The Importance of Context

Thanks to the Internet, more primary sources are available to us historical novelists than ever before. As the availability of such sources grows, however, so does another danger: that the sources will be interpreted out of context. Karen Clark over at A Neville Feast has blogged about an excellent example of this: a letter by the Earl of Warwick in which his use of the phrase “destruction of some of my kinsmen” in official correspondence in reference to the deaths of his father and his brother and other relations has been treated by a novelist as proof of his heartlessness. I myself have ranted a number of times about Henry VI’s supposed “Holy Ghost” remark, reported as hearsay by an ambassador who himself doubted the story’s veracity, being quoted without the qualifier the ambassador attached to it as proof positive that Edward of Lancaster was illegitimate.

One sees popular historians as well as historical novelists making this mistake with original source material. One recent example I came across in my research for my work in progress was this one by Alison Weir, who in her book The Children of Henry VIII refers to John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, as “arguably the most evil statesman to govern England during the sixteenth century.” As partial proof as Northumberland’s villainy, Weir cites a letter from the duke and writes:

He regarded the death of his seven-year-old daughter Temperance as more of an inconvenience than a tragedy, explaining to William Cecil with terrifying heartlessness that it would prevent him from attending council meetings for a few days in case he was infectious. In his letter, he cold-bloodedly described the child’s body–“between the shoulders it was very black”. There was no evidence of any grief.

Read in context, however, the letter doesn’t really bear out this assessment. Here is the actual letter, taken from Patrick Fraser Tytler’s 1839 book, England Under the Reigns of Edward VI and Mary . . . Illustrated in a Series of Original Letters, Volume 2:


Orig. St. P. Off. Domestic. June 2, 1552. “After my most hearty commendations. — Whereas I perceive by your letter of this instant, that, except the death of my daughter might seem dangerous and infectious, the King’s Majesty’s pleasure is that neither I should absent myself nor stay my son; whereupon I have thought good to signify unto you what moveth me to suspect infection in the disease whereof my daughter died. First, the night before she died, she was as merry as any child could be, and sickened about three in the morning, and was in a sweat, and within a while after she had a desire to the stool; and the indiscreet woman that attended upon her let her rise, and after that, she fell to swooning, and then, with such things as they ministered to her, brought her again to remembrance, and so she seemed for a time to be meetly well revived, and so continued till it was noon, and still in a great sweating; and about twelve of the clock she began to alter again, and so in continual pangs and fits till six of the clock, at what time she left this life. And this morning she was looked upon, and between the shoulders it was very black, and also upon the one side of her cheek; which thing, with the suddenty, and also [that] she could brook nothing that was ministered to her from the beginning, moveth me to think that either it must be the sweat or worse, for she had the measles a month or five weeks before, and very well recovered, but a certain hoarseness and a cough remained with her still. This [is] as much as I am able to express, and even thus it was: wherefore I think it not my duty to presume to make my repair to his Majesty’s presence till further be seen what may ensue of it; neither my son, nor none that is in my house, except his Majesty, shall command the contrary, or that your Lordships’ wisdom shall think it without peril, being no more nor no less than before is declared; requiring your Lordships’ farther answer hereupon, and accordingly I will [endeavour] myself.

Thus I commit your good Lordships to the tuition of the Almighty.

From Oteforde in Kent, this 2d of June.

First, as other historians have recognized, based on other correspondence of Northumberland’s at this time, the letter refers not to the death of Northumberland’s daughter, but to the death of his daughter-in-law, Anne, married to his son Ambrose Dudley. (“Daughter” at the time was commonly used in situations where we would say “daughter-in-law.”) Anne, a widow when she married Ambrose, was not a little girl, but was old enough to have borne her previous husband a son, who survived her.

Second, like Warwick in the previous century, Northumberland was not writing to report his personal troubles; as he clearly states, he was writing in response to concerns that his daughter-in-law had died of an infectious disease, which would make Northumberland’s presence at court undesirable. Whatever Northumberland’s own feelings about his daughter-in-law’s death were, this business letter was not the place to express them. (One could, however, read the phrase “This [is] as much as I am able to express” to mean that he did not want to dwell further on the painful details of his daughter-in-law’s death, though it could also be read to state that he knew no more details.)

Third, when Northumberland wrote this letter in 1552, he had fathered thirteen children, only seven of whom were still living at that date. Of those children who had predeceased him, the eldest son, Henry, had died in 1544 during the siege of Boulogne; the others had died during childhood. Northumberland, like so many other parents of the age, would have been all too accustomed to the early death of his offspring and their spouses. Facing the death of yet another young person, he might have thought it futile to rage against fate or express grief. The fact that he did not bewail the loss of his daughter-in-law in this letter, at any rate, does not mean he felt no sorrow. As Tytler wrote in 1839, showing more appreciation of human psychology than Weir would over 150 years later, “It is strange, that not a word of sorrow escapes the lips of [Northumberland]; and yet it would be hard to blame him, for the deepest is often the stillest grief.”

Weir’s using this single letter as evidence of Northumberland’s lack of parental feeling is especially troublesome because, as Eric Ives notes in his recent book on Lady Jane Grey, evidence from Northumberland’s other correspondence suggests that Northumberland was an affectionate father. Probably in 1552, he wrote to his eldest son, John, “Well enough you must understand that I know you cannot live under great charges. And therefore you should not hide from me your debts whatsoever they be, for I would be loathe but you should keep your credit still with all men. And therefore send word in any wise of the whole sum of your debts, for I and your mother will forthwith see them paid.” In a letter to Cecil on January 3, 1553, when he was ill and probably depressed, he wrote, “What should I wish any longer this life, that seeth such frailty in it? Surely, but for a few children which God hath sent me, which also helpeth to pluck me on my knees, I have no great cause to desire to tarry much longer here.” Moreover, at the lowest point of his life, when he stood condemned to die, he was anxious to save his children from his impending fate: he particularly requested “that her majestie wilbe gratyous to my chillder, which may hereafter do hir grace gode service, concydering that they went by my commaundement who am their father, and not of their owne free willes.”

Letters from historical figures are a godsend to both historians and historical novelists alike. But if one is going to distort their meaning or read them out of context, one is really better off not using them at all.


Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, Edward VI: 1547-1553, Revised Edition (1992).

Eric Ives, Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery.

David Loades, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland: 1504-1553.

John Gough Nichols, ed., The Chronicle of Queen Jane and of Two Years of Queen Mary. Available on Google Books.

Patrick Fraser Tytler, England Under the Reigns of Edward VI and Mary . . . Illustrated in a Series of Original Letters. Available on Google Books.

7 thoughts on “The Importance of Context”

  1. Very interesting post and you are so right – context can mean everything. With the wealth of information now available it's probable that a writer could find one sentence somewhere to document/justify whatever perception of a person they are wanting to present.

    I recently finished the Ives book and was really intrigued by his view on Northumberland – certainly not the master manipulator/evil dude that he is usually portrayed as being.

  2. This is often what I worry about when I read much popular fiction, that the authors will cite things without the background knowledge required to properly judge them. I do read both popular and scholarly history and try to judge them equally. If these works aren't read by another historian who may have that context, I often doubt them even though they are using original sources.

    Meghan @ Medieval Bookworm

  3. Another great post, Susan! Especially that link right at the start – thank you for that! 😀

    I'm very much enjoying being (re-)introduced to a time in history that I got so heartily sick of more years ago now than I care to count. Though I will probably never become a Tudorphile, getting to know about people I've either never heard of or know very little about has piqued a quite jaded palate. Thank you for that as well!

  4. In some respects it's not the information that matters it's the mind of the person who reads it.

    As for the Internet I was using that as a research tool as soon as it became avilable and in a variety of languages as well so it's been no problem researching non-English sources,research that has revealed some interesting and at times disturbing information such as the Hanseatic take on that raid on a Hanseatic fleet and the Wydevilles' Italian relations.

    But not so disturbing as some of the information picked up from English sources such as the Calendar Rolls and State Domestic Papers. So what did I pick from the CPR that Ives, Okerlund and Carson apparently failed to do?

    I'll give you a clue, the missing patent of Anthony Wydeville, 27th February 1483, not the first patent to go missing according to earlier entries containing depositions made by Andrew Dymmock his business agent.

    I'm beginning to wonder how many false conclusions have been drawn not from getting things out of context but not doing one's research. Certain name Walpole spring to mind?

  5. My best wishes for your re-start! I saw your “Dudley family” button and had to have a look! I also looked up Weir’s book on amazon, and really, it’s exactly the same argument with this letter as in Hester Chapman’s 1962 biography of Lady Jane Grey, alongside some other uncanny resemblances between these two lady authors; Weir also fell into the trap of using Chapman’s very free “adaption” of a story by the French — John Dudley is supposed to have predicted: “within these three years we shall see an end to [Somerset’s] greatness”: this is from the memoirs of a real ambassador, which were heavily forged throughout in the 17th century, as recognized centuries ago by some clever abbés. Well, I was finished with the above mentioned author after one book many years ago, and my amazon experience has only reinforced me in this. So sad, that so many people believe the heaps of nonsense in her books. I am only afraid that has nothing to do with the internet — most people simply want conspiracies and the villain of the piece. They confuse it with (non-fiction) history, when it’s really Shakespeare or soap operas they need.

  6. Exactly right. Whatever his faults as a statesman John Dudley was a *devoted* husband and father whose family loved him deeply and whose surviving children taught their children to honor his memory.

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