Publishing the Unpublished: Sir John Fortescue and the Correspondence of George III

By Rachael Krier, Metadata Creator at the Royal Archives


In my last blog post , I wrote about using The Correspondence of King George III 1760-1783 edited by Sir John Fortescue in cataloguing the official papers of George III. Until recently, the accepted view has been that Fortescue’s Correspondence is widely inaccurate and incomprehensive whereas the Later Correspondence of George III edited by Arthur Aspinall was considered to be the opposite. This is certainly due in no small part to the criticisms of Sir Lewis Namier cuttingly outlined in the introduction to Additions and Corrections to Sir John Fortescue’s Edition of the Correspondence of George the Third (volume 1) but the usability of Fortescue’s editions – namely their lack of document references – is likely to also play a role in this. In cataloguing the Calendar of George III, I have been systematically working through the documents contained in Fortescue’s Correspondence, matching up the modern document reference numbers with the transcript number which, where identified, has been recorded in the ‘Publications’ field of the catalogue entry. Similarly, I am annotating the volumes of Fortescue’s Correspondence held in the Research Room at the Royal Archives with the correct document reference.

Findings to date

Cataloguing has now been completed on Calendar papers to the end of June 1772. This is equivalent to 4 boxes (out of 38) and a total of 1401 documents. Of these documents around 14% do not appear in Fortescue’s Correspondence. Breaking this down further reveals the considerable variation between years with a high proportion of papers being unpublished for pre-accession (95%), 1760 (54%), 1761 (57%), and 1764 (94%) (fig 1).

Year Total no of documents catalogued No of unpublished documents Percentage of unpublished of documents
Pre-1760 20 19 95
1760 35 19 54
1761 21 12 57
1762 41 3 7
1763 28 4 14
1764 36 34 94
1765 153 3 2
1766 327 34 10
1767 126 7 6
1768 121 5 4
1769 79 12 15
1770 148 10 7
1771 166 22 13
1772 100 10 10
Total 1401 194 14


That so many of the pre-accession papers are unpublished is unsurprising as Fortescue’s Correspondence is primarily focussed on George III’s reign. (Leaving aside transcript no. 1 which is clearly dated September 1758!). Furthermore, the first box (1758-1765) is somewhat anomalous in that there is a folder at the bottom of 20 odd documents labelled as unpublished by Fortescue; these are primarily the pre-accession papers (GEO/MAIN/206-277). As far as we know, this is the only box where a bundle of documents is clearly labelled as unpublished – although individual documents may be labelled as such (sometimes erroneously).

So what are these unpublished papers?

A spreadsheet of the papers unpublished by Fortescue up to June 1772 can be downloaded here.

Looking at this list, a large proportion of the papers appear to relate to the Seven Years War being either George’s notes on dispatches from abroad or the peace negotiations or notes on foreign military powers (Spain, France, Denmark). It is particularly curious that these papers were not published given that Fortescue was a military historian and could therefore be expected to take a greater interest in military matters. It should be noted that many of these documents have only been provisionally dated; it has been presumed that these records were written soon after the receipt of the reports and they have therefore been arranged in the catalogue accordingly.

Around a quarter of the unpublished papers are in a foreign language (namely French but also some German and Latin). Undoubtedly, the production of the editions of Fortescue’s Correspondence was dependent on having skilled transcribers being able to read these languages. However, documents in French – and perhaps to a lesser extent German – do appear in Fortescue so a staff skills shortage is perhaps not the most convincing reason.

Why were these papers not published?

In terms of the annotated manuscript copy by David Hume of A concise and genuine account of the dispute between Mr. Hume and Mr. Rousseau: with the letters that passed between them during their controversy (refs GEO/MAIN/700-723), this was contemporaneously published and perhaps therefore not considered to be worth publishing given that it was already in the public domain. It is also possible that at 23 pages this document was simply considered far too long to reprint. (These 23 pages alone represent a substantial proportion of the 34 unpublished documents for 1766).

But to be honest, we don’t know.

It’s possible that some of these documents were stored separately. The notes on dispatches from the Seven Years’ War date from both pre- and post-accession so it is possible they were kept together for this reason or unpublished because they did not neatly fit the timespan of George III’s reign.

It’s possible that some documents were simply overlooked in the haste to compile these transcripts which appears to have only begun in May 1925 (all the Calendar – up to 1810 – was transcribed although only up to 1783 was ultimately published in 1927-1928).

And finally it is not impossible that some of the papers were received after the publication of these volumes as the provenance of the Georgian Papers is anything but clear and straightforward!

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