Prince Albert 1848 Royal Collection Trust William Kilburn royal family

William Edward Kilburn, Prince Albert (1819-1861), 1848 Courtesy Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The British royal family is digitizing another chunk of its vast archive.  This time, the focus is Prince Albert.

On April 4, the Royal Collection Trust, the charity and department of the Royal Household responsible for caring for the Royal Collection, announced that it will put online some 23,500 items related to Prince Albert from the Royal Collection, the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 (the so-called Great Exhibition) and the Royal Archives, which contains the private and official papers of monarchs and members of the royal family.

The second page of a letter from Prince Albert regarding the Great Exhibition
Courtesy Royal Archives / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The hard-working consort of Queen Victoria was a natural choice. Born in Germany in 1819, Albert married his first cousin in 1840, becoming not only Victoria’s husband but also her unofficial private secretary and artistic adviser. He threw himself into a variety of projects and activities ranging from showcasing cutting-edge industries and design in the revolutionary Great Exhibition, visited by one third of the British population, to extending modern electoral rights to the working class. In addition, he commissioned some of the earliest photographs, building an extensive collection.

THE ROYAL FAMILY’S NEWEST DIGITIZATION PROJECT

“The Prince Albert Digitization Project will increase understanding of material held in the Royal Archives, Royal Collection and the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851,” explained Oliver Urquhart Irvine, librarian and assistant keeper of the Queen’s Archives, “and enable a comprehensive study of the life, work and legacy of Prince Albert on a scale that does justice to his contribution to 19th-century Britain and the world.”

As the Royal Collection outlines, the Prince Albert Digitization Project will bring together:

  • Official and private papers relating to Prince Albert from the Royal Archives and the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851
  • Material in the Royal Library, including catalogues of Prince Albert’s private library
  • Inventories of paintings commissioned or collected by Albert
  • The Raphael Collection (the Prince’s study collection of more than 5,000 prints and photographs after the works of Raphael)
  • The significant body of early photography collected and commissioned by Prince Albert (more than 10,000 photographs)

The first tranche of materials will be published next year, marking the bicentennial of Albert’s birth, with the entire project finished by 2020. It is supported by Sir Hugh and Lady Stevenson “in honour of the late Dame Anne Griffiths DCVO, former librarian and archivist to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh,” the press release states. Griffiths was Philip’s personal assistant for decades, then, in her retirement, served as the caretaker of Philip’s own voluminous archive.

And like Queen Victoria’s Journals, this project is being done in conjunction with the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford. The Bodleian is not only the largest university library system in Britain, but holds a priceless collection of more than 13 million printed items, including four of the 17 original 13th-century copies of the Magna Carta.

WHY IT’S IMPORTANT

After decades of keeping the secrets of kings and queens, the Royal Archives is finally, slowly, letting the public see its treasures. Prince Albert project comes a year after the Royal Collection, in conjunction with King’s College London,  launched the digitization of the voluminous papers of King George III and his wife, Queen Charlotte, and six years after the Royal Archives put online the 141 volumes of Queen Victoria’s private diaries.

King George III digitization Georgian Papers Transit of Venus 1769 royal family King's College London

Manuscript notebook entitled ‘Observations on the Transit of Venus’, made at the Royal Observatory, Kew,
Surrey, witnessed by King George III, 3 June 1769 © 2017 King’s College London, courtesy of King’s College London Archives

The new openness comes after years of intense pressure from researchers, weary of their access requests being turned down. The Royal Archives, created by King George V in 1914, are off limits to all but invited professionals. Its contents aren’t governed by the usual governmental freedom of information requests. As biographer Julia Baird wrote in the New York Times in 2016:

An unspecified number of boxes and files are off limits for no stated reason, and there is no public catalog. And the process by which the keepers decide who may enter is mysterious and opaque. Researchers are left with the uncomfortable feeling that there may be material withheld, and that their quest for historical accuracy and completeness could be thwarted.

There are restrictions on what can be used even after researchers get access. Again, Julia Baird explained:

After a senior archivist read my final manuscript to check any references to material in the Windsor collection—a precondition of entry—I was asked to remove information for which I had uncovered evidence outside the archives…After months of consultation with lawyers and rewriting to avoid any breach of “crown copyright,” which lasts 125 years for unpublished documents, I decided not to take out the material.

Now, slowly, cautiously, the royal family is allowing its secrets to be revealed. While it’s starting with some of the oldest parts of its archive, the royal family also knows that it’s a process with a momentum that will prove hard to slow or stop.