Tag Archives: English Civil War

Thurloe and the Secret Room

As today’s episode of The Peoples Post highlighted censorship and the interception of mails remains a sensitive subject. As recent public outrage against phone hacking has shown, people expect their communications to be private and letters from one private individual to another were once seen as being as sacred as the voicemail messages of a celebrity or crime victim. However, at certain times in the past the government has covertly or overtly intercepted mail as part of its efforts to maintain national security. Through the records held here at the BPMA a special insight into this can be gained.

Very little material survives from the period of the Civil War but the oldest item in the Royal Mail Archive suggests a focus on centralisation and ensuring the correct monopoly for the postal service rather than on interception and spying on the contents of the mail.

Letter from Thomas Witherings to the Mayor of Hull relating to the establishment of the public postal service, by the setting up of new or improved posts on the five principal roads of the kingdom, those to Dover, Edinburgh, Holyhead, Plymouth and Bristol. (POST 23/1)

Letter from Thomas Witherings to the Mayor of Hull relating to the establishment of the public postal service, by the setting up of new or improved posts on the five principal roads of the kingdom, those to Dover, Edinburgh, Holyhead, Plymouth and Bristol. (POST 23/1)

However, as the Civil War progressed and in particular under the regime of Oliver Cromwell it became more widespread – particularly under the leadership of the first Postmaster General, John Thurloe, depicted in a print held in the BPMA museum collection.

The Right Honourable John Thurloe Esqr. Secretary of State to the Protectors Oliver and Richard Cromwell (2010-0398)

The Right Honourable John Thurloe Esqr. Secretary of State to the Protectors Oliver and Richard Cromwell (2010-0398)

Thurloe’s state papers, some of which can be viewed online, include letters from private individuals to others (so, not to Thurloe!) which he has clearly intercepted and kept because of the detail they contain.

Thurloe became a great survivor and his operation was so valued by his opponents that after the Restoration he was rescued from capital charges of treason on condition he worked for the new royalist regime of Charles II, which he did. His character anchors the Thomas Chaloner series of murder mysteries by Susanna Gregory, which bring to life the world in which Thurloe’s operations supported the British state. A real-life depiction is given in a biographical work held in BPMA’s search room library: the Dutchman Mr Dorislaus, employed by Thurloe,

had a private roome allotted him adjoyning to the forreigne Office, and every post night about 11 a clock he went into that roome privately, and had all the letter[s] brought and layd before him, to open any as he should see good, and close them up again, and there he remained in that room, usually till about 3 or 4 in the morning, which was the usuall time of shutting up the male, and in the processe of time the said Dorislaus had got such a knowledge of all hands and seals, that scarcely could a letter be brought him but he knew the hand that wrote it; and when there was any extraordinary occasion, as when any rising was neare or the like, then S. Morland [a secretary of Thurloe’s] went from Whitehall between 11 and 12, and was privately conveighed into that roome, and there assisted Mr Dorislaus, and such letters as they found dangerous he brought back with him to Whitehall in the morning.

– Adrian Steel, Director

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage The Secret Room. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

House of Stuart

In March Royal Mail released the House of Stewart stamps, celebrating the Scottish monarchs who reigned from 1406 to 1625. Today a follow-up set is released, the House of Stuart. 

When Elizabeth I of England, the last of the Tudor monarchs, died childless in 1603, the Stewarts inherited the English throne. Later that year came The Union of the Crowns between England and Scotland, with King James VI of Scotland becoming James I of England. This signalled the start of the House of Stuart’s turbulent reign which would last until the death of Queen Anne in 1714.

The six Stuart monarchs: James I, Charles I, Charles II, James II, William III, Mary II and Anne

The six Stuart monarchs: James I, Charles I, Charles II, James II, William III, Mary II and Anne

Accompanying this stamp issue is a miniature sheet, The Age of the Stuarts, featuring the physician William Harvey, poet John Milton, architect and dramatist John Vanbrugh and the Battle of Naseby.

The Age of the Stuarts miniature sheet

The Age of the Stuarts miniature sheet

William Harvey was the first person to accurately describe the circulation of the blood. His description was published in the book De Motu Cordis (On the Motion of the Heart and Blood) in 1628. Harvey was also Physician to James I, and later to Charles I. He continued in this post until around the time of the Battle of Naseby, one of the most decisive battles of the English Civil Wars, which saw the Royalists all but destroyed by the Parliamentarians.

The English Civil Wars were previously commemorated on stamps in 1992

The English Civil Wars were previously commemorated on stamps in 1992

One of the beneficiaries of the Royalists eventual defeat was John Milton, a poet and polemicist. He believed passionately in the Parliamentarian cause and played several roles within the Commonwealth government, including composing foreign correspondence in Latin and producing propaganda. Following the Restoration of the monarchy he wrote his most famous work, Paradise Lost, an epic poem reflecting on the failure of the revolution. Milton’s work has not previously been represented on a British stamp.

Also making his debut on British stamps is architect and dramatist John Vanburgh, represented by one of his most famous buildings, Castle Howard. Built for the 3rd Earl of Carlisle, it is perhaps best known for its use in the TV series and film Brideshead Revisited.

Stamps showing Blenheim Palace, British Gardens (1983) and World Heritage Sites (2005)

Stamps showing Blenheim Palace, British Gardens (1983) and World Heritage Sites (2005)

Another of Vanburgh’s buildings, Blenheim Palace, has appeared on stamps twice before as part of the British Gardens (1983) and World Heritage Sites (2005) issues. Blenheim, among other things, is the birthplace and ancestral home of Winston Churchill, a man who is no stranger to British stamps. The Palace was built in the early 18th Century for John Churchill, a soldier and statesman who served the last four of the Stuart monarchs, and the first of the Hanover monarchs, George I.

Accompanying this stamp issue are two First Day of Issue postmarks. One bears a quote from John Milton’s Areopagitica, a speech given to parliament against censorship. The other features the House of Stuart coat of arms.

House of Stuart first day of issue postmarks

House of Stuart first day of issue postmarks

The House of Stuart stamps are available from Royal Mail.