1633 letter found in the South Barracks of Knole House

Secret Letters, Including 400-Year-Old Shopping List, Found in Historic Mansion in England

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Three letters dating back to the 1600s have been discovered hidden under floorboards during an historic house restoration. The incredible treasures have unearthed secrets about the Tudor mansion Knole House, and how it was run during the 17th century.

The secret letters were found during restoration works at Knole House, pictured

The secret letters were found during restoration works at Knole House, pictured ( CC by SA 3.0 )

Unexpected Discoveries

The National Trust reports that the precious and unexpected find included two pieces of correspondence, dated May 1603 and October 1633, in an attic at Knole House's South Barracks, and a third, from February 1622, among the debris in a ceiling void by the Upper King’s Room. After 400 years in their quiet resting place the letters were ingrained with dirt and needed careful cleaning. This was carried out by Jan Cutajar, a UCL intern on placement at Knole as part of his MSc in Conservation. Knole’s own Conservation Studio was still under construction so Jan worked on the letters at UCL’s specialist labs in London. The two letters, dated May 1603 and October 1633, were discovered by archaeology volunteer Jim Parker under the floorboards in one of the attics in the South Barracks. The third, from February 1622, was found by building contractor Dan Morrison in the debris in a ceiling void close to the Upper King’s Room, suggesting it may have fallen through over the centuries from the attic above to its final resting place. Parker said as Kent Online reports, "I was very excited to see some pieces of paper hidden underneath some rush matting. The first piece was folded and very dusty. We realized it was a letter and there was writing on it which looked like a seventeenth century hand. I was nicknamed ‘Jimdiana Jones’ after that!"

The South Barracks at Knole House, where the letters were found.

The South Barracks at Knole House, where the letters were found. Credit: National Trust

The Letters Offer Valuable Information about the Mansion’s Management

All three letters are in very good condition as they were written on rag paper, a high quality parchment popular during the 17th century. The 1603 letter still requires further work to be deciphered, while the 1622 letter is still undergoing conservation. Nathalie Cohen, regional archaeologist for the National Trust, told Mirror: “It’s extremely rare to uncover letters dating back to the 17th century, let alone those that give us an insight into the management of the households of the wealthy, and the movement of items from one place to another. Their good condition makes this a particularly exciting discovery." And adds: "At Knole our typical finds relate to the maintenance of the house such as wiring and nails or things visitors have dropped such as cigarette packets and ticket stubs. These letters are significant as artefacts but also for the insights they give us into the correspondence of the early seventeenth century." Scientists are analyzing the two letters currently for further clues about their origin.

The three letters following cleaning.

The three letters following cleaning. Credit: National Trust

One of the Letters Appears to be a Shopping List

The most pleasant surprise was the 1633 letter, which in reality is a shopping list for domestic items to be sent to Copt Hall in Essex from a house in London, offering researchers a compelling insight into how life  was in a country house 400 years ago. It is excellently written, indicating that it was compiled by an eminent servant. The letter reads:

Mr Bilby, I pray p[ro]vide to be sent too morrow in ye Cart some Greenfish, The Lights from my Lady Cranfeild[es] Cham[ber] 2 dozen of Pewter spoon[es]: one greate fireshovell for ye nursery; and ye o[t]hers which were sent to be exchanged for some of a better fashion, a new frying pan together with a note of ye prises of such Commoditie for ye rest.

Your loving friend

Robert Draper

Octobre 1633


Multi-million Dollar Restoration

The undergoing restoration will take five years in total - with two to go - and cost £19.8million, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. So, should we expect more surprising and exciting finds in the near future? Only time can tell.

Top image: 1633 letter found in the South Barracks of Knole House. Credit: National Trust

By Theodoros Karasavvas


Amazing discovery.

So amazing and so insightful.

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