For many historians, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the profession is trawling through the archives finding hitherto undiscovered gems or re-examining well known documents in a new light. This is what our discipline is built on and for those of us lucky enough to teach the subject to a group of enthusiastic students the opportunity to allow them to see and handle the original documents themselves is always one to be taken.
On 20 March 2018 two Winchester historians – Dr James Ross and Dr Gordon McKelvie – took a group of their final year Depth Study students who have spent the academic year studying the Wars of the Roses or the Hundred Years War on a trip to the National Archives. The visit introduced students to a range of archival sources relating to kingship, propaganda and money in their respective topics. The Depth Study is a year of intensive study on a particular historical topic relating to the lecture’s research expertise, which is a vital component of a B.A history degree.
Like all of our field trips at Winchester, the trip was designed not merely as a nice ‘add-on’ but as a way of enhancing the learning experience of our students by employing additional methods beyond the traditional lecture. But you don’t need to just take our word for this. Three of the students who went on this field trip kindly agreed to provide a short testimony of their own experiences of the trip.
“As a student currently studying History and the Medieval World, at the University of Winchester, the opportunity to visit the National archives was incredible. Not only was the whole experience fun and engaging, the chance to come into direct contact with original medieval documents, brought out from the archives, was a privilege. During the day we were given a gentle introduction into the methods and cataloguing behind the archivist’s process, before we were presented with an array of 13 individual primary sources to explore. These included, Indentures, Muster Rolls, Court documents and even an original seal which had been partly restored. The sheer volume and variety of the sources was enlightening, and each item was addressed by a member of staff who gave detailed narratives, explaining the context and merit of each of the documents. We were invited at the end of the session to examine all the pieces on display and were able to appreciate the true importance of the documents up close. The session was a very useful and rewarding experience which helped give insight into the role of the national archives, shed light on the real primary sources used by historians, and has given me something else to include in my exam answers! I would like to thank all the members of staff who were involved in the trip and its undertaking, as well as the staff at the National Archives who helped to give us a wonderful experience!”
“It was a trip tinged with nostalgia. Piling onto a coach early on a Tuesday morning was delightfully reminiscent of school trips during primary and secondary school. With watery almost-spring sunshine filtering in through the tinted windows, the coach careened up the motorway towards the National Archives. Many of us in the Wars of the Roses depth study had never been to the National Archives, myself included. I was imagining endless corridors stacked high with shelves bursting with old scrolls tied in the middle with string. The last thing I expected was to see council documents and Parliament rolls laid out on tables, there for us to peer at with a mix of awe and confusion as if they’d been there all along. It seems almost clichéd to say so but in the documents, the last year came alive. It all made sense. Seeing the pages where Richard, Duke of York had signed his name alongside the scrawl that we were assured was the Earl of Warwick’s signature was astonishing. It’s easy to imagine we’re learning a great fairy-tale when studying medieval history. It all seems just a little bit fantastical until you see the ink, the seals, and the documents: the real mechanisations of the state. It was a reminder that these people were real human beings, not caricatures, and that the Wars of the Roses were more than just a moment in time we review as historians but something that was lived and suffered through. I am incredibly grateful to Dr James Ross, Dr Gordon McKelvie, and to Dr Sean Cunningham at the Archives for organising what was truly an incredibly special trip. It’s one I will never forget.”
“We recently visited The National Archives as part of our Hundred Years’ War module. A member of staff, Dr Sean Cunningham, gave us a brief talk about the types of documents available in the archives and how we can find, access and study them. This was both extremely useful and informative, but naturally the highlight of our trip was when we were then given access to a select group of documents.
These ranged from indentures of military service, which detail the composition and wages of late medieval armies, to drawn-out records of law cases, of which few were ever solved. It was fantastic to be able to handle these documents (the parchment upon which most of them are written is far more durable than expected) and to see the signatures of important individuals who we have studied for several years. The thought of Duke Richard of York sitting down to sign the document you are holding is, at least for the medieval historian, a source of immense excitement.
The trip gave the group insight as to how scholars have studied these sources in the past and transferred that raw information into the secondary material which we study today. It also highlighted the difficulties of doing so, including the linguistic hurdles and issues of material survival. The trip was both very informative and entertaining and I highly recommend this experience to any students of history.”
The department would like to thank Alex, Amy and Austin for contributing to our blog.
The department would also like to thank Dr Sean Cunningham of The National Archives for helping to facilitate this trip and sharing his expertise with our students.