Coming out into Chancery Lane once more and turning down towards Fleet Street, you will see on your left a huge grey building in Tudor style, where once stood the House of the Converts.
It was called by that name when Henry III. founded a House in 1232 to receive converted Jews. I hardly like to tell you that the present name is the Record Office. It is too pompous and official-sounding, and perhaps that is why people pass the House of the Converts never suspecting the presence of the entrancing, memory-evoking things within.
You enter the enchanted room by descending a short flight of stone steps, after going through a forbidding portal and along a green sward into a modern grey building in one of the very busiest of the London streets.
You will know why I call it an enchanted room as soon as you see the beautiful chapel like precincts named the House of the Converts nearly 700 years ago, before it was used from Edward III’s time as the Chapel of the Rolls.
The stained glass windows give a mellow light to the admirable Torrigiano monument of a sixteenth century Master of the Rolls and the delicately carved alabaster tomb of Richard Alington and his wife Jane. Near by is the recumbent figure of another Master, with the little figures of his children kneeling below, one of them the little daughter born on Christmas Day and married when she was only twelve years old, ” a pretty red-headed wench,” to William Cavendish, afterwards Earl of Devonshire, in the year of grace 1608.
There are all sorts of other treasures in this mysterious room, that is open to all comers between the hours of two and four, any day in the week except, alas, Saturday or Sunday.
You may look on the handwriting of ” Jane the Quene,” in one of the very few documents signed by Lady Jane Grey during her nine days’ reign, or read the pathetic letter written by Mary Queen of Scots to Sir William Cecil, ” Mester Cessilles,” she calls him in the queer Scottish – English sometimes used by ” yowr richt asured good friend, Marie R.”
For here are guarded poignant souvenirs of long-dead men and women, of whose sorrows and anguish of mind nothing is left but the yellowing paper covered with the almost illegible writing of their times. You will find the cry of Sir Philip Sidney to Jaen Wyer the Court surgeon of His Highness of Cleves, written when he lay dying from his wound at the battle of Zutphen : ” Come, my Weier, come. I am in danger of my life and I want you here. Neither living or dead shall I be ungrateful. I can write no more, but I earnestly pray you to make haste. Farewell. At Arnem. Yours, Ph. Sidney.” And Sir Walter Raleigh’s letter to Queen Anne, the wife of James the First, where he says: ” My extreme shortness of breath doth grow fast on me, with the dispayre of obtayning so mich grace to walke with my keeper up the hill within the Tower.”
The letters are not all sorrowful, but they all have the power to breathe life into the dry bones of history. Not far from the heart-felt appeal of the great Cardinal Wolsey to Henry VIII., praying for ” grace, mercy, remissyon and pardon,” and signed ” Your Graces moste prostrat poor chapleyn, creature, and bedisman,” is a letter from ten-year-old William of Orange, quaint letters from Leicester and Essex to their fickle queen, and a dignified epistle, lamenting the outbreak of war between France and England, but renouncing his fealty and homage to Richard IL, from a fourteenth century member of that noble Picardie family whose proud device was:
Roy ne suis, ne prince ne duc, ne comte aussy: Je suis sire de Coucy.
Old letters are not the only treasures in this corner belonging to another age. There are beautiful fourteenth-century chests, a bulla carved by Benvenuto Cellini, that prince of goldsmiths and autobiographers, and indeed the greatest treasure of all, that I have kept till the last.
One first hears of the Domesday Book in the days when one has visions of a vast tome with some vague connection with the Day of Judgment. Not even Little Aythuy could dispel the prodigious respect and awe one felt for it. I confused it with the book in which one’s manifold sins are recorded, and even mature age does not prevent a little secret satisfaction that has nothing historical at the sight of those fat, brown hundreds-of-years-old books that we owe to William the Conqueror’s Norman love for exact accounts.
The Domesday Books used to be kept in the Chapter House at Westminster and were only moved to the Record Office in 1839.