Nearly 350 years ago William Prynne, a lawyer from Lincoln’s Inn, found himself in a dank and dirty corner of the Tower of London.
It was a place where soldiers and civil servants refused to work ‘for fear of fouling their fingers, spoyling their cloathes, endangering their eyesight and healths by the cankerous dust and evil scent.’
Prynne was King Charles II’s new keeper of the National Archives.
And he was no stranger to the Tower. He had been jailed for life, had his cheeks branded with the letters SL – for seditious libel – and his ears chopped off, for a pamphlet attacking actresses and, by implication, Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I.
A report of the trial of William Prynne Esq, in the Star Chamber, for writing and publishing 'A Scourge for Stage-Players,' can be found in the Archives. Subsequent keepers have been less harshly treated.
Prynne wrote: ‘In raking up this dung heap I found many rare antient precious pearls and golden records &c.’
It is a sentiment echoed every day in the modern National Archives building at Kew, where researchers request 600,000 document files a year and millions of documents are viewed online.
These are just some of the gems from my researches, many of them published for the first time, but none of them worth losing an ear for.
© These pages and their content are copyright of Peter Day 2012.
The future King George VI was given the equivalent of a £20,000 a year tax break so that he could go hunting and play polo.
His courtiers argued that he only did it as part of his official duties. When the Inland Revenue disagreed they were overruled by the attorney general. A deal was done behind the scenes to avoid telling parliament and has been kept secret until Treasury papers from the 1920s were released in April.
Margaret Thatcher was warned 30 years ago that Middle East defence contracts worth billions of pounds could only be won in competition with corrupt practices by foreign arms dealers. Files released at the National Archives show how hard she pushed ministers to do whatever was needed to beat off rival bids.
Her most enthusiastic supporter, defence secretary John Nott, told her: ‘Competition from the Americans and the French is of course very strong and some of the methods of the French in particular are not easily matched. So often, it is gifts of country estates and pretty girls that win contracts around the world – not determination, quality or price.’
Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong tried to keep Soviet leader Yuri Andropov’s name out of a British spy trial to avoid embarrassing him.
He was over-ruled by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, according to newly released documents at the National Archives.
Canadian professor Hugh Hambleton was being tried on two charges of selling Nato secrets to the Russians during a 30 year career as a KGB agent.
Susan Barton was definitely not the bored housewife portrayed in the Madonna film. She was a mystery woman of MI5, sometime femme fatale, deception planner and agent handler.
She flits in and out of the files in the National Archives and various books about the Security Service in the Second World War yet we never really find out anything about her.
Nearly half a million official documents are being kept secret by the government in breach of their own regulations.
By far the biggest culprit is the Foreign Office which accounts for more than half the total. That includes their Special Collections, many of which are of enormous interest to journalists and historians. Nearly five metres of shelves are taken up with files on the Soviet spies, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean alone.