Celebrating archives: A year of anniversaries

on Wednesday, 04 March 2020. Posted in Archives, History Centre, Wiltshire People, Wiltshire Places

History is fun, but it’s even more fun with archives which provide us with that tangible connection to fascinating stories of amazing people and places who have shaped our history.

And this year we have so many reasons, if reasons were needed, to go searching through the Wiltshire & Swindon Archive to see just how connected the county is to some of the major national commemorations that are taking place in 2020.

Already garnering national attention are the 800th birthday celebrations for Salisbury cathedral and the city of Salisbury. And Salisbury can also lay claim to ties with another 800th anniversary – that of the unveiling of the shrine to St Thomas Becket at Canterbury cathedral. This year is also the 850th anniversary of Becket’s murder.

Salisbury Cathedral on the Naish map of the city ref G23-1-164PC

In a busy year Wiltshire will also be marking the bicentenary of Florence Nightingale’s birth. Most people will know of her as ‘the lady with the lamp’ – a phrase and image made famous in her lifetime following her pioneering work during the Crimean War – but how many know of her connections to Wilton House and the Pembroke family?

Florence was born in Florence, Italy, on 12th May 1820 and named after the city of her birth. (Her older sister Frances Parthenope was named after her birthplace of Parthenope in Naples.) The family moved back to England in 1821 and Florence grew up at Embley Park in Hampshire, just 15 miles from Salisbury. She wanted to be a nurse from an early age and had hoped to take up the career at Salisbury Infirmary – then in Fisherton Street – but her family opposed the idea, believing nursing to be an inappropriate activity for a young woman of her social standing.

She spent much of her twenties travelling and it was in Rome, in November 1847, that she met Sidney Herbert, the younger son of the Earl of Pembroke, and so began a lifelong friendship that was to prove so important to her work.

In 1853 Florence began her nursing career as the superintendent of a women’s hospital in London but it was the outbreak of war in the Crimea in 1854, and reports of horrendous conditions endured by sick and injured soldiers, that propelled Florence into spotlight.

With the support of Sidney Herbert, the minister for war, Florence Nightingale led a group of nurses to the Crimea and so began her campaign to improve conditions at Scutari hospital. Her work, alongside the work of a government Sanitary Commission, transformed the survival rates for the soldiers treated at Scutari.

Accounts of her work in her own words and the words of others are held here at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre and form part of the Pembroke archive (WSA 2057). There are two series of correspondence and documents – 2057/F4 and 2057/F8 – which include letters sent by Florence to Sidney Herbert and others.

In a letter written from Scutari in January 1856 (WSA 2057/F4/64), Florence attempts to explain to “dear Mr Bracebridge” how she will use the money given to the newly established Nightingale Fund.
“The people of England say to me by their subscriptions ‘We trust you, we wish you to do us a service’. No love or confidence can be shown to a human being greater than this – and as such I accept it gratefully…”
She goes on to say: “And if I have a plan in me, which is not battered out by the constant ‘wear and tear’ of mind and body I am now undergoing, it would be simply this – to take the poorest and least organised hospital & putting myself in there, see what I could do…”.
She concludes that she is “overwhelmed at present not with plans but work.” And adds that she wishes she could say “how much I feel the love & confidence of the people of England, in whose service I have lived, so I shall die.”

Florence’s work, and that of her nurses, had made headline news in Britain and the public began giving money for a gift honouring her efforts, but so much money was given that the Nightingale Fund was created, with her friend and support Sidney Herbert its honorary secretary.

Florence’s uncertainty about the details of what to do with the fund did not last long and in July 1860 the first school of nursing was opened at St Thomas’s Hospital in London. As well as transforming and professionalising the training of nurses, Florence also influenced the design of new hospitals, introducing the eponymous Nightingale Wards.

Following on from her work during the Crimean war, Florence campaigned for improved sanitary conditions at home and went on to work on improving conditions for the British army in India. Florence was an effective social reformer and campaigner, making the most of her friendship with Sidney Herbert and not afraid to use the media of the day. But she was also careful to support her work with evidence, especially statistics, and became the first woman elected to the Royal Statistical Society.

The Florence Nightingale letters in the Pembroke archive, and letters written by others about Florence’s work, are a fascinating insight into one of Britain’s most iconic Victorian figures and it is fitting that we mark the bicentenary of her birth on 12th May this year.

Throughout 2020, Salisbury – the City of New Sarum – will be celebrating its move from the iron-age hill fort we now call Old Sarum. The foundation stones of a magnificent new cathedral were laid amid much fanfare on 28th April 1220. It took just 38 years to build Salisbury Cathedral in the new English gothic style and as it rose from the water meadows so did a vibrant, new town.

While Bishop Richard Poore instigated the move of the cathedral, the driving force behind the construction was Elias de Dereham who was described at the time by chronicler Matthew Paris as the “incomparable artifex”. The term artifex or artifices is generally used to describe a practitioner of the arts or a skilled craftsman and is possibly why Elias is sometimes referred to as the architect of Salisbury Cathedral. But artifex can also mean mastermind, or even schemer, and Elias was most definitely the directing mind at Salisbury. He was an amazingly effective administrator, was a diplomat and had probably studied law; he was certainly in great demand by bishops and archbishops. He was steward to several including the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton.

Elias de Dereham’s association with Salisbury gives us a huge number of connections with great historical moments, including the sealing of Magna Carta. Elias was at Runnymede and was responsible for the copying and distribution of the great charter agreed between King John and the barons. He also worked for Henry III at Clarendon Palace, just outside Salisbury. But in this anniversary year it is Elias’ connection with Canterbury that is important for he was called upon to oversee the construction of the country’s most important shrine – the shrine to St Thomas Becket.

Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in December 1170. His martyrdom plus subsequent reports of miracles resulted in the cult of Becket and Canterbury becoming one of the most important places of pilgrimage not just in Britain but western Europe. Fifty years on from his murder Becket’s remains were removed from his tomb in the crypt to a lavishly decorated new shrine; a shrine designed and built under the guidance of Elias de Dereham.

Pilgrimage was hugely important during medieval times and Salisbury was on the pilgrimage route. The cathedral held the shrine to St Osmund who had been bishop at Old Sarum and St Thomas’s Church in Salisbury was dedicated to St Thomas Becket.

The archives here at the History Centre span a little over 800 years so our collections contain many fascinating documents relating to medieval Wiltshire, including Salisbury. Bishop Richard of Salisbury features in a document from 1220/1222 recording a dispute within the diocese that had gone all the way to Pope Honorius III (WSA 9/15/7). Early 13th century music from the Sarum Rite or Use of Sarum – the form of church service developed in Salisbury and used throughout the medieval Catholic Church in England – was rediscovered by a researcher looking through 16th century documents. He realised that the covers to the documents were fragments from much earlier musical manuscripts. (WSA 9/15/338. Also see Sarum Chronicle, Issue 18, pp7-22.)

There are large numbers of medieval documents within collections relating to the Savernake estate and the Seymour family (WSA 9, 1300 and 1332) and a fine monument to Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford (1539-1621) can be seen in Salisbury Cathedral.

Salisbury Cathedral ref P13502 Box CL32
Salisbury Cathedral ref P30696 Box CL14

The cathedral itself has been a source of inspiration for artists from the moment it was built, and the Local Studies collections at the History Centre contain a wonderful selection of images – engravings, drawings, photographs – of the cathedral through the ages.

Why not join in this year of anniversaries and celebrations with a visit to the History Centre and search through the archives; your archives.


Ruth Butler, Heritage Edcation Officer


Accredited Archive Service