The Prize Papers Project

The Prize Papers of the High Court of Admiralty are a unique and fascinating collection which is held in the UK National Archives. A result of the early modern practice of capturing enemy ships and confiscating all papers travelling aboard them during wartime, they are an extraordinary combination of juridical documents relating tothe captures, and a vast “accidental” early modern global archive of all documents and objects that were part of the captures: trading and maritime papers, doodles, books and notebooks, keys, playing cards, colonial administration papers and around 160,000 undelivered letters intercepted on their way across the seas, many of which remain unopened to this day. This accidental archive provides matchless insights into the global entanglements of early modern worlds and lives, representing men, women, and children from a multitude of social and cultural backgrounds – so far, documents in at least 19 different languages have been identified (Dutch, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Danish, Swedish, Russian, Basque, Yiddish, Ladino, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Mandarin, Hindi), and we expect to discover more languages as the project progresses.

The aim of the Prize Papers project is the complete digitization of the Prize Papers including the Preservation of the collection’s material dimension, the initial and in-depth cataloguing, the creation of research-oriented metadata and finally the presentation of the digital copies and the metadata in an open access research database. The project also pursues various research projects and cooperates with numerous international researchers and research institutions working on the Prize Papers and in project-related areas.

The Prize Papers trace back to the practice of prize-taking on sea which was part of the early modern sea powers‘ war strategy. Martial Law required that the lawfulness of a capture be established in front of a Prize or Admiralty Court; to that end, the entire shipload (including private and commercial documents, ship’s papers, newspapers, personal effects, trading registers etc.) had to be seized by the capturing party. In the High Court of Admirality (HCA) collection at the National Archives, Kew, London, these captured documents and objects from the period between 1664 and 1817 have been preserved, together with the corresponding process files, largely untouched and unsorted as the only surviving collection of its kind in Europe.

This accidental preservation stretching over more than two centuries has created a global archive which has not been subjected to any selection or revision by the historical writers themselves, their descendants, or archivists. Thus, the Prize Papers allow unique insights into past worlds and cosmologies, historical self-concepts and interpersonal relationships, language acquisition, knowledge transfer, political and economic practices and processes of juridification in the context of the global interweaving of Europe and the world.


The Project is based at the University of Oldenburg, Germany, and the UK National Archives. It is subordinate to the Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Göttingen, Lower Saxony, Germany. It cooperates closely with The German Historical Institute London (GHIL) and the IT Experts of the VZG Göttingen.

 Funding Programme

The Project is funded within The Academies‘ Programme of the Union of German Academies of Sciences and Humanities; it is assigned to the Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Göttingen.

The Academies‘ Programme exists in order to retrieve and explore our cultural heritage, make it accessible and highlight its relevance to the present, and to preserve it for the future. It is currently the most comprehensive humanities research programme in Germany. Coordinated by the Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities, the Programme supports long-term basic research projects, predominantly in the humanities but also in the social sciences. The programme and its research projects are executed by the eight academies under the umbrella of the Union as well as by Leopoldina, the German National Academy of Sciences.

For a detailed introduction to the Union of German Academies of Sciences and Humanities and the Academies‘ Programme visit their homepages: Union der Deutschen Akademien der Wissenschaften  and The Academies‘ Programme.


Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg

The Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg was founded in 1973, making it one of Germany‘s young universities. Its goal is to find answers to the major challenges society faces in the 21st century – through interdisciplinary, cutting-edge research. Distances on the Oldenburg campus are short: the University‘s academic and administrative staff work closely together. Many are integrated into special research areas, research groups and European clusters of excellence.

The University cooperates closely with more than 200 other universities worldwide and is also affiliated with non-university institutes in the areas of research, education, culture and business.

The University of Oldenburg is preparing over 13,700 students for professional life. It offers a broad range of disciplines, from language studies, cultural studies and the humanities to educational sciences, art and musicology, the economic and social sciences, mathematics, computer science, the natural sciences and the new medicine and health science programmes established in 2012.

The project of the Prize Papers is affiliated to the Historical Institute.

The National Archives, Kew

TNA was formerlyfour separate organisations: the Public Record Office (PRO), the Historical ManuscriptsCommission, the Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI) and Her Majesty’sStationery Office (HMSO).

The repository of the Prize Papers is kept in TNA as part of the records of the High Court of Admiralty c1450-1995; though the Prize Papers date back to the period of the late 17th to the early 19th century.



The GHIL is the German Historical Institute based in London. It is part of the Max Weber Stiftung’s programme for centers of advanced studies abroad.

The institutes abroad are autonomous institutes carrying out independent academic work. They conduct their own research and promote cooperation with academics, as well as institutes within their own areas of work, in particular through publications and academic events, academic information and consultation, mediation of academic contacts, promotion of young historians, especially through scholarships as well as setting up and administering libraries and archives.

Developed by the joint initiative of German and British historians, the German Historical Institute London has been an integral part of the bilateral academic community for nearly four decades. Located in one of London’s typical town houses on Bloomsbury Square, it has become a point of reference for researchers from around the world. Having been the capital of the former British Empire, the metropolis is ideally placed to maintain a cross-border academic culture. Starting in 2013, the German Historical Institute London has established a Transnational Research Group in New Delhi together with British, German and Indian partners. Together with the London School of Economics it also hosts a visiting professorship funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.

With regard to the Prize Papers project, the GHIL forms a junction between the British and German working areas. The project’s photographers are employed and supervised by the GHIL, and the GHIL provides a prosperous research environment for the project’s PhD candidates visiting and working in London. Additionally, the GHIL will host public outreach events such as lectures and conferences to promote and entertain the project’s and the Prize Papers’ further academic and public impact.


The Gemeinsamer Bibliotheksverbund (GBV) is the common library network of the seven German federal states Bremen, Hamburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, LowerSaxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Schleswig-Holstein, Thuringia and the Foundation of Prussian Cultural Heritage. The GBV head office is situated in Göttingen.

The GBV is the cataloguing and service-oriented network of scientific, research and public libraries. The head office of the GBV (VZG) is responsible for library automation and the development of new innovative library specific services.

The work of VZG is characterized by the permanent effort to adjust the library network to the changing goals and expanding perspectives of modern library work.

The Team

Prof. Dr. Dagmar Freist, Project Director

Christina Beckers, Project Coordinator and Research Associate

Lucas Haasis, Research Cooperations and Research Associate

Annika Raapke, Public Relations and Research Associate

Dr. Jessica Cronshagen,  Teaching Cooperations

Suzanne Foxley, Research Associate

Oliver Finnegan, Research Associate

Alberto Winterberg, Research Associate

Joanne Muhammad, Project Photographer

Maria Cardamone, Project Photographer

Press & Media

Follow us on Twitter for the latest project news!

17th of May 2018: ABC News’ “Start Here” podcast, UK, Interview with Dr. Amanda Bevan, head of Legal Records at the National Archives of the U.K.

27th of April 2018:Dokumente aus der Zeit der Seekriege“. Newspaper article about the opening ceremony of the Prize Papers Project in Oldenburg, Nordwestzeitung (NWZ)

26th of April 2018: Prize Papers Project launches at Oldenburg Castle. Newsletter of The National Archives, U.K.

21st of November 2017:Historiker heben einen vergessenen Schatz“. Newspaper article about the Prize Papers Project, Nordwestzeitung (NWZ)

19th of February 2016: TV interview and presentation of the Prize Papers Project as part of the series “Forum Wissenschaft” on local TV broadcaster O1

12th of November 2015:Workshop on “Materiality of Letters and Letter Locking” Interview with Prof. Dr. James Daybell, Professor of Early Modern British History, Plymouth University, …

…. and Dr. Daniel Starza Smith, Lincoln College University of London, member of the project ‘Signed, Sealed & Undelivered’,


  • 11th of June 2018: Akademientag 2018 (Day of the Academies 2018). Geisteswissenschaften 3.0: Vergegenwärtigung des kulturellen Welterbes, Berlin

Download Programme 


  • 25th of April 2018: Project launch and opening ceremony at Oldenburg Castle

Press release University of Oldenburg

Press release The National Archives

NWZ coverage

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  • 6th to 8th of October 2014: “All At Sea: The Prize Papers as a Source for a Global Microhistory”, International Conference, The National Archives Kew, London, U.K.

organized by Dagmar Freist, Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg, Caroline Kimbell, National Archives London, Lex Heerma van Voss, Huygens Institute, The Hague, The German Historical Institute London and the Friends of the National Archives, London

Download Programme

Conference Report