George III, the Duchess of Devonshire and the Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Finding references to a specific item like shoe buckles was more challenging, but I was able to cross reference from names in the card catalogue and from references in a published edition of some of the correspondence.

Photography of the sources isn’t permitted (indeed cameras and phones are not allowed in that part of the castle) so researchers take notes by hand or on a laptop. It is possible to request scans of items, however, and digital images are gradually being made available as the papers are digitised.

Which brings me back to the Georgian Papers Programme. This is a huge project which aims to digitise the Georgian court papers and make them freely available online. It also involves a range of research projects, including a growing community of Fellows who are interpreting the material and helping the digitisation project. It may be clear from this blog that the Royal Archives is not the most accessible of archives, so making the material available online will open this rich material up to many more scholars – and, crucially, will make it more easily searchable.

On the other hand, I am a big fan of consulting originals rather than digital copies, and visiting the Royal Archives is a unique an enjoyable experience. So even when all the papers are online, I would heartily recommend paying a visit.

Matthew McCormack