The Correspondence of Robert Beale

Primary Contributors:

Andrew Gordon, University of Aberdeen

Detail of letter from David Chytraeus to Robert Beale, 25 February 1595. (Special Collections Centre, University of Aberdeen, MS1009/2/15)

Robert Beale (1541–1601)

The papers of the diplomat and administrator Sir Robert Beale constitute one of the most remarkable extant archives for the study of the intellectual and political networks of early modern Europe. Beale held the office of Clerk to the Privy Council — the most significant secretarial office of the Tudor state — for an unprecedented twenty-nine years, from 1572 until his death. In that role he helped to shape both the political and administrative culture of the Elizabethan regime.

The son of a London merchant, Beale was educated first in Coventry, and then abroad, studying with his uncle in Frankfurt during the reign of Mary I. After his return to England in the early 1560s he married Edith St Barbe, and found employment with his brother-in-law, Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s future Principal Secretary, whom he accompanied on his embassy to Paris from 1570, before taking up the appointment as Clerk to the Privy Council. Alongside his role as Clerk, Beale was a prominent parliamentarian, serving in the Elizabethan House of Commons as MP for Totnes (1572) and later for Dorchester (1584, 1586, and 1589) and was sent on diplomatic missions to the Low Countries (1576), Germany (1577–8), and as the English representative on the Dutch Council of State (1587). He is perhaps best known to history as an agent in the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, whose death warrant, signed by Elizabeth after years of vacillation and a long campaign of persuasion from her councillors, he delivered in 1587 from London to Fotheringay Castle. A cosmopolitan reforming protestant, Beale maintained a wide network of epistolary contacts across Europe and built a substantial library and archive, in which a line separating his duties from his interests is difficult to discern.

Partners and Additional Contributors

The metadata for this catalogue in EMLO was collated by Dr Andrew Gordon with the assistance of Dr Rachel McGregor, Research Fellow for the Sir Robert Beale Correspondence Project.

The initial phase of the project has focused on the Beale Papers held in the Special Collections of the University of Aberdeen. The assistance of Siobhan Convery, Head of Special Collections, is gratefully acknowledged, as is the work of the Reading Room staff, and in particular Michelle Gait. Digital images of the manuscripts were produced by Kim Downie, and are made available here by permission of the Special Collections Centre, University of Aberdeen. Work on the Beale Correspondence Project was made possible by a Hunter Caldwell Award from the Aberdeen Humanities Fund in 2013.

The project has drawn on the expertise of the Cultures of Knowledge team at Oxford, under the direction of Professor Howard Hotson. Former digital project manager Lizzy Williamson and editor Miranda Lewis have supported the project overseeing the conversion of data and development of the user interface, while Digital Fellows Callum Seddon and Kat Steiner, intern Charlotte Marique, and work-experience student Ran Flanagan prepared the metadata for upload to EMLO. In addition a variety of scholars have acted as advisors on various points. The following are gratefully acknowledged: Robyn Adams, Patricia Brewerton, James Daybell, David Gehring, Arnold Hunt, Matthew Symonds, and Alan Stewart. At Aberdeen the Manuscript Research Group at the Centre for Early Modern Studies has provided a useful forum. We are grateful to David Dumville, Elizabeth Elliot, Jane Pirie, David Smith, and Adelyn Wilson, in particular.


The one-hundred-and-one items of the Aberdeen Beale papers provide a snapshot of the diplomatic, administrative, intellectual, and ideological activities of Sir Robert Beale. Ranging in date from 1550 through to 1600, the letters are from a wide range of correspondents, and not all are addressed to Beale, although virtually all contain endorsements and annotations in his hand that demonstrate his engagement with these materials. They encompass the business of states in the form of the diplomatic correspondence of Elizabeth, and a variety of statesmen and estates across Europe including the Dukes of Brunswick and of Saxony, The Lord Treasurer of Poland, and the City of Utrecht. Amongst them are particular groups of material relating to Beale’s time in Paris, as secretary to Sir Francis Walsingham, as well as correspondence of the 1580s from the time of Earl or Leicester’s as Lieutenant Governor/Governor General. These items provide examples of official channels of state diplomacy in the period but, in the Beale Papers, they sit alongside letters that demonstrate Beale’s personal connections across Europe, with letters from scholars and counsellors such as David Chytraeus, Lutheran Professor of Greek at the University of Rostock, and the reforming printer André Wechel. The international nature of Beale’s connections is demonstrated by the range of languages here. While the majority of letters are in Latin or French, there are others in German, Italian, and Scots, as well as in English.

The material form of the documents within the Beale Papers showcases the diverse practices of early modern Europe’s cultures of correspondence. The documents collected here illustrate a range of epistolary forms from highly ornate presentation texts, royal warrants, annotated drafts of letters as well as copies and summaries of letters. The examples of sent letters here, many with portions of a seal extant, also testify to the range of ways in which letters were addressed and conveyed. To assist in future research, bibliographical descriptions have recorded material features so that they may yield results by search term. Not all the items here would ordinarily be described under the heading of letters, yet to preserve the integrity of this grouping of Beale’s papers we have included descriptions of the non-epistolary material, rather than present a narrowly exclusive selection of material.


Detail of letter from David Chytraeus to Daniel Rogers. The letter was never delivered to its addressee, who was a fellow Clerk of the Privy Council with Beale, but came instead to Beale’s hand, who annotated it with the note ‘Mr Rog was dead er these [i.e. ere this]’. (Special Collections Centre, University of Aberdeen, MS1009/2/13)


The University of Aberdeen’s Beale papers are first recorded in an inventory of King’s College from 1771 (Shelfmark MSK 105) where they are listed as ‘Shuttle 44th Papers of Curiosity’. A slip of paper preserved with the second bundle corresponds with the inventory details and is marked ‘Mr Secretary Bale[‘s]/Papers Bundle 2d/New Chest/ Sh 44th . 23’. The precise details of how these letters entered the university’s collections cannot be confirmed, but the likelihood is that they were amongst the items donated by Dr James Fraser (1645–1731), a book trader to members of the royal court and an alumnus of King’s College, who made a series of significant benefactions to the university in the period 1723–30.

Scope of Catalogue

The current catalogue is provisional and is subject to revision. It is presented here to facilitate further research. We have included details from the earlier researches of James D. George (1906–1977), a former secretary of Marischal College, who prepared a hand list of items in the Beale papers and made partial transcriptions and notes on various items. George’s notes provide valuable information, and in recognition of his work they are included here, but these are working notes and contain some errors of transcription and conjecture.

Further resources


Patricia Basing, Robert Beale and the Queen of Scots, British Library Journal, 20 (1994), pp. 65–82.

Patricia Brewerton, ‘Paper Trails: Re-reading Robert Beale as Clerk to the Elizabethan Privy Council’, Unpublished PhD, University of London, 1998.

J.M. Henderson, ‘Some Elizabethan MSS. in the University Library’, Aberdeen University Review, XIV (1926–1927), pp. 202–06.

Mark Taviner, ‘Robert Beale and the Elizabethan Polity’, Unpublished PhD, St Andrews, 2000.

Launch Catalogue

Please see our citation guidelines for instructions on how to cite this catalogue.