Joys of the Harpur Crewe collection

I have recently started work revising the catalogue of the records of the Harpur Crewe family of Calke Abbey. There is a lot of wonderful stuff in this wonderful collection, and I am hoping to give you a flavour of what is held every few weeks or so by selecting a document for you to look at.

The first document I have selected is something of a mystery. It is a draft letter, supposedly from a dying mother to her son. It has been dictated by her to a person who would seem to have been writing it down straight onto a page in a book. She evidently had enough strength to put her initials, JH. The page has, however, been torn out rather badly from the book, as can be seen from the left hand margin. Did the mother change her mind and decide not to send the letter? Was she dissatisfied with it? Was she the one to tear it out so badly? Did the mother actually die before it could be sent? Whatever happened, the sheet of paper was actually re-used, as on the other side are notes about an indenture of 1587 relating to properties in Alstonefield, Staffordshire, and was found loose in a court book of the manor of Alstonefield.

D2375/M/1/3/1 - letter

D2375/M/1/3/1 – letter

Here is a Transcript of the document, with an update in more modern English.

I would like to believe the mother in question is Jane Harpur, who died in 1597 and was the widow of Richard Harpur of Swarkestone, a renowned lawyer and judge. The son to whom she may have been writing may possibly have been John, who was knighted in 1603. There are few very certainties, only that it was written from Swarkestone, where one branch of the Harpur family lived, and that it was delivered by George Hoult. There is a tantalising reference to “that noble mann”, which may be the Earl of Derby (Derby is referred to further down in the letter, “darby was our frend”) or Gilbert, Earl of Shrewsbury (John Harpur was said to be his right hand man). There is also a surprising reference to her niece Bennett and her “bedferlowe on knowen”.

Even if we can’t know at this stage what is really going on, I would like to think it does actually show that people’s lives in the past were always more complicated than we tend to give them credit for.

Neil Bettridge


3 thoughts on “Joys of the Harpur Crewe collection

  1. I recently had the opportunity to work on attempting to transcribe a copy of this letter, one of the challenges we were presented with during the Palaeography course last week. There is much that is puzzling about the letter, but Neil’s interpretation of it here goes a long way towards clarifying the background to it and the circumstances in which it was drafted. Clearly his knowledge of the Harpur Crewe collection is invaluable in understanding this background, in a way that the examination of the letter alone will never allow…

    • You’ve hit the nail on the head, Steve! Individual documents can be difficult, even impossible, to understand without context. It’s the reason that archive catalogues can seem very complex in comparison to library catalogues – they have a hierarchical structure to give context to the individual items. Of course the archivist who catalogued the collection is often the best interpreter of all, as they had to put together all the clues that explain the context in order to create the catalogue. It’s one of the things that makes cataloguing an archive collection so satisfying.

  2. This is a fantastic find. This part of the family have strong connections to Littleover which interests me tremendously.

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