It has been a strange year since I last wrote a blog post about my PhD research on the Salesbury family, who owned the Rhug estate from around 1500 to 1719. I was very lucky that I managed to spend a few days at The National Archives a few weeks before the first lockdown, which meant that I successfully finished all my archival research and just needed to focus all my attention on writing my thesis. I didn’t appreciate at the time that it would be my last visit to the archives for many months! As I wrote up my thesis, I depended so much on librarians and archivists to double-check references and provide access to books, and I remain very grateful that they were willing to do all they could to aid researchers at a time of great confusion and uncertainty.
In some good news, this means that I was able to finish my thesis and submit it in September 2020. I had my viva voce, or oral examination, in mid-January 2021 and I was awarded my PhD two weeks later. Since October 2020, I’ve been a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, funded by the Economic History Society. This means that I’m still working on the Salesburys and turning my thesis into a book.
The pandemic has made me look more closely at the experiences of the family, particularly when they mention illnesses in their letters. In 1670, for example, the local area was struck by an epidemic. Jane Salesbury had recently moved to Staffordshire to live with her husband, but her uncle, Eubule Thelwall of Nantclwyd, warned the couple against visiting north Wales. In words that will resonate with anyone who has experienced a local lockdown, Thelwall told Jane’s husband, ‘It continues here so very sickly a time that, if my advice will take place, you will not think of seeing these parts till gods heavy hand be removed’ [NLW, Bachymbyd Letters 97].
Thelwall himself was struck down by the mysterious illness, along with four other members of the family and sixty in the local parish. In his letter, Thelwall wrote, ‘I had what I att first suspected, double fitts, the greatest have left me, but the lesser continue and grow greater. I have little rest and lesse appetite. My hopes are that it may be with me as I hear it is with most others, that I may be on the mending head, though health come on slowly.’ Fortunately, medicine has improved considerably since the seventeenth century because Thelwall relied on bloodletting to ease his symptoms, which left him feeling weak and sore. Thelwall made a full recovery and lived another twenty-four years after the epidemic, dying at the age of around seventy-three in 1695.
Eubule Thelwall lived at Nantclwyd Hall, Llanelidan, Denbighshire. This watercolour of Nantclwyd was painted in 1805 by Moses Griffith. [‘Sketches of North Wales’: Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – The National Library of Wales]
Letters are some of my favourite sources because they provide a snapshot of people’s lives. The Salesburys wrote and received lots of letters and they managed to stay in touch with their friends and relatives even when they were ill or unable to travel to see each other. The Salesburys’ correspondence is full of useful details about their family, business dealings, and landholdings, as well as incidental information about foreign news and the weather. The Salesburys’ surviving letters date from the late sixteenth century to around 1700 and over 400 of them are now kept at the National Library of Wales. It’s always so exciting to see something written by the Salesburys themselves.
Unsurprisingly, I haven’t had much opportunity to talk about my research lately and it’s something that I’ve really missed. However, I did manage to present on the Salesburys in Denbigh as part of the Denbigh Heritage Lecture Series back in early March last year and I always enjoy talking to local audiences. I also gave a paper at the virtual Women’s Archive Wales conference in October which was fantastically well-organised. Looking ahead, I’ll be presenting as part of the virtual fellows’ seminar series at the Institute of Historical Research on 21 April, which will be available online for anyone to attend. There are so many online talks and seminars now that it’s a great opportunity to find out more about different areas and periods of history, without ever needing to leave home.
For more updates on the Salesburys and early modern Wales, you can find me on Twitter as @pastdeeds