How to look for records of... Letters and papers of Henry VIII

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

1. Why use this guide?

This guide will provide guidance on how to use the calendars to the letters and papers of Henry VIII. The calendars are the primary means of access to the documents.

Letters and papers of Henry VIII are useful for researching:

  • early modern government, including social and economic affairs
  • law and order
  • religious policy (including the dissolution of the monasteries)
  • crown possessions
  • intelligence gathering
  • foreign policy

Many of the original documents are written in Latin. The calendars provide summaries of the documents in English.

2. What kind of documents am I likely to find?

You will find a variety of documents such as:

  • private and official letters (mainly in-coming)
  • reports and instructions
  • treaty papers
  • memoranda
  • council minutes
  • draft parliamentary bills

The early state papers are those of Henry VIII’s chief ministers (not necessarily secretaries of state), including Wolsey and Cromwell.

Later ministers tended to take papers into retirement (in which case they will not be held by The National Archives) or allowed them to stay on in public custody.

Watch our Spotlight On: State papers video for a brief introduction to State Papers.

3. Key records and where to search online

Many of the letters and papers of Henry VIII are filed in department code SP (State Paper Office). Use our catalogue to find out more about what each series contains:

  • SP 1: Letters and Papers Henry VIII, 1509-1547, which are bound volumes of miscellaneous public and private letters
  • SP 2: Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, Folios, 1516-1539, similar papers but in a larger format (and less well described)
  • SP 3: Lisle papers, 1533-1540, the papers of Arthur Plantagenet, Lord Lisle, as deputy of Calais under Henry VIII
  • SP 4: Signatures by Stamp, Henry VIII, 1545-1547, which are documents issued under the king’s stamped signature
  • SP 5: Miscellanea relating to the Dissolution of the Monasteries and to the General Surveyors, Henry VIII, 1517-1560
  • SP 6: Theological Tracts Henry VIII
  • SP 7: Wriothesley papers, 1536-1540, mainly letters to Thomas Wriothesley when clerk of the signet and secretary to Cromwell

Search online versions of these records at:

  • State Papers Online (institutional subscription required or free to view at The National Archives)
  • British History Online £– includes free access to calendars of the letters and papers only; these calendars contain summaries of letters and papers organised chronologically; some items are virtually complete transcripts of the original documents, others are shorter

Note: British History Online does not provide the references to the original documents.

4. How to search for documents which are not online

Only a small proportion of state papers are viewable online.

To view the rest you will need to visit The National Archives at Kew, pay for research or visit one of the other institutions where state papers are held.  However, you may need to use online resources, like our catalogue, to help you select the right documents.

4.1 Published calendars

Consult the calendars of Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII (also available online as described above) available in The National Archives at Kew. This 28 volume calendar summarises the text of original documents held at the following places:

The calendar provides references to the original documents. Those held at The National Archives have the code ‘RO’ shown in the left hand column of the calendar entry.

To find the modern reference for National Archives documents you will need to use printed keys which are available with the printed calendars in the reading rooms of The National Archives at Kew. Section 5 explains how to do this.

5. How to find document references from the calendars

5.1 Using the newer key – example taken from volume 1 of the Letters and Papers (1513)

1. From the calendar, note the entry number and the references on the left-hand side

2. If these include the letters ‘RO’, the document is held at The National Archives

3. Using the printed key, find the corresponding entry number and note The National Archives’ document reference shown against it

5.2 Using the older key – example taken from calendar entry for Letters and Papers, XI, 766

The older keys require a slightly different procedure

1. From the calendar, note the entry number

2. Find the key for volume XI and look for the appropriate entry number

3. Against the entry number will be a description of the type of document (e.g. SP Henry VIII 108, followed by the folio or page numbers)

4. To find the modern reference for ‘SP Henry VIII’, turn to the pasted in sheets at the front of the key

5. These show the first part of the prefix, e.g. SP 1. Putting the two together, the full reference of the document is SP 1/108, pp 178-181

Note: There are also separate sections in the calendars, equivalent to the Calendars of Patent Rolls for other reigns, relating to grants (these are usually indicated by a ‘g’ or grant in the index entries). The documents referred to in these sections are in:

  • C 66 for enrolled grants (shown by the reference Pat. in the entry)
  • C 82 for those denoted by the letters SB (signed bill) and PS (privy seal) in the entries

In both of these cases, look at the separate series lists available at The National Archives for the full document reference.

6. Other useful resources