Catalogue description Records assembled by the State Paper Office, including papers of the Secretaries of State up to 1782

Details of SP
Reference: SP
Title: Records assembled by the State Paper Office, including papers of the Secretaries of State up to 1782

Records of the secretaries of state as organised by the State Paper Office.

State papers are arranged into geographical categories (domestic (ie England and Wales), Scotland, Ireland and foreign) within which there are usually series by reign or place. There are also series of printed gazettes, pamphlets, maps and catalogues.

The papers mainly date from the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547) to 1782.

SP 72, SP 73 and SP 74 are numbers not used.

Date: 1231-c1888
Separated material:

Papers of secretaries of state and other minister were supposed to be delivered on death or resignation to the Keeper of State Papers, but they were frequently retained. A large mass of papers appears to have been kept by the secretaries of Lord Burghley, which are now preserved in the library of Hatfield House and in the Lansdowne collection at the British Library. Other extensive collections of scattered papers were made by Sir Robert Cotton and by Robert Harley in the seventeenth century, which are now also in the British Library. Stray state papers will be found in great numbers in university libraries, private collections and in the Lambeth Palace Library.

The colonial papers formerly in the State Paper Office were amalgamated with the records of the Colonial Office: CO

Some court rolls formerly among the state papers are now in SC 2

Held by: The National Archives, Kew
Legal status: Public Record(s)
Language: English

Secretaries of State, 1782

State Paper Office, 1610-1854

Physical description: 127 series
Administrative / biographical background:

Secretaries of State: Origins, History and Functions

In the Middle Ages the affairs of the state in England as directed by the King's Council were put in execution through the Chancery, the Chancellor exercising all the functions which can pertain to a modern secretary of state. The acts of Chancery had to be authenticated by the great seal, of which the Chancellor was the keeper, and were recorded on the rolls of that department.

In time the business of the state began to be exercised in a less formal manner, and to be diverted into other channels. The King's Secretary (who was at first styled the King's Clerk, then Secretary, afterwards Principal Secretary, and who was probably first called Secretary of State in the time of Elizabeth I) was increasingly employed to execute much of the business formerly pertaining to the Chancellor. In the reign of Henry VIII the king's Principal Secretary had become a person of so great importance that his rank and precedence were determined by statute, and the business and correspondence of his office so much increased as to require in the same reign a Second Principal Secretary.

Both domestic and foreign affairs were the joint responsibility of the principal secretaries. In 1640 the king made a rough geographical division of foreign affairs between them, and out of this division the secretaries' office was separated into the Southern and Northern Departments. From 1709 to 1726 and from 1742 to 1746 there was a Third Secretary with responsibility for Scottish affairs. Although the allocation of countries between the Northern and Southern Departments varied slightly from time to time to take account of particular circumstances, the general rule in the eighteenth century was that the Southern Department embraced France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, Turkey and the Barbary States, as well as Home and Irish affairs; also the Colonies, until 1768 when a Third Secretary was added to take charge of colonial business. The Northern Department was concerned with the remaining overseas countries with which diplomatic relations were maintained.

In 1782 the Colonial Department was abolished and a clear division was made in the business of the two principal secretaries of state, all domestic and colonial business passing to the Southern Department, which became the Home Office, while all foreign business was allocated to the Northern Department, which became the Foreign Office.

State Paper Office: Origins, History and Functions

The State Paper Office evolved informally and gradually from the collections of papers kept by the secretaries of state during the sixteenth century in the royal palace at Whitehall. The increasing complexity of administration during Elizabeth's reign suggested the need for a private library of confidential papers concerning domestic and foreign affairs to which the public did not have access, and in the 1580s such records were placed in the custody of Dr Thomas Wilson.

The office of Keeper of the State Papers first appeared in 1610, when Levinus Monk and Thomas Wilson, nephew of the above, were jointly appointed 'keeper and regesters' (see C 82/1782 ). Wilson, who in 1614 shared the post jointly with Ambrose Randall, did all he could to increase the importance of his office. He resumed a considerable number of papers removed by earlier secretaries of state, and sorted and arranged the collection under domestic and foreign divisions.

By the early eighteenth century the State Paper Office was suffering from a marked lack of organisation. As an attempt to remedy this an official known as the collector and transmitter of the state papers was appointed from 1725 onwards; this post was held in conjunction with the keepership from the 1740s. In 1764 a royal commission appointed a group of methodisers of the state papers who made further attempts to regulate the State Paper Office. These efforts were hindered by the division of the papers between rooms in the palace of Whitehall, the Holbein gate (from 1618 until 1759) and unsuitable houses in the vicinity. This problem was not solved until 1834 with the completion of Soane's purpose-built State Paper Office in Duke Street.

The Public Record Office Act 1838 brought existing and accumulating records of the central courts under the aegis of the Master of the Rolls, and the state papers and other departmental records were subsequently added to his custody. The state papers were transferred by an order in council of 5 March 1852, and in 1854 the Master of the Rolls instructed by warrant the deputy keeper of the public records to take the state papers into his charge. The State Paper Office now became a branch office of the Public Record Office until the records were removed to the Chancery Lane building in 1861. Soane's State Paper Office was then demolished.

Calendars of State Papers

Although attempts were made to calendar the state papers in the later eighteenth century, nothing concrete was achieved until in 1825 a commission was entrusted with printing and publishing the documents in the State Paper Office. Under its auspices selections of the most important letters of the reign of Henry VIII were printed between 1830 and 1852. It was not, however, until the state papers were placed under the charge and superintendence of the Master of the Rolls by the operation of the Public Record Office Act 1838 and the order in council of 5 March 1852 that any regular system of calendars was adopted. Since that date over 200 volumes of calendars of the Domestic, Foreign and Colonial papers, ranging from the early sixteenth to the later eighteenth century, have been published.

Have you found an error with this catalogue description?