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The Secret Birth of ‘Independence’ is Uncovered at Trinity College Dublin

An exhibition at Trinity College Dublin which reveals the secret birth of ‘Independence’ in the English-speaking world is open to visitors until the 20th of July.

Polly HaThe exhibition, curated by Dr Polly Ha in partnership with the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library, showcases some of the manuscripts and rare books which Dr Polly Ha worked on during her fellowship at the Trinity Long Room Hub in association with the School of History and Humanities. Acting on a hint from a manuscripts expert in Trinity College Library, Dr Polly Ha discovered proof that would change the historical landscape in relation to independent thought and religious freedom.

The manuscripts represent the archive of Walter Travers, the second Provost of Trinity College Dublin and a leading Elizabethan Puritan ideologue.  Some of these manuscripts were written in code but a dedicated process of forensic-level research revealed Travers’s covert operations and connections to the heart of the English government.  They also show the underground debates which took place among Puritans following their suppression by the English crown. 

While Independence was thought to be a product of the mid-1640s during the wars in the Three Kingdoms, the three volumes of manuscripts reveal that it was Walter Travers who coined the name ‘independency’, and gave rise to its first underground movement long before it was supposed to exist. 

This exhibition provides new insights into the transformation of Puritan identity well before the revolutionary circumstances of the seventeenth century.  These clandestine debates reveal the birth of radical claims to religious independence several decades before the concept was supposed to have existed. Religious independence had a crucial impact in the early modern period with implications well beyond the seventeenth century.

It inspired ideas about liberty in the American colonies and broader movements for political freedom in Revolutionary England.

Dr Polly Ha FRHist, Reader in Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia, said:

MS324_foI4r_lo‘The discovery of these manuscripts changes our understanding of the expansion of liberty, the intersection between politics and religion, and some of the most dramatic moments in Western history. It reveals new links between the development of freedom in Britain and in its American colonies. Independence continues to be fiercely contested and remains central to modern notions of freedom, so I am delighted that we have this unique opportunity to revisit its origins in our 400th anniversary exhibition.’

Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, Director of The Trinity Long Room Hub, Trinity’s Arts and Humanities Research Institute, said:  ‘I would like to congratulate Dr Ha and our colleagues in the Library for curating this exhibition to highlight the brave and revolutionary thinking from centuries past which contributed to the political and religious freedom which we continue to reflect on today.’

Arranged in three sections, the exhibition begins with controversial Elizabethan texts which were printed abroad.  It also displays the secret code used by Travers to conceal his dangerous opinions and connections to some of the most powerful men in Elizabethan government.

The second section unveils the secret birth of independence in 1616 when Travers’s colleague Henry Jacob established the first independent church to continue on English soil. Travers coined the phrase ‘Independency’ in response to Jacob’s extensive defence of freedom as independence.  Adapting classical ideas, Jacob was the first to universalize the potential application of freedom in these writings.

The Royal Oak of BrittayneThe third section presents new evidence about the direct links between Jacob’s early independence, the most climactic moments in the English Revolution, and some of the boldest experiments to take place in the American colonies.

The exhibition, which will be on display in the Long Room Library until 20 July, is also accompanied by an online exhibition featuring video and audio commentary. The exhibition forms part of the larger History of Independence Project funded by the Arts Humanities Research Council.

Location: Old Library (Long Room), Trinity College Dublin

Tickets and Information: Adult €11; concession €9; Family €22; Group €9; School Group €8.  Opening hours: Monday – Saturday: 08:30-17:00; Sunday: 09:30-17:00.

Dr Polly Ha is Director of the History of Independence Project, which is funded by Arts Humanities Research Council.  The project is based at the University of East Anglia in collaboration with Trinity College Library, The University of Dublin, and The Jefferson Foundation.


Contact: Aoife King, Communications Officer | Trinity Long Room Hub | aoife.king@tcd.ie | 01 896 3895