Historical UK Letters that Changed the World

Letters of note preserved from history are treasures. They provide an intimate look into the personalities of the letter writers and the times they lived. The British Library Collection has some astonishing letters of note in its collection.

Here are three important UK letters of note that document major changes in history.

The Creation of the Church of England

Historians like to point to the publication of the “95 theses” by Martin Luther as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation during the 16th century. Luther nailed a copy of his book to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. This movement challenged the power of the Catholic Church.

At the same time as Luther, Henry VIII, who was born in 1491 and ruled Britain until he died in 1547, did not accept the Pope’s power and the dominance of England by the Roman Catholic Church.

On Jan. 5, 1531, Pope Clement VII informed King Henry VIII that he would be excommunicated if he remarried. Henry VIII was desperate to have a son to be his heir and wanted his marriage with Catherine of Aragon to be annulled. When the Pope refused to cooperate with his plans, Henry did the next best thing. He formed his own church, the Church of England.

The British Library collection of historical letters has an original letter, dated Oct. 23, 1535, declaring Henry VIII the supreme head of the Church of England.

The Birth of Computer Programming

Ada Lovelace, who lived in the 1800s, was an English writer and mathematician. Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron, a famous poet and a friend of Charles Dickens. Preserved for our delight is a letter to Charles Babbage describing her idea of how a machine could do a person’s work. In the letters, she asks for the “necessary data and the formulae” so she could create the programming for the machine Babbage invented. The letter is part of the British Library Collection.

In the letter, Lovelace described the process as a calculation that “may be worked out by the engine without having been worked out by human head and hands first,” She worked with Babbage, who designed the Analytical Engine, which is the world’s first computer. She was the first to recognize a computing machine’s incredible potential that could go far beyond mathematical calculations.

Amicable Divorce

The British Library Collection has many letters of note written by Charles Dickens to his wife, Catherine Hogarth. They met in 1834. They were engaged to be married in 1835 and married the following year. They had 10 children. They legally separated in 1858. Over the 24 years that they were together, even through turbulent times, they tried to stay together until they finally could not.

One letter clearly states his frustration when he writes about his marriage troubles and his efforts to fix them, “to give you the opportunity not once, not twice, but again and again.”

After the legal separation was finalized in June 1858, Dickens posted a notice in the London Times newspaper describing the process as his domestic troubles being settled by an arrangement without anger or ill-will. He describes the separation process as being achieved with the knowledge of his children. He says he will not comment on the arrangement that was amicably created and “sacredly” private. He ends the public notice by saying the arrangement’s “details have now to be forgotten by those concerned in it.” It is one early example of an amicable divorce.

In all, the British Library Collection has 136 letters from Dickens to Hogarth that cover the period of their courtship, marriage and ultimate legal separation. His large family and the troubles in his personal life were a source of inspiration for the characters he created in his books.

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