Digitization process reveals hidden histories at Powderham Castle

University of Exeter historians and specialists at the University’s new £1.2m Digital Humanities Lab (DHL) have been working with the Earl and Countess of Devon to find new ways to share the fascinating history of the Courtenay family at Powderham Castle.

Using state-of-the-art equipment to photograph documents previously hidden away in books or considered too fragile to be on display, the digital team, led by Graham Fereday and Charlotte Tupman, have created a series of new interactive interpretation boards and digital media. On display in the Courtenay Gallery, the panels allow visitors exquisitely detailed access to a 14th-century cartulary, which is a record of the Courtenays’ property transactions, and a richly illustrated 12ft scroll depicting the family tree up until the 17th century.

Content has been provided by Professors James Clark and Henry French, whose research into the documents is enriching our understanding of the Courtenays, whose ancestors came to England with William the Conqueror.

Charles Courtenay, the Earl of Devon, contacted Professor French in early 2016 to suggest a possible research collaboration in relation to the history of the Courtenay family in Devon. Since then, Professors French and Clark have been working through various documents to draw out stories that illuminate the family’s history. The subsequent digitization process means that visitors to Powderham Castle can call up individual crests, portraits and references to discover the Courtenays’ political, economic and social importance across the centuries, as well as the important role that Devon played in the history of England.

Not only has the project enabled the DHL to explore the capabilities of its new digital equipment – including a portable rig, meaning that documents too fragile to travel can be photographed in situ – but for Professors Clark and French the material provided by the Courtenay family has proved to be of immense historical interest too.

“In terms of the 17th century material, we found a lot of things that we weren’t anticipating,” says Professor French. “We discovered that the scroll was created by Peter Balle, an MP for Tiverton, who also produced a huge document that charts the family’s history up to the 1620s. In it, he quotes a lot of original documents to which he had access that no longer survive, which in itself is interesting. More fascinating is that this document is 50 years too early – this kind of antiquarian activity happens more in the later 17th and early 18th centuries. Balle is associated with famous antiquarians of his day in London, and is part of an academic network in the South West as well. So, intellectually, this research is going on around the Courtenay story at a much earlier date than you’d expect, in an area of the country not currently associated with the cutting edge of intellectual fashion.”

Another item of interest that the Earl presented to the historians was a family history dating from 1549 that was previously unknown to academics. “Written by someone who married into the family, it contains brilliantly drawn shields,” says Professor French. “No-one outside of Powderham knew about this document, and it contains references to manuscripts that no longer survive, so James Clark is transcribing that and hopes to produce an edition of it.”

Also embedded within the Powderham documents are long and previously unknown extracts of the lost Forde Abbey chronicle, produced by monks in the 13th century, and of particular importance to the medieval history of Devon and Somerset.

From a heritage-interpretation perspective, the collaboration with Powderham is establishing new ways of thinking about how to promote historical assets. “Working with Powderham has allowed us greater scope to experiment with things that might work and might not,” says Professor French. “The electronic displays also have the technology to capture what people are looking at, and we’ll use this data to get feedback on what resonates with visitors. These are interesting experiments in terms of digital applications, and will feed into the next stage, about how we stitch the Courtenay family history into the larger history of Devon and the rest of the UK.”

The digital aspects also allow for the displays to be updated and repurposed, so that returning visitors can enjoy a different experience, with different aspects of the Courtenay story being brought out. In time, they will also permit the research and displays to be made available online to an international audience.

Charlie Courtenay, the Earl of Devon, commented: “It has been very exciting to work with the team from Exeter University on this project. We have unearthed previously unknown objects and stories and through this research have been able to share them with our visitors to provide wholly new insights. The enthusiasm and expertise of Professors Clark and French have been much appreciated, and we have built a strong working relationship with the University to promote important regional history. The work of Graham and Charlotte at the DHL in carefully imaging and digitally presenting these ancient materials has been remarkable. It is particularly exciting to be able to take fragile historic items and share them in such a cutting-edge way. We look forward to continuing this program and sharing the results with our visitors and the wider community.”