Using Primary Sources

Pages 458-459 of Cavendish's "The Life of Cardinal Wolsey" as it appears online

If you’ve been following The Anne Boleyn Files for a while, you will know that I’m very much an advocate of using primary sources, i.e. contemporary evidence/records, for research. Of course, I do use secondary sources, the work of reputable historians, but never without checking the sources used by them.

For me, when I’m reading a biography or non-fiction history book, the Notes and Bibliography sections are as important as the content of the book and I find it frustrating when authors/publishers don’t cite the sources properly. Why? Because if an historian/author says something or comes to a conclusion, I want to know why. I want to know what that theory is based on, where they found that fact, who said it, when they said it and who they said it to. I want a full reference, no “LP” (stands for Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII), I want something like “LP x. 908” so I know which volume to look in and which part of it.

Let’s look at an example. On page 351 of his book “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn”, Eric Ives writes of how Henry VIII “declared that his wife had been unfaithful with more than a hundred men, and was morbidly concerned about the plans for the executions, even to the making of the scaffolds” and after that sentence there is a number “42” in superscript. When I turn to the “Notes” section at the back of the book, I find that the reference is “Cal. S. P. Span., 1536-1538, p121 [LP, x. 908]; Wolsey, ed. Singer, p.459.” That means that the information can be found in:-

  • The Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, p121
  • Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10: January-June 1536, document 908
  • The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey and Metrical Visions, George Cavendish, ed. S. W. Singer (1825), p459

I know what the abbreviations stand for because they are explained in the Bibliography.

I can then find out more about Henry VIII declaring that Anne had slept with over one hundred men, and that he was concerned with the scaffold building, by going to the primary sources. Both the Calendar of State Papers for Spain and Letters and Papers are online at British History Online and in LP x. 908 (which is the same document as in the Calendar of State Papers for Spain), I find 908 which is a letter from Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, to his master, Charles V on the 18th May 1536. In that letter I find the sentence “There are still two English gentlemen detained on her account, and it is suspected that there will be many more, because the King has said he believed that more than 100 had to do with her.”

I then go and find George Cavendish’s “The Life of Cardinal Wolsey and Metrical Visions”, the Samuel Singer edition, which is available to read online at – and turn to page 459. There, I find a letter from Sir William Kingston, the Constable of the Tower and Anne’s gaoler, to Thomas Cromwell, dated the 16th may 1536. In it, Kingston writes “I shall desyre your further to know the kyngs plesur towching the quene, as well for her comfyt as for the preparacion of skefolds and hother necessarys consernying”.

I am satisfied. I can see that Chapuys had either heard the King say that Anne had slept with over a hundred men or he had heard it second hand. Eric Ives has not made it up, he is citing Chapuys, a man who was at court at the time. The information about the King being involved with the preparations for the scaffolds, shows us that Sir William Kingston was taking his orders directly from the King, through Cromwell. Both pieces of evidence are primary sources, letters written in May 1536 by people who were there.

Now, I know I may not be the average reader, in that I’m a researcher and author, but I know that many of you value citations, notes and bibliographies too. They come in particularly useful when there are historians or authors with very different views. For example, G W Bernard and Eric Ives differ in their views over Anne Boleyn’s fall, Julia Fox and Alison Weir differ in their views on Jane Boleyn, Eric Ives and John Schofield differ in their views on Thomas Cromwell’s involvement in Anne’s fall etc. etc. For the reader to come to their own informed decision, they need to look at what the historian is basing their views on. I don’t believe that anything should be taken at face value and always advise going that extra mile and digging for yourself.

The wonderful thing about living in the 21st century is that we are living in the information age. I can sit at my desk here in Spain and browse through the 16th century records without going to the British Library or National Archives. I can use the online records, order digital copies of documents to be emailed to me, read texts like Cavendish’s “Life of Cardinal Wolsey” on my computer or Kindle, and satisfy my curiosity without even moving (and in my pyjamas too!)., British History Online and Google Books are fantastic resources for researchers, students and Tudor history lovers, I cannot recommend them highly enough. Obviously there are things that are not available online, but these are few and far between, and online book sellers like Amazon and Abe Books are wonderful for old books and antique books.

So, next time, you read a theory in a history book which piques your interest or even annoys you, see if the author/historian has given a reference and check it out for yourself. If you’re a student doing a paper on a specific history topic then have a look at the sources listed in the bibliographies of a book you have on the subject and get digging. Be warned, it’s addictive. Before you know it, you’ll be immersed in the 16th century and you’ll start considering Chapuys, Cromwell and Lord and Lady Lisle good friends!

I have listed a few of the primary sources that I use on a regular basis on our “Primary Sources for Studying Anne Boleyn” page. It’s not a full list but will give you a good starting point.

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23 thoughts on “Using Primary Sources”
  1. While writing mu research papers for my university classes, I really learned the value of checking the references noted in the sources I was relying on. The primary sources really do give great insight into the actial events, and helped me learn to remove any slant or inference the author of the contemporary book I was using and create my own opinions. I must also thank The Anne Boleyn Files for their list (mentioned in the article). It is wonderful to have a resource to look up these sources. -M-

    1. Thanks, Marina. I do find it interesting when I go to a source and it’s not quite saying what the author/historian says it says, if that makes sense!

      1. I forgo to tell you, Claire, that when I was in college in 1986, I was using Ives, E.W. “Anne Boleyn,” 1986 (and also the 450th anniversary of Anne’s execution. The examples above apprears on edition of the reeference above is on pg. 390 with a footnote at the bottom (the old style of notation [and, LOL!, having to rip pages of the typewriter and typing it all again, so on research papers, it had to be on the bottom as well, this all began to change, like A.D., is being replaced by C.E. “Common Era,” (which began when computer word prosessing softwared came out), and give the same footnote as #16, with the same reference. but not exactly having the same text. So “interpretation” does come in and using primary resources was not that easy as it required interlibray loan, etc. In the later book by Eric Ives, “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, ” is much more expanded, and not in competition with the above anniversary, and also comes to different conclusions even with the different portraits on the cover of each. The cover now even displaying what the real portrait of Anne is believed.

        So, thank you, Claire, as back in those days, I could have used your expertise, and finally learned after exhausting “Historial Abstracts,” year by year, and going through the same process. Then having to pay a few for the copies, and delivery of the interlibrary loan, etc.

        So all in all, “interpretation,” is the key, as the 1986 edition does not make those statments but left people like us learn how to get the primary resource, and then with his new and expanded book explains exactly what the citation he “interprets” – and is correct, but expanded.

        Thank you so much, Claire! WilesWales

    1. …and no tertiary sources without seondary resources, either. – smiley face! I fear that this year with “Encyclopedia Britannica” only being sold online beginning this year, more and more uniformed persons will be resorting to wikipdedia, as smalll academic libraries will have to justify these purchases versus other online resources for sudents. Thank you! WilesWales!

      1. WilesWales,Not to get off this subject and do find this most interesting,have a Q/A you seem to no about movies as you pointed out Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth1 she was also in Mary Queen of Scots with Vennessa Redgrave.I have been reading on Lady Jane,there was a flim of her short life Lady Jane Grey Qune of nine days,do you no the actress ,she is from the Uk as I would like to see this flim ,I heard it was very good but her name excapes me. Also I have never thought you were rude ,just very smart. Kind Regards Baroness Von Reis /Baroness

        1. Thank you, Baroness! The film, “Lady Jane, was made in 1986, and Helena Bonham Carter, of the UK played Lady Jane Grey. Poor thing, as I believe Mary I was going to pardon her until her father hit the block. Mary then said as I remember, “Traitors are not pardoned twice.”‘ Anyhow, the movie is available on, and the reviews (or at least the ones I read, say it’s very accurate. There is also a site on her at that briefly discussed the film’s accuracy, and then has links at he bottom.

          I also found by accident Part I (9:59, I think as Part II is about the same by three seconds) of the 1936 version at:

          I’ve found when they have parts they have the whole thing. Now you’ve got my interest up and running. My very good regards to you as well! Thank you! WilesWales!

  2. Claire, I agree with you 100%. Historians should cite well their sources. I remember reading here that Alison Weir doesn’t do so, and I was really annoyed. When you support, for example, that Anne was guilty, or that Thomas and Henry Boleyn (the children) lived till adulthood you should cite your sources so that everybody could see it for themselves.

    1. Alison Weir does cite her sources but only she doesn’t give the full reference, just “LP” which is not that helpful when it has 21 volumes and each one is made up of hundreds of letters/documents! When I asked her about it, she said that her publisher didn’t allow her to use full references, which is a shame as it makes her books unusable for students or people researching the period.

      1. I really don’t buy that excuse. Any historian worth their salt would insist on the references being published in full in their books. It is absolutely required in academia if for no other reason than to ensure that the author has not plagiarised work from someone else.

        In historical writings, its of paramount importance to ensure that the “facts” (however, biased) are seen. The primary sources become the framework for interpretation.

        This is just as important for me where I am looking at what people wore – particularly when visual sources from the period don’t necessarily give all the relevant details!

        So, good on you for pushing primary sources! 😉

        1. “interpretation” is the key word here! What an excellent article, Claire, on a great beginner sources, and what the citations mean when one tries to find them. As a former professor, this article would be a great tool of students of history (and other appropriate majors), and you might look for other ways to get this out –not that you don’t have enough going on as it is! Thank you! WilesWales – smiley face

      2. I don’t know of any other historian whose publisher does not allow them to use full references. It’s ridiculous, besides which, surely Weir is responsible for her own work. As far as excuses go it’s right up there with ‘the dog ate it’!

        1. I quite agree with WilesWales when he says ‘interpretation’ is the key word.
          It is wonderful that we have all these sources as a point of reference, and that there are more than one opinion recorded about these historical events otherwise we would end up with a very one-sided view.
          I appreciate the hard work that modern historians have in trying to decipher what carries credence, and what could be malicious hearsay and gossip, for example, if we all took Chapuy account of things as the complete truth, especially concerning Anne, we would, perhaps, all have his negative view of her, which, sadly some still do.

          As the primary sources are the record of someones interpretation of events, so the new reseacher is interpreting that recording and then we read, and interpret as we see it, there is no wonder there has been so many stories out there, and no end to different concepts that can be put to an event, I think this is part of what makes history so interesting, seeing how one thing can be explained in many different ways that may have come from the same source, its fascinating and at times, I would imagine a tangled web.

      3. I really have to agree with bess and Louise on this one. There have been rumors flying for at least year that Weir doesn’t back up her sources, and now I finally know why. As successful as Weir is, she is most definitely responsible for her own work. In addition, she is sucessbul enough now to either have her agent, or even her to find a publisher. This is known as the difference between an “excuse,” and a “reason.” That was pounded into our heads as history majors. I haven’t read Weir for the above rumors, but now I find that that was an “excuse,” but now I have my “reason” as well. Thank you! WilesWales

        1. WilesWales,Thank you for finding out who played Jane Grey,I found some good info on her short life simply ,Lady Jane, also what do you think of Eric Ives book?? THX Baroness Von Reis

  3. cant agree more :), the national archive is a treasure. When i was translating part of Ives` book for my school project Ii spent hours there, digging additional information.

  4. This is EXACTLY why I love your website Claire! I know that what I read from you will be accurate and historically documented. It is also why I joined the Order of the Falcon and contributed money to your cause. I encourage everyone here who has benefited from Claire’s vast knowledge to join her website.

    Think of it like public television- such great information and entertainment that we contribute money to so that we know it will continue on.

    Thanks Claire, for the perfect website!!

    1. Bosha, I agree with your comment,this is one of the best sites I have found, with that said Claire is a very smart women and knows here facts. Also it’s nice to chat with fellow AB members as I have learned from others as well,I am going to take your advice and joine the Order of the Falcon. Kind Regards Baroness Von Reis

  5. Excellent article, Claire. I’m so glad to know where to go online for those sources. I agree that all the citations should be in the blbliography. THanks for another great piece.

  6. Claire, as an academic I cannot thank you enough for giving everyone both a shining example and instruction on how to assess the credibility of an argument.!

  7. There are good and bad things about the internet…but I must say the ability to get primary sources online is incredible.

  8. Claire,I totaly agree with what your getting across to the AB site,since I have read some things on Anne and Henry and had to scratch my head as to were this came from. This is a learning site and although we maynot ever no what really happen,for the most part, since I have been on this site have leard a great deal of facts not fiction . I started to study English Kings and Queens when I was, 15 years old and now I am 56 as in the schools in the states, they teach just about nothing inregards to Englands History,why that is I donot no ? Thanks for the Info Baroness Von Reis

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