How to look for records of... State Papers Foreign 1509-1782: Government papers on foreign affairs

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

1. Why use this guide?

This guide tells you:

  • which records are included in the state papers foreign
  • how the records are arranged
  • what finding aids and websites can help you search the various state papers foreign series

The state papers foreign are papers produced or received by the secretaries of state as a result of their conduct of British diplomacy abroad. They include:

  • correspondence with English diplomats abroad and foreign diplomats in England
  • original and draft treaties
  • letters between heads of state
  • intercepted despatches and other intelligence
  • working papers of the secretaries
  • material relating to military, naval and colonial policy

The calendars of state papers referred to in this guide are available in many academic libraries as well as in the reading rooms at The National Archives at Kew.

2. What can I see online?

2.1 State Papers Online

The State Papers Online website (institutional subscription required or free to view at The National Archives) includes 16th and 17th century state papers domestic, foreign, Scotland, Ireland and registers of the Privy Council. The calendars are fully searchable, and many entries are linked to a digital image of the relevant state paper.

2.2 British History Online

British History Online includes keyword searchable calendars of the English state papers domestic and the state papers for Scotland and Ireland. A subscription is payable to view these calendars. For the reign of Henry VIII foreign affairs are covered by the letters and papers, foreign and domestic, of the reign of Henry VIII. The calendars to these are free to search at British History Online and are also available in published form (see section 3).

3. How the records are arranged

The main series of papers has been arranged by reign until 1577. After that, it is arranged by country. In general, the state papers foreign series ends in 1782 when the Foreign Office was created, although there are exceptions. See section 6 for a breakdown of the different series by country and date range.

Besides the chronological and country state papers foreign series there are papers which are classified by record type: for example, intercepted despatches, treaties or entry books. This means that you may need to search through several record series for information on a particular event, place, individual or period. See section 7 for a breakdown of these series.

4. Letters and papers of Henry VIII, 1509-1547

Papers relating to foreign affairs in this period are included in the letters and papers of Henry VIII (SP 1 and SP 2), with some items in a variety of other record series.

Calendars of documents in SP 1 and SP 2 can be searched free of charge on British History Online as well as State Papers Online (institutional subscription required).

Published calendars are available in Letters and papers, foreign and domestic, of the reign of Henry VIII, ed J S Brewer, J Gardner and R H Brodie, 21 volumes plus two volumes of addenda (London, 1862-1932). These, together with keys to the references contained in them, are available at The National Archives at Kew and in academic libraries.

5. State papers foreign, 1547-1577

The state papers foreign for this period are arranged by reigns of individual monarchs, as follows:

  • state papers foreign, general series, Edward VI, 1547 to 1553 – SP 68
  • state papers foreign, general series, Mary, 1553 to 1558 – SP 69
  • state papers foreign, general series, Elizabeth I, 1558 to 1577 – SP 70

Calendars of documents in SP 68, SP 69 and SP 70 can be searched using State Papers Online (institutional subscription required).

Finding aids include our catalogue and especially the following calendars, available in the reading rooms at The National Archives at Kew:

  • calendar of state papers foreign, Edward VI, 1547-1553, ed W B Turnbull (London, 1861)
  • calendar of state papers foreign, Mary, 1553-1558, ed W B Turnbull, (London, 1861)
  • calendar of state papers foreign, Elizabeth, 1558-1589, ed J Stevenson, A J Crosby, A J Butler, S C Lomas, A B Hinds, R B Wernham, 23 volumes (London, 1863-1950)

6. State papers foreign, 1577-1782

The state papers foreign are arranged in individual series by area or country:

Country Date range Record series
Barbary States 1577-1780 SP 71
Poland 1577-1781 SP 88
Denmark 1577-1780 SP 75
Portugal 1577-1780 SP 89
Dunkirk 1712-1744 SP 76
Prussia 1698-1780 SP 90
Flanders 1585-1780 SP 77
Russia 1579-1780 SP 91
France 1577-1780 SP 78
Savoy and Sardinia 1577-1780 SP 92
Genoa 1584-1775 SP 79
Sicily and Naples 1584-1779 SP 93
German Empire & Hungary 1578-1780 SP 80
Spain 1577-1780 SP 94
Germany (states) 1577-1784 SP 81
Sweden c.1570-1780 SP 95
Hamburg and Hanse towns 1577-1780 SP 82
Switzerland 1582-1780 SP 96
Holland and Flanders 1577-1584 SP 83
Turkey 1597-1779 SP 97
Holland c.1560-1780 SP 84
Tuscany 1582-1780 SP 98
Italian States and Rome 1544-1773 SP 85
Venice c.1559-1778 SP 99
Malta 1664-1769 SP 86

Calendars for these series can be searched using State Papers Online (institutional subscription required).

Finding aids include our catalogue and The National Archives’ semi-calendared lists in the reading rooms at The National Archives at Kew.

The later volumes of the Calendar of state papers foreign, Elizabeth (volume XI to XXIII), include post-1577 state papers foreign documents from a number of series.

Calendaring of documents continues after 1589 in the List and Analysis of State Papers Foreign, ed R B Wernham, (London, 1964, continuing, seven volumes to date, covering 1589 to 1596).

7. Other state papers foreign series

Some state papers foreign series are arranged by type or format of record and there are several miscellaneous series which often contain material which does not appear in the main state papers foreign series by reign and by country. These are:

  • foreign ministers in England, 1683-1780 – SP 100
  • treaties, 1579-1780 – SP 108
  • treaty papers, 1577-1780 – SP 103
  • royal letters, 1564-1780 – SP 102
  • newsletters, 1565-1763 – SP 101
  • confidential, 1716-1766 – SP 107
  • ciphers, Elizabeth I to George III – SP 106
  • archives of British legations, 1568-1871 – SP 105
  • entry books, 1571-1783 – SP 104
  • various, 1665-1788 – SP 109
  • supplementary, 1600-1871 – SP 110

8. Out-letters from the secretaries of state

Many of the series of out-letters are useful sources for correspondence sent out from the secretaries of state. The entry books in SP 104, the state papers foreign, various, in SP 109 and the state papers foreign, supplementary, in SP 110, all contain books of official out-letters with various periods and countries, containing correspondence from the secretary of state to the representatives abroad. They may also include letters between representatives abroad to each other and are a useful supplement to the main state paper series.

Other out-letter books can also be found among the state papers foreign series arranged by country. Try a catalogue search within the SP series using the keyword ‘out-letters’.

For details of the contents of these series consult the full details of the relevant series description in our catalogue.

9. Other records of foreign relations in the state papers

Until 1782 the secretaries of state had responsibility for both foreign and domestic affairs; there are therefore references to overseas policy in the state papers domestic series.

The Williamson collection, in SP 9 (1463-1828), includes some records concerning the conduct and history of diplomacy. There are several series of foreign gazettes and pamphlets in SP 113-SP 128. Military and naval policy documents can be found in the state papers foreign military expeditions, 1695-1763 (SP 87), the state papers military, 1640-1782 (SP 41) and state papers naval, 1689-1782 (SP 42), as well as in the state papers domestic series.

There are separate state papers series for Scotland, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and Ireland. There are also significant overlaps in the date ranges and content with the earliest records of the Foreign Office. For details of these overlaps, facsimiles of documents and finding aids, plus information on associated papers of secretaries of state and diplomats and transcripts of foreign documents held abroad which are available in the National Archives, see Never complain, never explain: records of the Foreign Office and State Paper Office, 1500-c1960 by Louise Atherton (Public Record Office, 1994), available in the library at The National Archives at Kew.