This month the Monarchy in the Archives blog will be taking a peak into an ornate 19th century journal from the archive of the Leigh family of Stoneleigh Abbey. Stoneleigh is one of the great houses of Warwickshire and the manuscript collection is the largest family archive held by SBT. The rise in fortunes of the family can be dated from the mid 16th century, when Thomas Leigh, a London merchant, purchased Stoneleigh Abbey a few decades after the monastery had been disbanded under Henry VIII. By the time this journal was written in the mid 19th century, the family was the largest landowner in Warwickshire, as well as owning estates across England. While the archive comprises mainly estate management and land ownership papers, there are also many personal documents, such as correspondence and diaries, which offer wonderful insights into the lives of the English upper-classes, prior to the industrial revolution. Indeed, if we’re looking for monarchy in the archives then many of the private papers are of interest – documents relating to coronations, royal weddings, honours, appointments, and the very journal in question, which is concerned with a special royal visit.
The above pages form part of the introduction to a detailed account of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s visit to Stoneleigh in the summer of 1858. These cuttings of published engravings have been pasted into the volume and decorated with a hand-painted border. The author, Georgina Leigh, daughter of Chandos Lord Leigh, and sister of the host, introduces her account as follows:
“Monday June 14th ... was ushered in by a cloudless sky. Nature itself dressed her loveliest garb to do honour to our beloved Queen Victoria upon her first visit into Warwickshire...”
Extract from the journal of Georgina Leigh
The description continues in this florid style and while it was not exceptional for the royal couple to visit the stately homes and castles of England, it clearly did not lessen the particular honour given to the host family. The volume provides a marvellously detailed account of the visit – noting everything from preparations of guest rooms, to dinner servings and weather conditions. It also holds autographs of the party, including the royal couple themselves, Spencer Horatio Walpole, the Secretary of State, and a number of peers of the realm. This is a good reminder that in the 19th century, the great houses, like Stoneleigh, played an important role in society - central to local economies and national politics. The grand architecture and fine gardens play their part in demonstrating and underlining this. In this context, the monarchy can be seen as a keystone to this stratified social system, and knowing this helps the journal reader appreciate the significance of the visit for the Leigh family.
Indeed, the detailed description and graphical illustration perhaps tell us as much about how the author felt about the royal visit as it does about the practicalities of the visit itself. It is very apparent that this is a commemorative album, which has been carefully prepared and expensively bound, presumably for the pleasure of the Leigh family, and as a way for the author to retell the experience to future guests – similar to updating an online journal to share exciting news or showing a wedding album to friends. In this way, taking a peak into this lavish commemorative journal opens up a rich historical resource and provides a personal connection to an individual who experienced the events first hand.