John, Lord Acton: Papers

Scope and Content

1. Family papers

The papers contain material relating to the Actons of Naples: Commodore John Acton, his nephew J.F.E. Acton and H. Acton, a midshipman; material concerning the Dalberg family, particularly the family property on the Rhine, at Herrnsheim; a few manuscripts relating to Lord Granville; and the 1st Lord Acton's personal papers, including those covering his early years, his parliamentary career and interest in Ireland, relations with his family, and the period of his life spent in Cambridge.

2. Library development

The collection includes a number of important manuscript series that were acquired by Acton for his library. These include the notes and lecture material of Ernst von Lasaulx, Acton's teacher in Munich in the early 1850s; manuscript and printed material for Acton's project 'The history of the papacy', collected during five years of travel on the continent; documents relating to the history of religion in modern times, particularly French religious history; and manuscripts concerning the history of England, particularly of Roman Catholicism. There are also catalogues of the library made by Acton and by librarians he employed to complete the work.

3. Transcript collection

Acton and his copyists made a series of transcripts between 1865 and 1875 from archives held throughout Europe for 'The history of the papacy'. There are transcripts from archives in Vienna, Venice, Modena, Rome, Naples, Florence, Simancas, Paris, the British Museum, the Public Record Office, the Bodleian Library and other repositories.

4. Business archive

The collection contains a large series of letters of the Paganelli and Cantucii families, merchants in Florence and Spain, dating predominantly from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. It is not known how Acton came to acquire these papers.

5. Study projects and finished works

Acton's research projects are represented in the collection by his card system and notebooks. The material covers 'The history of the papacy' project, including the Massacre of St Batholomew, the Inquisition, the Council of Trent, Henry VIII and James II; Acton's 'History of freedom'; his work with J.W. Cross on the latter's composition of The life of George Eliot; Acton's writing on Liberal Catholicism, including Church history and biographical material on his close friends Ignaz von Döllinger and Cardinal Newman; and Acton's time in Cambridge, including lectures on the French Revolution and modern history, and material concerning the Cambridge modern history. There are also notes and quotations on a variety of other subjects.

Administrative / Biographical History

John Emerich Edward Charles Dalberg Acton (1834-1902), 1st Baron Acton, was born in Naples on 10 January 1834. His father was Sir Ferdinand Richard Acton (1801-1837), 7th Baronet, son of John Francis Edward Acton. His mother was Countess Marie Dalberg (d. 1860), heiress to one of the oldest of the German noble houses, who in 1840 married Granville George Leveson-Gower (1815-1891), 2nd Earl Granville. Acton studied in Munich under the church historian Ignaz von Döllinger. In 1859 he became the Liberal M.P. for the Irish constituency of Carlow, and in 1869 he accepted a peerage. During this time, Acton acquired The rambler, and developed it as a liberal Catholic journal dedicated to discussing social, political and theological matters. The journal closed in 1864, and Acton began work on a 'History of the papacy during the last three centuries'. For this purpose he moved to the continent and carried out research in libraries and archives. During 1869-1870, he attended the first Vatican Council in Rome. Acton was forced to abandon his papal history in the late 1870s, largely because of the problems he faced in acquiring the evidence he required in Italy. He turned to a new project, 'The history of freedom', which he worked on while living on the continent. In 1895 he was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University. He gave lectures on the French Revolution and modern history, and was chiefly responsible for organising the Cambridge modern history. Acton died at Tegernsee, Bavaria, on 19 June 1902.

Lord Acton's papers include material relating to family members in Italy. John Francis Edward Acton (1736-1811), Acton's grandfather, served in the Tuscan naval service before transferring to the service of the King of Naples in 1776. He was Minister of the Navy (1779), War (1780) and Commerce (1782), and Prime Minister (1786), before retiring from the political stage in 1804. J.F.E. Acton's uncle, Commodore John Acton (d. 1776), also served in Tuscany. He was employed by the East India Company between 1713 and 1747, sailing between England and Bombay, Canton and other places in the Far East. He then transferred to the Tuscan navy, of which he was given command in 1748, and continued to serve Tuscany until his death.

Access Information

Open for consultation by holders of a Reader's Ticket valid for the Manuscripts Reading Room.

Acquisition Information

MSS.Add.4607-4756, 5347, 5348 and 8409-8417 were received with the Acton Library, presented by Lord Morley, 1902. MSS.Add.4757-5021, 5381-5710 and 5751-5776 were purchased from the 2nd Lord Acton, 1903. MSS.Add.7726-7732 were found in the Acton Library during an inspection in 1966. MS.Add.7892 was found in the Acton Library in 1971.

Other Finding Aids

A detailed catalogue is available in the Manuscripts Reading Room. Further entries can be found in the Additional Manuscripts Catalogue, which is also available in the Manuscripts Reading Room. A short account of the collection can be found in A.E.B. Owen, Summary guide to accessions of manuscripts to the University Library since 1867 (Cambridge University Press, 1966).

Archivist's Note

Description compiled by Robert Steiner, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives.

Custodial History

A part of the collection originates from Lord Acton's library. Acton built this library during the 1860s at Aldenham in Shropshire, where it was attached to his residence. In order to relieve his financial problems, he sold the library to Andrew Carnegie in 1890, who gave Acton the use of it for his lifetime. After Acton's death, Carnegie gave the library to John Morley, who in turn gave it to Cambridge University Library.

Related Material

Cambridge University Library holds other papers relating to Lord Acton and the Acton family, MSS.Add.6443, 6871, 6872, 7472, 7956, 8119-8123, 8260, 8261 and 9616, and MS.Doc.1275.

Shropshire Archives holds the 'Acton of Aldenham papers', around 1,180 items dating from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, S.R.O. ref. 1093, together with other groups of papers relating to the Acton family.