Three letters dating back to the seventeenth century have been discovered under the floorboards at the National trust property of Knole House and have now gone on display in the Visitor Centre.

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 archaeology team and at the property.

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 in the attic.

The exciting discovery was made as work took place in the attics as part of Knole’s huge building and conservation project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The five-year project will open more spaces to the public, including the attics where the letters were found in 2018

A window on the past

All three letters were written on rag paper, a high quality parchment 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 an educated 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
Robert Draper

Octobre 1633
Copthall

Records at Knole show that many large items, including trunks of linen and furniture, were moved from Copt Hall to Knole around this time. Trunks filled with papers were stored in the attic after the move, explaining how some may have slipped beneath the floorboards.

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 collection now in the showrooms.

Archaeology volunteers investigate under the floorboards (c) National Trust
Archaeology volunteers investigate under the floorboards (c) National Trust

Archaeological volunteering

What makes the discoveries even more special is that they were made by Jim Parker who has volunteered at Knole for six years, originally as a room steward and now as part of the premises and archaeology teams.

Jim is one of 40 volunteers at Knole trained in a variety of archaeological methods who have been directly involved in excavations in the house.

Working alongside a professional team from the Museum of London Archaeology, they have explored under the floorboards and behind paneling 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.

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.
– Nathalie Cohen, National Trust Archaeologist

 

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]

The three letters following cleaning (c) National Trust
The three letters following cleaning (c) National Trust

After 400 years in their humble resting place the letters were ingrained with dirt and needed careful cleaning. This was carried out by 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. Jan then 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 letters are now on display in Knole’s Visitor Centre, which is open seven a days a week from 10am – 4pm. Entry is free.

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