Tudor Networks of Power, 1509-1603

Lead Research Organisation: Queen Mary, University of London
Department Name: English


We live in a networked world. The Internet, public transport networks, and power grids make our everyday lives possible; our careers are dependent on 'networking' with influential people; and social networking sites provide an online account of our social capital. Networks are also a burgeoning area of academic study: the past decade has seen the emergence and rapid growth of research into so-called complex networks. This is a highly interdisciplinary field, based on the discoveries by Albert-László Barabási, Reka Albert, Duncan J. Watts and Steven Strogatz in the late 1990s, who showed that real-world networks (such as, for example, neural networks, transport networks, biological regulatory networks and social networks) share similar organizational characteristics and can be analysed using the same computational tools and models. This project aims to apply these quantitative methods to the study of Tudor politics. Through collaboration with an expert in the field of complex networks - Dr Sebastian Ahnert (Royal Society University Research Fellow, Department of Physics, Cambridge) - this project will reconstruct and analyse the networks of political power in Tudor England by mining the correspondence available through State Papers Online (SPO).

Quantitative network analysis provides a valuable way of mapping and understanding the mass of political exchanges that make up the archive of Tudor state papers. For the Tudor period SPO collects together approximately 790,000 pages of manuscripts (in over 325,000 separate documents), a high proportion of which are letters. Network analysis can provide a navigable overview of such an archive: by stripping down the letters to their basic meta-data (sender, recipient, date, etc.), we are able both to visually map the social network implicated in this correspondence, and to measure the relative centrality of each of its members using a range of different mathematical tools. The result is the kind of birds-eye view that will allow us to understand the various factors affecting the shape of this archive, from large-scale political change, to changes in filing procedure. Such an overview, therefore, acts to direct our attention to significant people and bodies of letters that may merit closer examination. In other words, network analysis provides valuable navigation for close reading.

This project has two main outputs: a monograph and an interactive network visualization web-tool. The monograph will function as an introduction to the field of network analysis for those in the broad field of arts and humanities, providing a model of how to integrate quantitative findings into traditional forms of publication. The chapters will be structured in terms of network properties and analytical tools, examining hubs and connectors, network infrastructure, community detection algorithms, network evolution and robustness. The web-tool is designed as a resource to help people from a variety of backgrounds to navigate the important archive of Tudor political correspondence in order to identify new projects and stories yet to be told. Together, these outputs seek to demonstrate how network analysis can transform the way we engage with digitized archives.

The project will also seek to foster future partnerships and to identify uses for the dataset, the web-tool, and our analytical methods. The National Archives (NA) have already signaled their interest in our web-tool and the way the technology behind it could be harnessed to provide innovative alternatives to traditional catalogues and finding aids for collections within their archives (see letter of support). Along with potential users from within academia, the creative industries, archives and libraries, representatives from the NA will be invited to a workshop where we will gain feedback on our tool, explore ways of promoting it, and discuss future projects and collaborations.

Planned Impact

The project's impact beyond academia will be primarily through the interactive network visualization web-tool, and the technology behind it. The web-tool provides a way of opening up an ancient archive to new eyes by helping people to identify their own projects. Network visualization, more generally, has the potential to offer various sectors a new way of interacting with historical data. We have identified four main groups of beneficiaries of the web-tool and network visualization technology, and we will bring together representatives from these groups at a project workshop (see Pathways to Impact):

1) The National Archives and other archives, libraries and collections.
The NA archives have written in support of this project because they stand to benefit from the development of our web-tool in two ways. Firstly, it will create more demand for access to the state papers, both via the microfilms held at the NA (the original manuscripts have restricted access due to their fragility), and via State Papers Online (which will bring them additional revenue). Secondly, they are interested in the way network visualization technology could be employed as an innovative alternative to traditional catalogues and finding aids for their collections. The NA is currently considering the future of its digitization policy; one of the NAs key Collaborative Doctoral Award Research Priorities is to address challenges in identifying and linking individuals across multiple series of digital datasets. This project has the potential to help them do that, and in so doing produce technology that will benefit other archives, libraries, museums and galleries. Accordingly, I am currently in discussion with the NA about putting together a CDA application with them.

2) The creative industries.
The tool can be used to identify untold stories, hidden in the archives. This feature can be used to help novelists, dramatists and performers, researchers for TV and radio, and other professional story-tellers develop narratives, plots and programmes. We will identify suitable representatives to attend our workshop with the help of CreativeWorks London, which is based at Queen Mary and administrated from within my department (the School of English and Drama). Specifically, we are in conversation with CreativeWorks' Prof. Mark D'Inverno (Department of Computing, Goldsmiths, where S. Ahnert is also a Visiting Fellow), who has championed interdisciplinary research and teaching at the intersection between computing and the creative industries; he has suggested leads we might follow up with the director, designer and choreographer Melly Still.

3) Gale (Cengage Learning).
Gale is the company behind SPO. By making their database more easily navigable, new users will have reason to subscribe, make use of existing institutional subscriptions, or to petition their institutions to sign up for this resource. Gale will therefore benefit financially from sharing their XML data with us (see Technical Plan), as well as seeing increased web-traffic to their site.

4) iWakari
iWakari will be designing our web-tool using their KNALIJ web application, which they developed to address the challenges and opportunities posed by big data. By working with us they will gain insights into the way that network visualization could be harnessed to provide innovative alternatives to traditional catalogues and finding aids for collections within archives, libraries, museums and galleries. This could mean valuable future contracts for iWakari.

In addition, our project will make the state papers archive approachable to members of the general public with an interest in accessing and interpreting historical archives, both directly through the web-tool, and indirectly through any creative outputs that might be produced by beneficiaries from group 2.


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Description Full findings are reported in the article "Metadata, Surveillance and the Tudor State" (History Workshop Journal, 2019), and the forthcoming book Tudor Networks of Power (under contract with OUP, due 2021). These publications show how an archive of more than 130,000 Tudor letters from the State Papers Archive can be analysed using methods from the field of network science, in order to provide insights about the shape and biases of the archive, and key patterns of government communication. The project makes five key contributions. 1) It has provided a large, meticulously cleaned data set that can be used by other researchers (to be released with the book in 2021, and also to be incorporated into Early Modern Letters Online as part of AHRC-funded grant Networking Archives (AH/R014817/1). 2) The interface used for this data cleaning has been adapted for the Networking Archives grant. 3) The project has developed a whole range of tailored methods and code to tackle particular historical questions, for example how to reconstruct approximate itineraries from letters; how to discover who was in the same locations at the same time; how to trace the discussion of key topics or people, and their dissemination through the network. This code will be made available alongside the book so our results can be recreated or the methods adapted for other questions and data sets. 4) We have generated a range of historical outcomes from these methods, which are reported on in our article and book. 5) Finally the project developed an interactive visualisation of the data with Kim Albrecht, which was released in 2020.
Exploitation Route By making our data and code available, we hope that others will derive new finding from the State Papers Archive, or adapt the methods for other analogous data sets. The data, code and tailored exploratory interfaces are already being adapted by and integrated into AHRC-funded grant Networking Archives (AH/R014817/1).
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Institutes for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities
Amount $170,000 (USD)
Organisation NEH National Endowment For The Humanities 
Sector Public
Country United States
Start 06/2017 
End 07/2017
Description Networking Archives: Assembling and analysing a meta-archive of correspondence, 1509-1714
Amount £808,704 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/R014817/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2018 
End 06/2021
Description Queen Mary University of London Innovation Grant
Amount £9,298 (GBP)
Organisation Queen Mary University of London 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2016 
End 04/2017
Description Stanford Humanities Center External Faculty Fellowship
Amount $70,000 (USD)
Organisation Stanford University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United States
Start 08/2015 
End 07/2016
Title The Disambiguation Engine 
Description My collaborator developed a tool for me called The Disambiguation Engine, which helped me with the process of disambiguating the c.33,000 historical figures in my dataset. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact We are looking at ways to generalise the tool for other datasets. 
Title Tudornetworks 
Description Tudor Networks is an interactive visualisation of more than 120,000 letters from the Tudor State Papers Archive - the government archive from the period between the accession of Henry VIII in 1509 and the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. It is an output of the AHRC-funded project 'Tudor Networks of Power' and provides researchers and the public with a new way of accessing, understanding, and deriving insights from an important national collection of Tudor-era letters. It is the result of a collaboration between a knowledge designer and aesthetic researcher (Kim Albrecht), a network scientist (Sebastian Ahnert), and a literary historian and digital humanist specialising in the Tudor period (Ruth Ahnert). Tudor Networks allows users to explore the entire communications network of the Tudor government, including its spy networks and the communications that it intercepted, right down to the level of each individual letter entry. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Nonne recorded yet. 
URL http://tudornetworks.net/
Title Dataset cleaned 
Description We received XML data from State Papers Online that required cleaning before it could be analysed. This name fields specifically needed disambiguating. We developed a tool to enable that cleaning process. We now have clean data from this process, and a workflow model that we will share in our published outputs 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Clean reliable data. Developed workflow that can be shared. 
Description Main collaborative partner 
Organisation University of Cambridge
Department Department of Physics
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I manage the project. I have provide the period-specific historical knowledge to interpret the documents we are analyzing. I undertook all the data cleaning necessary to undertake network analysis; I provide hisitorical interpretation of quantitative findings; I take the lead on writing research publications; I will oversee other outputs including the network visualization and workshop.
Collaborator Contribution My main collaborator, Sebastian Ahnert, provides expertise in quantitative network analysis. He has overseen data extraction; produced a tool for easy data cleaning; he selects, applies and produces algorithms for the analysis of data; he provides technical interpretation of research findings; he provides technical guidance and writing on research publications.
Impact 2 publications (pre-AHRC award): Ruth Ahnert, Sebastain E. Ahnert, 'Protestant Letter Networks in the Reign of Mary I: A Quantitative Approach', English Literary History, 82.1 (2015) Ruth Ahnert, Sebastian E. Ahnert, 'A Community Under Attack: Protestant Letter Networks in the Reign of Mary I', Leonardo 47 (2014), 275
Start Year 2012
Description Folger Institute teaching 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact My collaborator, Sebastian Ahnert, and I led 2 teaching sessions (an afternoon, and morning) at Early Modern Digital Agendas, a 3-week NEH Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library. We taught on the application of network analysis to early modern records, covering issues of data extraction, data cleaning, network visualization and quantitative network analysis (including an introduction to Python and the NetworkX library). Examples were drawn from my AHRC research project. Participants included early career scholars, postdoctoral students, curators and researchers from the Folger Shakespeare library.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://folgerpedia.folger.edu/Early_Modern_Digital_Agendas
Description Tool development workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Consulting on the development of a new digital network analysis tool for humanities scholars, to be developed at Stanford University.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2006
URL http://hdlab.stanford.edu/fibra/
Description Working Group, Reassembling the Republic of Letters 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact I was invited to participate as Chair of sub-group, Working Group 2: People and Networks on ISCH COST Action IS1310 Reassembling the Republic of Letters, 1500-1800: A digital framework for multi-lateral collaboration on Europe's intellectual history'. This involved giving a research presentation, and leading an agenda point on the working group meeting, as well as ongoing liaison with working group 2 members.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.cost.eu/COST_Actions/isch/IS1310