Stephen Copley Research Report: Charlotte Vallis on Women in Power and Kings’ Letter Books

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With the help of the Stephen Copley Award, I was able to spend several days in London, at the National Archives in Kew. This had a positive impact on my research in multiple different ways, some more obvious than others! My PhD, which I am undertaking part-time, focuses on Russia in the eighteenth century, analysing the reigns of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, 1741-1761 and Empress Catherine II, 1762-1796. I am exploring what it meant for the two to be women in power: how they both incorporated masculinities into their rules; what Catherine owed to Elizabeth’s example and how the two were viewed both within and outside of Russia. Unsurprisingly, it is a real challenge to access relevant sources for this topic at the moment, thus the trip to the National Archives was especially helpful.

Previously, I have spent very little time in archives, so from a practical sense, I really learnt and experienced a lot simply by being able to go. From little things like reading room opening times, to the practicalities of ordering documents, I really felt that I benefited from just the experience of being physically in an archive. I also learnt that whilst my suitcase seems like it fits into one of the storage lockers in the cloakroom, it actually doesn’t. But this was also a nice experience in the end, as the staff were so helpful and not at all cross at having to help me!

Whilst at the archives, I was able to access a range of relevant documentation (and some not as relevant, but still interesting). It was such an exciting experience to be able to tangibly engage with primary materials- whilst my period is from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, some of the document bundles included materials from much earlier and even just charting how the nature handwriting styles and writing materials changed was fascinating. I focused particularly on accessing diplomatic materials such as the reports sent to England from ambassadors in Russia, and the King’s Letter Books, looking at letters exchanged between George II and III and Elizabeth Petrovna and Catherine II. I intend to use this material in a variety of ways. At the moment, I am looking particularly at balls and masquerades held at the two women’s courts. Taking Elizabeth Petrovna as an example, she is typically dismissed as someone who was overly frivolous: she liked to dance and enjoy herself more than the work of state, and more interested in the opportunity to show off a range of sumptuous dresses than anything else. Furthermore, Elizabeth is often criticised for enforcing “metamorphosis balls” on her court: balls where men were expected to dress and women and vice versa. My intent is to show the political purpose behind Elizabeth’s (and Catherine’s) grand balls. I was able to find several accounts that referred to significant political conversations taking place at the balls, which acts as very helpful evidence for my research.

Examining the Kings’ Letter Books was also particularly interesting. One of the reasons that Elizabeth Petrovna is comparatively under-researched is due to the limited amount of written sources she left behind. The Kings’ Letter Books contain transcripts of letters that are noted to have been signed by Elizabeth herself, which is an unusual source to find. It was interesting to examine the structure of the letters and observe that, often, the space expended on writing out the titles of each monarch was significantly longer than the content of the actual letter itself! It also made me smile when a scribe had clearly tired of writing out the same titles over and over again, instead simply writing things like “as in Page 144”. It was really nice to see the little human touches in these official documents.

I was also able to spend some time examining letters from the Russian ambassadors at the British court, although this was not a primary focus of my research. These were much more informally organised, as they were packed in sheaths of paper as opposed to collected books. Examining these documents felt like a real exploratory process: things were not always in date order, and you might jump from the 1740s back to the beginning of the century without warning. I stumbled across some letters dated after the death of Elizabeth Petrovna. At first glance I half thought these letters had been photocopied, as they had black edging, and then realised they were likely black-edged for official mourning purposes. This was fascinating to me as this was something I was aware of but had never seen before. Whilst not directly relevant to what I was researching, it was really exciting to see and is just another great example of the wider benefits of my trip.

I think a key takeaway from my trip is how accessible the National Archives actually is. It was a really intimidating prospect going- I even emailed the archives ahead of time to try and work out how everything worked!- but actually it was all really straightforward. I learnt a great deal from this trip and feel it went very successfully. The benefit it has had to my studies is immense and I am so grateful for the opportunity I was given by the Stephen Copley award. My gratitude is huge, thank you so much!

Charlotte Vallis

Charlotte Vallis is a part-time PhD student at the University of York. She is studying eighteenth-century Russian history, comparing the reigns of Elizabeth Petrovna and Catherine II. This research examines how the two women navigated the challenges of being women in power, analysing the incorporation of masculine characteristics into their portrayals. Charlotte’s research explores gender history, as well as considering the methodologies of the field of queer history in her work.

You can follow Charlotte on Twitter/X here.