Longwall Letters: The Francis Baker Enigma

12 June 2023

Our current exhibition in the Longwall Library showcases Magdalen student correspondence with their friends and families from the early 16th to the late 20th century. The oldest item on display is a letter from one Francis Baker to his stepfather and mother, reproduced from the original in The National Archives (WARD 2/60/234/148). This letter was uncovered during research for the exhibition, and was hitherto unknown in the history of Magdalen College. It has proven an exciting – if enigmatic – find.

Until the discovery of Francis Baker’s letter, the oldest example of Magdalen student correspondence known to us was a letter of 11 October 1622, from William Trumbull to his son of the same name at Magdalen. The Baker letter seems to pre-date this by around a century, although we cannot be precise: Baker signed off his letter as being written “from Mari Maulene College yn Oxforde the xiiii day of Julii” (from Mary Magdalen College in Oxford, the 14th day of July), but did not specify a year.

Fig. 1 Names in one of Magdalen’s Liber Nominum (CP/8/51)

In The National Archives’ online catalogue, Discovery, the letter is dated speculatively to c 1490–1510. There is, however, no record of a student named Francis Baker at Magdalen in those years. He features neither in reference works like Foster’s Alumni Oxonienses and Bloxam’s Register of the demies of Magdalen College (1482–1857), nor in the so-called Libri Nominum, handwritten lists of those who received food in Hall every day between 1476/7 and 1507, which are still preserved in the college Archives (CP/8/49 and CP/8/51).

Fig. 2 Letter from Francis Baker to Adam and Bridget Langley (TNA, WARD 2/60/234/148)

Baker’s letter is transcribed below in its entirety (the spelling has been modernised). It is written in secretary hand, the dominant script of the late-15th to the mid-17th century. The text is illegible in a couple of places, owing to damage. Topics include: a recent serious illness, during which Baker required the services of a physician; the college’s forthcoming celebrations for the feast day of its namesake, St Mary Magdalene (22 July); and – a theme common to many of the letters in this exhibition – a request for money.


Right worshipful father & mother my duty presupposed
in the humblest manner that I can I heartily have me
commended unto you, being very glad to hear that ye be in good
health; also desiring you of daily blessings, etc. The
cause of my writing to you at this time is to certify
you that at the last time of your writing unto me,
I <…> sore sick, for the space of 3 w<eeks or m>ore, &
<…> had not a good may<…> th<…> had been
Dead, for he did take pains with me to go to the physicians
for me and help me himself, both day and night, to
the uttermost of his power. But now thanked be God
of a mendment. I have taken your loving letters and read
them over, in the which I do perceive the great love and favour
showed unto me ever more, whereas you do certify me
that you have sent me 10 shillings for my exhibition according to your
promise made with my master at his last being with you; also adding
in the end of your letter, if so be that I have spent any
more, let me make you a reasonable answer and account of it, and ye will
be content to recompense it. Howbeit as yet I can make you no account,
for my master hath so great business against Magdalen Day that he
can have no leisure to make a reckoning to me. But as soon as
any other messenger cometh betime, ye shall have a perfect
account of all together. Therefore no more to you at this time,
but to desire you to send me a doublet cloth, and as for other
things, I put it unto your goodness to give me what
it shall please you. Thus, fare ye well, from Mary Magdalen
College in Oxford the 14th day of July.

By your son in law to his
poor Francis Baker

Baker addressed this letter to Adam Langley of Flintham, Nottinghamshire, signing himself Langley’s ‘son in law’. Students at this time were not permitted to marry, and it is fairly clear that Langley was in fact Baker’s stepfather, the second husband of his mother, Bridget. Adam Langley, gentleman, was a Nottinghamshire landowner involved in various litigation between 1514 and 1537. Here Francis thanks Langley for promising ‘10 shillings for my exhibition’ (‘exhibition’ being a now-obsolete term for ‘allowance’), and asks him to ‘send me a doublet cloth’.

Fig. 3 Letter from Francis Baker to Adam and Bridget Langley (TNA, SP 15/19, fol. 97)

There is evidence, however, that Adam Langley was reluctant to fund his stepson’s student lifestyle. SP 15/90 at The National Archives is a volume of the State Papers of Queen Elizabeth I, covering the period August-December 1570. In this volume is preserved another of Francis Baker’s letters home from Magdalen, also previously unknown. This second letter has suffered significant damage, rendering it illegible in parts, but both the handwriting and the readable contents strongly suggest it was composed around the same time as the first. This calls into question the catalogue data that places the two letters 60-80 years apart in date.


Right worshipful father and <mother, my duty presupposed in the humblest>
manner that I can, I heartily have <me commended un>to
you, being very glad to hear that you be in
good health, and all your household; desiring you
also of your daily blessing, etc. The cause of
my writing to you at this time is to certify you
that I have received from you, of goodman Ragsdale,
a crown of gold for a token, wherefore I do thank
you heartily, and am greatly bound to pray for you, as I do
and will do, as long as I live. <…> grace of <…>
howbeit I look also [for] an answer <…> my le<tter>
which I wrote unto you, <…> ma<…> <…>lines, when
Master President came down a progr<ess>, wherein I
certified you of my mind, what kind of living
I would apply myself unto, (like as you willed
me in your letters, sent by Master Jackson, what time
as he was with you after Easter), which was this, to desire
you to help me to a farm or some other temporal
living, what it should please you, showing you
also divers causes in my letters, why I was <inclined> more that
way than to be [a] priest, by the <reason of> certain impedi-
ments and infirmities that I had. <I none>theless will
not count you as unkind or forgetful of me, be-
cause you made no answer again, but rather
repute it unto your great business and labour that you
have, which taketh your mind from the remembrance of
me. Trusting that you will consider me by the next
messenger that cometh between, and thus to make an
end, I will commit you to almighty God, who ever preserve
you and keep you to his pleasure. Written at Magdalen
College in Oxford, the fifth day of December,
by your <…> Francis

In this letter, Baker refers to an unanswered request for financial help in procuring a temporal living. Most Oxford graduates in this period went on to a career in the church, but Baker clearly felt ill-suited to life as a clergyman. Baker is at pains not to accuse his mother and stepfather of being ‘unkind or forgetful of [him]’, but one wonders whether his parents disapproved of his career choice and had withdrawn their financial support.

Bridget Langley’s will, dated 23 May 1558 (TNA, SP 15/8, fol. 194), does not mention her son: she left her estate to her daughters, Elizabeth and Katherine, whom she made her executors. Adam Langley was dead before 25 January 1555: this is the date on TNA, WARD 2/57B/207/37, a lease in which Bridget Langley, widow, is a named party. Since Francis Baker’s letters are addressed to his mother and stepfather, both must have been written sometime before 1555.

The names ‘Jackson’ and ‘Ragsdale’ in the second letter offer a further clue to dating. Roger Jackson (or Jaxon) of East Bridgford in Nottinghamshire, a mere six miles from Flintham, was a fellow of Magdalen between 1554 and 1559. During those same years, Owen Ragsdale, also of Nottinghamshire, was a Magdalen demy. It is tempting to conclude that Baker’s time at Magdalen coincided with theirs. But, frustratingly, the college Archives offer no supporting evidence. Baker’s name features neither in MS 727, a register of a demies admitted to Magdalen between 1539 and 1933, nor in VP1/A1/1, the Vice-President’s register for 1547-1686. As such, we cannot confirm that he was at the college in the 1550s.

Fig. 4 Magdalen College in 1566 (Bodleian Libraries, MS. Bodl. 13, part I, f.8v)

However, Francis Baker was already resident in Oxford in 1524. A list of his expenses at Oxford for that year survives at The National Archives (TNA, WARD 2/60/234/136), compiled by his uncle on behalf of his mother, then known as Bridget Baker. This list of expenses must pre-date Francis Baker’s letters home from Magdalen, which were written after his mother had married Adam Langley and changed her surname. His expenses include the mending of his shoes, two weeks’ commons at Horspath, and a ‘primer’, or schoolbook; the latter suggesting he was a grammar school pupil in Oxford before he was a student at Magdalen.

Taken together, the surviving documentary evidence indicates that Francis Baker was a student at Magdalen at some time after 1524 and before 1555. While there are no records of him in Magdalen’s own institutional archive, the two letters at The National Archives testify both to his presence and his experiences here. They are truly exciting discoveries.

To find out more about the experiences of Magdalen students, including Francis Baker, in their own words, come and see our student correspondence exhibition in the Longwall Library.

Written by Dr Emily Jennings, Assistant Archivist and Records Manager