24 of the Most Important Documents in British History 100 AD-1900

History Hit Podcast with Peter Snow

8 mins

17 Sep 2018

This article is an edited transcript of Treasures of British History with Peter Snow on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 28 September 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

Dan Snow and his father, Peter, sifted through more than 2,000 years of British history in search of key surviving documents to include in their book Treasures of British History. 

Here are 24 documents that they believe are among the most important produced either in Britain or by those who considered themselves British between the years 100 AD and 1900.

1. Vindolanda tablets

These tablets were excavated from the site of the Vindolanda fort at Hadrian’s Wall and contain the earliest handwriting ever discovered in Britain. Consisting of very thin wooden tablets about the size of a postcard, they include a letter from a Roman woman to her friend that says: “Oh, do come around. Please come to my birthday party.” 

It’s very modern and natural and understandable. And of course, one forgets that this is the wonderful – or awful – thing about history:  that people lived normal lives even 2,000, 4,000 or 6,000 years ago. And yet we have such little evidence for it.

The Vindolanda tablets are the earliest example of handwriting every discovered in Britain. Credit: Michel Wal / Commons

The Vindolanda tablets are dated around 100 AD, the time when Carrieolus was the legionary commander of the forts where, 20 years later, Hadrian built his famous wall. It’s in those forts that the writing of the Vindolanda tablets took place. Vindolanda itself was one of the forts built by the early Roman emperors.

Today, nearly 2,000 years later, the little fragments that make up the Vindolanda tablets are sitting in the British Museum. 

2. Treaty of Alfred the Great and Guthrum the Dane

In the year 878 AD, Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, was famously almost swept from his throne when the Vikings nearly conquered the whole of Anglo Saxon England. But then, Alfred fought back and won the battle and it was all very exciting. What followed was a treaty between the two of them that sort of divided up England into a Danish area of influence and an Anglo-Saxon area of influence. 

Unfortunately, the original version of the treaty doesn’t survive but a subsequent version from the 13th century does. It’s a beautiful document.

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3. Magna Carta

This charter was agreed to by King John of England in order to end a rebellion by his barons.

It is amazing that as far back as 800 years ago the barons talked in this document about it being important that a man should stand before his equals and be tried properly in a court. It is extraordinary how old civilization is in this country.

The writing in Magna Carta is very difficult to read – you can’t really read it. But the writing in such documents is so superbly artistically drawn. It’s simply beautiful to look at.

4. Letters of John Cabot

John Cabot, who is sort of forgotten, was the first great English explorer – who, of course, wasn’t actually English. He was in fact Italian and named Giovanni Caboto. Only two or three years after Christopher Columbus, he went to North America and Henry VII wrote up his letters patent. He was an extraordinary, extraordinary man. Again, you can’t really read his letters, but they are beautiful documents. 

5. Indictment of Anne Boleyn

This represents that extraordinarily terrifying moment when Henry VIII decided that his second wife would have her head chopped off. And, as we all know, her head was cut off with a sword rather than an axe.

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6. Letters of Francis Drake

Both the letters of Drake and Cabot represent Britain’s maritime tradition and the explosion of maritime endeavour that happened on the island after the 15th and 16th centuries.

Drake’s writing is a lot more scrawny than some of the marvellous medieval documents that came before him which were obviously written by a special scribe. Drake’s writing is a bit more like an ordinary person’s today – rather scratchy, rather scrawny.

7. Guy Fawkes’ confession

This confession, written on just a little scrap of paper, was only obtained after Fawkes was tortured following his and his co-conspirators’ attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

8. First Folio

Published in 1623, this was the first collected edition of William Shakespeare’s plays. British literary history is as great and as big and huge as British military and political history. 

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9. Map of the Duke of Marlborough’s victory at the Battle of Blenheim

Measuring about three feet by two feet, this huge map contains absolutely beautiful detail. You can see all the different military units that fought and how the British moved up and confronted the French. You can also see the landscape: where there were trees, where the land was a bit soft, where it was a bit boggy, the rivers.

10. Specification for Richard Arkwright’s version of the spinning jenny

With this design, Arkwright sort of invented mass production and factory-produced goods, and revolutionised the world in a way that we’re still only coming to terms with now. Every subsequent spasm of the Industrial Revolution has owed a huge amount to what Arkwright began in around 1777.

11. Captain James Cook’s chart of Botany Bay

Captain Cook made the most beautiful maps, charting as he went along. He first became famous while working in Canada in around 1759, during the fall of Louisbourg in Quebec. He mapped the Saint Lawrence River which had really never been done before.

And then, even more famously, he went to the Southern Hemisphere, to New Zealand and Australia where he went to Botany Bay, which then became Sydney.

12. Declaration of American independence.

Until the final signature went on it in 1776, the Declaration was a British document. And in a way, joking aside, it is a British document. It was written by people who considered themselves, until that moment, to be British.

And it was inspired by British history, not least Magna Carta or various understandings of it, as well as things like the Whig writing of the 18th century and some of the colonial constitutions that were drawn up in the 18th century.

13. Captain William Bligh’s report on the mutiny on the Bounty 

It’s like Captain Bligh has saved all the information in his report up, memorised the names of all the people that betrayed him and mutinied against him and then written it down in his neat handwriting. His report is revenge delivered cold.

14. Battle plan for Trafalgar

This was drawn by a chap who was on the Euryalus, one of the frigates situated right up at the front of the line. And he was watching the two long lines of British ships approaching the middle of the French-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar. His was the first dramatic drawing of the battle.

You can see exactly what Admiral Horatio Nelson was planning and how successful he would go on to be after breaking through the enemy fleet in two places.

Imagine that, a frigate just sitting there and having front row seats. Very close to both Admiral Nelson’s column of ships and to the French. It’s remarkable. 

The Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the starboard mizzen shrouds of the Victory. By the artist J. M. W. Turner.

Twenty-two French and Spanish ships were destroyed out of the 33 that came in. The British had only 27 ships, six less than the combined French-Spanish fleet. And yet they won. They won absolutely dramatically and decisively one of the most important battles in history. 

The French and Spanish fleet was a bit rubbish, however. There are other naval battles that are probably more deserving of fame.

15. Duke of Wellington’s Battle of Waterloo dispatch

In this extraordinarily modest report, Wellington gives a sort of mundane description of the phenomenally important 1815 battle.

But, despite the banality of Wellington’s description, the Battle of Waterloo was one of the most important moments in British and world history. And thanks to his dispatch we have a document that describes it all.

It was written after the battle at about two or three in the morning, with a quill. It must have taken him a long time to write and he must have been utterly exhausted. He hadn’t slept for about three or four nights as it was. And there he was, writing down this extraordinary account of the battle, paying due respect to the commander of the Prussian army alongside which the British army fought.

The document is exactly the same as it was when it left Wellington on the night of 18 June 1815 and winged its way towards London. It’s just amazing.

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16. George Stephenson’s Rocket design

Designed in 1829, the Rocket was an early steam locomotive and became the template for most steam engines produced in the century and a half that followed.

It’s a very detailed drawing of what was a terribly simple engine. It shows a piston going up and down, going pom-pom-pom-pom, driving round a wheel, driving a locomotive. 

The Rocket would carry the first intercity passenger service in history, between Liverpool and Manchester. And that really did change the world more than the internet.

17. Letter from Charles Darwin accepting a voyage on the HMS Beagle

Darwin was just 22 years old when he took part in an around-the-world scientific expedition aboard the Beagle as a naturalist. Upon his return, he published the book The Voyage of the Beagle, which included some suggestions of his early ideas about evolution and which brought him considerable fame. 

He accepted his position on the expedition in a letter to the Beagle’s captain, Robert FitzRoy.

18. Receipt showing the payment of compensation to the Gladstone family upon the legally required freeing of their salves

This document from the 1830s shows a compensation payment to the Gladstone family when the British government abolished slavery itself, rather than the slave trade. At that time, British slave owners were able to go to the government for compensation in what was the largest bailout in British history – public money was given to slave owners in return for freeing their slaves.

This Gladstone family was the same one that gave Britain one of the great liberal prime ministers of our history. Gladstone and his father made a titanic amount of money from payments as they released their slaves.

On the receipt, all the names of the family’s slaves are written down along with their determined value and the money that the British government was prepared to pay for their release.

John Gladstone received £10,278 in total, a staggering amount of money in those days.

19. Penny Black

First issued in May 1840, the Penny Black featured a profile of Queen Victoria.

It was the first adhesive postage stamp ever to be used in a public postal system.

20. Letter from Ada Lovelace to mathematician and computing pioneer Charles Babbage 

Lovelace was a Victorian lady who was remarkably one of the founding intellects of the computer revolution. In a letter to Babbage, she outlined the principle of the computer programme for the first time in writing.

It is now one of the most important letters in history given what has subsequently happened – that we now are in a computer-dominated society. It reveals a stunning moment of brilliance from Ada Lovelace.

21. Floor plan for the Great Exhibition of 1851

This lovely map details the plans of the ground and first  floors of the Great Exhibition held at the Crystal Palace, a purpose-built, temporary structure in south London..

22. Lord Raglan’s order for the Charge of the Light Brigade

The Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava by William Simpson depicts the charge from the Russian perspective.

This is the disgraceful order of Lord Raglan for British light cavalry – led by Lord Cardigan – to charge against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava in 1854. The light cavalry were sent to take on the wrong Russian artillery battery and the charge resulted in heavy British losses. It’s terribly sad.

23. Letter from General Charles George Gordan during the Mahdist revolt in Sudan

General Gordan, a British army officer, was sent to Khartoum in 1884 to evacuate soldiers and civilians. But he defied instructions to leave afterwards, and instead, along with a group of fighters, attempted to defend the city against the forces of Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah. 

In this letter, he says he will stand at the British embassy in Khartoum and defend it against all comers. Of course, tragically, he was cut down. It is a very personal document for Dan and Peter because Peter’s grandfather was involved in the attempt to rescue General Gordon.

24. Letters supposedly written by Jack the Ripper

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Who knows if this amazing series of letters were actually from Jack the Ripper but they absolutely gripped Victorian Britain in 1888. They were addressed to: The Boss, Central News Office, London City.

Who knows, it could have all been a hoax. But it was an important part of the extraordinary Jack the Ripper hysteria that gripped London at that time.