Latest posts by Vicky Fielding (see all)
- Happy 75th Birthday Mick Jagger! - July 26, 2018
- The Stuart Papers: from Neglect and Oblivion to the Royal Archives, Windsor Castle - November 17, 2017
- The Original Dixieland Jazz Band – Centenary of the first Jazz record - September 13, 2017
We know that the Stuart Papers were acquired by George IV when he was Prince Regent (1811-1820) following the death of Henry Benedict Stuart, Cardinal York, the final Jacobite heir, and that it was around this time they were moved from Rome back to the UK. They’re now housed in the Royal Archives, Windsor Castle. I decided to search through Gale Primary Sources, focusing particularly on newspapers and periodicals, to see if I could find out more about how the papers of the exiled Jacobite heirs returned to the UK, and how it has been reported in the press at that time, and since. The initial discovery of the Stuart Papers and their subsequent journey from Rome to Windsor Castle makes fascinating reading.
‘A very curious discovery has been made in Rome’
In February 1817 a news story was repeated in several newspapers, starting with The Times, and followed by regional newspapers such as the Hampshire Chronicle, the Lancaster Gazetteer and the Caledonian Mercury that ‘A very curious discovery has been made in Rome, consisting of papers, letters and such belonging to the Stuart Family.’
Other papers in British Library Newspapers, including the Chester Chronicle, share a report written from Rome on 10th January 1817 which offers more detail. We learn that the procurement of the papers ‘by a Scottish gentleman of the name of Watson’ was ‘the chief subject of conversation’ in Rome. This seems to be due to the contentious way in which the papers were exchanged, and in recognition of their profound importance and value.
As well as being reported that ‘the papers are numerous, authentic and valuable; they are supposed to amount to half a million…and the whole weighed seven tons,’ it’s also stated that soon after the purchase by Watson, the collection was seized by order of the government, and that the seller had been arrested and the house where the papers were seized was being guarded by the Papal gens d’armes.
As to the content of the papers, the writer of the piece in the Chester Chronicle professes to have seen within the collection plots of invasions, foreign correspondence, letters from amours of The Pretender, hand written letters from James II & Charles Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) as well as messages from, or to, other principal families in Ireland and Scotland involving Jacobite activism whilst in exile.
Reported in ‘Unstamped Illegal Newspapers’
I found my favourite press coverage, and the most in-depth account of the story, in a collection of ‘Unstamped Illegal Newspapers’ – namely The People’s Friend. Published in the 1830s, this more extensive article reflects on the acquirement of the Stuart Papers, once consigned to neglect and oblivion. The account suggests it is only at the hands of Watson that an interest is reawakened, primarily because such papers should not be in the hands of a ‘mere speculator.’
The article then goes on to recant the 1817 discovery, written apparently by a member of the House of Commons. It provides more information about how Watson traced the existence of the documents to Cardinal York in Italy, and that he learnt that Cardinal York’s effects were in the hands of the executors after his death. It explains that Watson subsequently tried to communicate with the acting executor of the Cardinal, who was out of town. Instead he reached the acting executors agent Abbate Lupi, who led Watson directly to the premises where the papers were located. What happened next is so wonderfully depicted in the article that it would best to read it yourself!
Watson then paid 300 Roman Crowns for the papers, and called for two carts to take the papers away. However, once he got them to his abode, the joy he felt at the discovery was too much to keep to himself. Shaking with excitement he rushed to tell his countrymen, announcing his purchase and inviting them to view the collection. The news spread quickly all over town and, unfortunately for Watson, one of his contemporaries, the Duchess of Devonshire, who recognised the importance of the papers, asked for them to form the basis of a ‘cabinet peek.’ Alongside esteemed peers invited to her viewing was the Cardinal Secretary who was one of the first to view the papers that evening and ‘silently examined, read and folded them up.’ The next morning, a ‘guard of the Pope’s carabiniers’ went to reclaim the papers from Watson – to whom they were irrecoverably lost. Eventually, despite Watson’s plea to the contrary, it was judged by the Cardinal Secretary that the papers should be shipped to the King of England, where Watson could appeal if he so wished.
The author of the piece concludes:
And what happened to Watson? It seems that his aptitude for collecting rare manuscripts and books didn’t end with the Stuart Papers. Two years later, on the 14 January 1819, he appeared in the press again, this time in a small section subtitled ‘Literary Curiosities’ in the Morning Post, as a respected collector returning from Paris to London bringing with him a valuable collection of curiosities. These curiosities included a celebrated fifth-century Hebrew Bible from the library at Constantinople, beautifully written on vellum, a painting of St John in the Wilderness by Raphael, and signatures of the Kings of France.
What next for the Stuart Papers and the Press?
Reference to the Stuart Papers in the press continues to indicate a level of public interest in the romanticism of the Jacobite legend. In the Times Literary Supplement  in 1923, we find a review of the seventh calendar volume of the ‘enthralling’ Stuart papers, focusing on the ‘political’ marriage between James III (The Old Pretender) and Princess Clementina Sobieski. The reviewer wonders at one point whether Clementina, realising she was not to be Queen of England ‘repented of her tortuous bargain and longed to return with vociferating mamma to Poland.’
We learn from this reviewer that the papers also contain letters and insights on the social, diplomatic and cultural; ladies stop to buy frocks in Paris ‘in the midst of critical situations’, unusually themed Operas are performed and journeys are ‘bugbears’. This, writes the reviewer, shows how the documents are ‘intensely human.’
I personally, cannot wait to access the papers in their digital form in March 2018.
 “A very curious discovery has, it is said, been made lately at Rome, of papers belonging to that STUART.” Times, 4 Feb. 1817, p. 3. The Times Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5URzK9
 “The Stuart Papers.” Chester Chronicle, 21 Feb. 1817, p. 4. British Library Newspapers, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5VHNg4
 Newspapers. Specimens of Unstamped Illegal Newspapers. 1831-1836. 1831-1836. MS Radical Politics and the Working Man in England: Part Two: Sets 47-49, 51-53, 55-63, and 65-72 Set 65. British Library. Nineteenth Century Collections Online, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5VFpU8
 “LITERARY CURIOSITIES.” Morning Post, 14 Jan. 1819. British Library Newspapers, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5VGV28
 Sichel,, Walter, and Walter Sichel. “The Pretender’s Marriage.” The Times Literary Supplement, 21 June 1923, p. 417. Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5AjLz2.