Kings, Queens, Spies: 100 years of Tudor networks revealed for a digital audience

Ruth Ahnert (Professor of Literary History and Digital Humanities at Queen Mary University of London) shares her new interactive visualisation tool, Tudor Networks, which maps the busy network of letters exchanged by government officials during the Tudor era.  

Tudor Networks is an interactive visualisation of more than 120,000 letters from the Tudor State Papers Archive – the government archive from the period between the accession of Henry VIII in 1509 and the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. It is an output of the AHRC-funded project ‘Tudor Networks of Power’ and provides researchers and the public with a new way of accessing, understanding, and deriving insights from an important national collection of Tudor-era letters. It is the result of a collaboration between a knowledge designer and aesthetic researcher (Kim Albrecht), a network scientist (Sebastian Ahnert), and me – a literary historian and digital humanist specialising in the Tudor period. Tudor Networks allows users to explore the entire communications network of the Tudor government, including its spy networks and the communications that it intercepted, right down to the level of each individual letter entry.

It is difficult to access and navigate data of this size. The catalogues that document the State Papers Archive take up several shelves. The digital version of this archive requires users to have both an institutional subscription and to know what to search for. Tudor Networks, by contrast, gives you a way of accessing the entire letters archive freely and from the comfort of your home, and to see what it can tell you. You can be guided visually by emergent patterns and follow them through the network of connections between the correspondents. This is part of a movement that has occurred at the intersection of cultural heritage and knowledge design, towards what is known as ‘generous interfaces’ – a visualisation method that offers users multiple ways of viewing, exploring and querying about data.

Tudor Networks is like Google Maps, but not for the globe but for the almost 100 years of history”

As our collaborator Kim describes it: “Tudor Networks is like Google Maps, but not for the globe but for the almost 100 years of history”. Just as there might be streets on Google Maps no one has mapped before, there will be hidden stories, or unknown connections in the State Papers Archive. “But”, as Kim points out, “this is not why digital mapping services made such a big difference. The significant change is the possibility to zoom in and out, jump from one point to the next, moving from the itineraries of a person, his or her networked connections through time, to read the contents of those letters”. Franco Moretti coined the term ‘distant reading’ to describe the process of observing literary data through computational methods from a macro perspective. Our visualisation tool allows for this distant viewing; for zooming, changing scales, and perspectives. There are over 40,000 separate interactive visualizations within the website.

Figure 1: Tudor Networks homepage

The Tudor Networks home page provides a global view of the whole State Papers Archive (figure 1), presenting all people who exchange letters with two or more people. From here you can navigate to a temporal view of an individual’s correspondence, in which the correspondents of that person are sized according to the volume of their epistolary exchange. This can be seen in figure 2, which shows the correspondence of Sir Francis Vere, an English soldier. Users can navigate to a description of every single letter they sent (the dots in red), and those they received (in blue).

Figure 2: Correspondence of Sir Francis Vere

Alternatively, users can view an individual’s correspondence in the geo-view where you can see the locations from which an individual sent and received letters. We have been able to reconstruct fragments of individuals’ itineraries, based on the locations from which they wrote their letters (see figures 3 and 4). These show the different types of geographic letter profiles left by people in different roles. For example, figure 3 shows the geo view of Sir Francis Walsingham, who was a diplomat, and later Principal Secretary to Elizabeth I (equivalent to the modern secretary of state). We can see his profile looks quite different to that of Sir Thomas Smith, a parliamentarian and diplomat, seen in figure 4. Comparing lots of examples of these geo-views, we can quickly grasp the reason for this difference. Diplomats show a lot of itinerant activity, whereas secretaries tend to be located in a single place, receiving information from across England and overseas territories in which they had diplomats or agents. Moreover, one can compare the different geographic reach of different Principal Secretaries: Walsingham’s correspondence shows good coverage in the Netherlands, and a reach as far as the Azores and Aleppo. By comparison the earlier Secretary, Thomas Cromwell (recently depicted in Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series), shows a much more domestic network of contacts and informants.

Figures 3-4: left, geo-view of Sir Francis Walsingham’s correspondence; right: geo-view of Sir Thomas Smith’s correspondence

From the geo-view users can again navigate to individual letters. They might for example want to see why the diplomat Henry Cobham and some virtually unknown figure called Oliver King were both writing to Lord Burghley from Saint-Jean-de-Luz at the beginning of 1571. There are layers of intrigue here. Both men are reporting to the Tudor government about the mercenary Thomas Stukeley, but it emerges that Oliver King is what we might call a soldier of fortune, who had tried to offer his service to the Spanish King, before being reported to the Spanish Inquisition by Stukeley, and then sought to save himself by offering information to the Tudor government. This use of the interface thus allows us to see multiple perspectives on a set of events. But it is just one way that the interface allows users to orient themselves within this vast archive of papers, and why it provides such a useful point of access for teaching, permitting as it does self-guided discovery.

While the interface is intuitive and simple to grasp, the endeavour represents a huge amount of work. The underlying data was kindly provided by Gale Cengage (the owners of State Papers Online), but the process of preparing it for analysis and visualisation required a data cleaning process that took over 9 months of my time, with additional labour from research associates Jose Cree and Lotte Fikkers (who worked on the geographic data). This cleaned and geo-coded data set will be made fully available for re-use alongside the project book, Tudor Networks of Power, when it is published (probably next year) by Oxford University Press. Other outcomes, which harness this data by using network analysis methods to uncover patterns of communication and to understand the patterns left in the data by acts of surveillance and interception, can be read online and in History Workshop journal.

It has been such an exciting experience collaborating with a designer like Kim Albrecht. He took data that I had meticulously prepared for analysis over several years and visualised it in ways that allowed us to grasp, in an instant, habits of communication that it would have previously taken extensive study to understand. We hope that colleagues and the public alike are able to make use of this tool to discover things they did not previously know about the communications of the Tudor government.

Tudor Networks is available to access online, including an introductory video. Ruth Ahnert is Professor of Literary History and Digital Humanities in the School of English and Drama, Queen Mary University of London, Principle Investigator on the UKRI-funded interdisciplinary project, Living with Machines, and Co-Investigator on the AHRC-funded project, ‘Networking the Archives: Assembling and analysing a meta-archive of correspondence 1509-1714’.

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