I used to work at the National Archives, doing data entry (not as exciting as Star Trek Fans think it is) getting wills and probate information onto a database. It was pretty cool getting to hold and read the old documents. I got to touch Jane Austen’s will (she left it all to her sister), as well as one poor unfortunate called Frostan Snow.
There is something quite magical about touching original documents. It condenses time. When you hold something so tangible that was actually in someone’s hands hundreds of years ago makes them feel more real and immediate.
I was incredibly excited to be back at The National Archives being personally shown passport receipts. Back in the 16th century the monarch and secretary of state had to sign them. I got to hold documents that Queen Elizabeth I had signed. Interestingly gloves are no longer used, the idea being more damage is done by accidental tears due to reduced sensitivity than is done through oils of the skin. So I got to touch them. The exact same paper. This is like shaking her hand. It feels so intimate.
However you don’t need to touch the paper to see from the documents what sort of person she was. I mean, we have to give her a bit of a break. She had an incredibly messed up childhood. Her father executed her mother... But just look at her signature. It is HUGE. As big as Hancock’s (he famously signed the Declaration of Independence so enthusiastically everyone else had to scrunch their name beneath, like being last to sign the office birthday card). Elizabeth has so many loops. It must have taken her at least twenty seconds to sign things, (probably longer) and she must have had so much to sign. She was Queen for nearly 45 years. An author will tell you they quickly learn to get their signature down to a quick squiggle, just to avoid repetitive strain injury. Elizabeth must have signed a LOT of paperwork. You can understand her wanting to make it look official and bold on declarations of war or treaties… but here, on a dumb old receipt for permission to travel she writes her name like this! Miranda Richardson’s portrayal of her as a dumbed down Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland seems incredibly accurate when faced with this document. She is Queenie from Blackadder. Her elaborate squirly signature screams, ‘I am the bestest.'
If you want to hear more about what I found out at National Archives, tune in to BBC RADIO 4 at 3.30pm on Tuesday 15th of January and you will hear me handling not only that document but also lots of others (including Hitler’s Passport).
The Episode is all about borders and walls and Simon Calder tells a very cool way of getting into and out of The USSR involving brothers, a lost passport and Bulgarian skiing holiday.
I do hope you’re liking the series so far. You can listen on BBC Sounds and provide feedback by following this link (click the ‘send feedback’ button). If you have a moment, that would be excellent of you. I’m dead proud to be part of it!