‘Per Inspectionem Rotulorum’: the reference value of the early English Chancery Rolls (Part II)

The roll is a difficult instrument to manipulate and, as the National Archives handling instructions warn, has a mind of its own. The clerks were aware of its inadequacies and that is why they resolved to mark the regnal year and the sort of roll they were drawing up at the beginning and at the end of the sewn membranes. The Patent Roll for the sixteenth year of King John starts with the following heading: “Littere Patentes de Anno Domini Johannis Regis sexto decimo”24. The same roll closes with Hic “desinit annus regni domini Johannis Regis Angliae septimus decimus. De Litteris Patentibus”25. Whichever way the roll was wound, when the clerks wanted to find out whether they were looking for the right roll, they had a way of knowing without having to unroll it further26.

I have so far tried to establish that the early chancery rolls had the potential to be searched and consulted. They were full of weaknesses but it is my belief that the chancery clerks, at least in this early period of the enrolled royal records, were not altogether dispirited when an opportunity to search the archives arose. It is therefore quite possible that when John lost Caen in 1204 and the Norman archives were entrusted to his clerk Peter de Laon to be conveyed in carts back to London, the documents might also have been saved for their usefulness as reference tools27.

It is now time to check the substance of the rolls for evidence as to whether the chancery clerks took the time and trouble to inspect and make use of them. The retrieval of information was a laborious thing, even for the most indefatigable clerk. Henry III’s fine rolls bear no more than six instances of consultation between 1228 and 1239 and we know that from the “per inspectionem rotulorum” entries in the rolls28. If credence is lent to these entries, then the clerks may have actually searched the archives with positive results29.

One reasonable question is why did the king and his “cancellaria” need to search the archives. We are a long way from Edward I’s claims to Scotland and his injunction to corroborate that claim with documentary evidence available in the century-old rolls. Inspection followed from all sorts of reasons. Perhaps the king had made a grant of property to an individual and he wanted to make sure not to give away the same privilege or concession to another. Records were kept so that the king knew what and to whom he had given, whether it be a piece of land, a licence or right, a wardship, or a mere exemption. Most of all such solemn privileges were mainly enrolled on the charter rolls of which the first survives from 1199 . They weren’t always faithful to the original engrossment as far as the witness list is concerned but this need not bother us since it is indicative of the fact that the rolls were not designed as legal material but rather as a tool for general reference30.  The granting of privileges would sometimes lead to dispute. This is precisely what happened in 1201 when the monks of the abbey of St Etheldred of Ely opened a market at Lakenheath with royal sanction31. When the abbot of Bury St Edmunds heard about it, a dispute soon arose between the two abbeys. Jocelin of Brakelong then tells us that the king ordered a search to be made “per registrum suum” to find out the exact terms of the licence granted to the monks of Ely. Upon the royal “inquisition”32, the entry was located in the charter roll, perhaps with some help from the adjoining marginal note that read “Carta monachorum de Ely”33. It was revealed that the market had been granted on condition that it should not damage neighbouring markets. I would like to dwell a little on the use of the words “registrum suum”. Jocelin’s chronicle has been honoured by two translations, the first made in 1949 and the other in 198934. The two are similar in most respects except when it comes to making sense of the word “registrum”. Michael Clanchy draws attention to the fact that the term holds a wide range of meanings for the period we are concerned with.  A monastic cartulary, the chancery rolls, the Capetian registers and even Domesday book, all were qualified by this all-encompassing term since they were all “edited collections, in books or rolls, which had been compiled from primary sources from separate pieces of parchment”35. The first translator of Jocelin’s chronicle renders “per registrum suum” “by his registrar” thus applying a fallacious meaning to the word36. The 1989 translation is “through his register”, which seems more appropriate.   The king’s register were the Charter Rolls and the search was successful. That the register was “suum” conforms perfectly well with what we know about the non-public character of the chancery records. As Nicholas Vincent put it, “the rolls were servants of the king”37.

This story illustrates both the chancery’s ability to build sufficiently searchable material and the clerks’ means to do a profitable search of the royal records. Let us not forget however that the lifespan of a document was relatively low. Memory seems to have been fairly limited in the 1200s as it continued to be for the rest of the middle ages38. The chancery clerks entrusted with elucidating the Ely-St Edmunds muddle were dealing with recent documents and therefore able to locate the required roll and the entry therein contained with relative ease. Indeed, the roll hadn’t even been completed by the time the inspectio took place. The Ely charter had been granted on 25 March 1201 and Jocelin of Brakelond is parsimonious in dating the dispute39.

Sometimes, the clerks were enrolling fines, letters or charters that related to previous engrossments. The survey of these occasions is very likely to produce evidence of the rolls having proven their potential for reference. I shall be looking at the cancellations that occur quite often on every chancery roll. First of all, these cancellations are almost always accompanied by a note stating the reason why the cancellation was effected. These reasons are manifold. I shall not attempt to catalogue them all but I will bring out a few in order to show the clerk busy in his scriptorium looking through the whole set of rolls, asking for previous documents and readjusting entries on the go. The most common reason given for a cancelled entry is that a duplicate memorandum exists on a different roll. Fines are enrolled on the close rolls but are subsequently cancelled. In 1205 the king holds quit Robert of Ropsley of two tuns of wine40. The release from payment should have gone to the fine rolls instead. The entry gets cancelled and a note is appended: “cancelled because enrolled on the fine roll”. When the king commands all the knights and freetenants of Westmoreland to do homage to Robert of Vieuxpont, he causes a letter patent to be sent to the community of Westmoreland but his chancery clerks enroll the writ on the close roll41. The entry is crossed out and the cancellation note explains that the writ had been transferred on the patent roll42. Elsewhere, a cancelled letter patent made its way in the charter roll43; another one in the close roll44. Occasionally, the cancelled transcript wasn’t in a different set of rolls but in a roll of a different regnal year. Readjustments were happening all the time because the clerks had no means of knowing if a given writ or charter had already been enrolled. It was only after committing everything to writing that a certain reorganization could be undertaken.

Inadvertences like the ones we’ve just seen are plentiful but they all seem to tell us that the clerks were expected to make use of the information they were so careful to preserve in the right place. In 1200, Hugo de Havensham gave the king 200 marks to have the custody of the late William of Clinton’s lands. The entry recording the fine was enrolled on the fine roll of 1John45. A cancellation note invalidates the offering and points out that Isabella de Clinton whom I suspect to be William’s widow, offered the king 300 marks to have her husband’s inheritance. In the 3John fine roll, Isabella’s oblatio is duly recorded46. This is to be understood thus: Hugo made his offer to the king then was outbid by Isabella once the transaction was revealed to her. The clerk recorded the fine in the later roll and then went two rolls back and cancelled Hugo’s fine.

The clerks went a step further in facilitating the inspection of rolls. When an entry was duplicated, one of the two duplicates was cancelled and a explanatory note added. The note said where the other entry was, whether “inferius”, “superius”, “infra rotulum”, “in dorso” or simply “alibi”. Sometimes, the clerks were even more generous in their indications. A charter was granted in 1208 to the Flemish merchants of the cities of Ypres, Gant, Bruges, St-Audemer and Douai. A copy was enrolled in the charter roll. For some unknown reason, the chancery clerks re-enrolled it at the end of the last membrane. Quite consistent with what we have seen so far, the clerks cancelled the original entry on the following notification: “cancellata quia inferius in fine rotuli sub eadem forma”47. There is a striking example of the chancery working towards improved precision in the charter rolls. In August 1200, the king granted Peter Robert and his heirs 200 librates of land in England. The record was cancelled because Peter was subsequently conceded a grant of land at Marbote in Aquitaine. The cancellation note indicates that the “predicta carta de terra de Marbote” was enrolled in “rotulo anni regni domini Regis tercii”48. This is exceptional but it shows how far chancery cross-referencing could go at such an early age.

All these cancellations increased text visibility. The primitive system of cross-referencing enabled the royal officials to bring most rolls into play, at least the most recent ones, as documentary memory was short and fragile. When writs and charters started to be systematically dated, the chancery staff realized what a reliable instrument that could be for later searches of the rolls. Dating was however not everything as far as enrollment went. Every now and then, the charter, patent and close rolls give mention of notable events which may have been intended as visual aids to future clerks: the death of the archbishop of Canterbury or the time when king John sailed back to England in 120649.

I have tried to see the extent to which king John’s chancery records were apt to be searched. I haven’t said it enough but the evidence is patently scanty. However, the way the rolls were drawn up, the different devices used to improve legibility and to articulate the different set of rolls in a coherent whole, shows that the Angevin rolls could be searched. They were admittedly inconvenient and difficult to handle but they were functional nonetheless. Jocelin of Brakelond’s story might not have been so singular. There might have been other instances of searching and inspecting the rolls but we might never know for sure.

24. Rotuli litterarum patentium, 141

25. Ibid. 180

26. Similarly, ibid. 82: “Rotulus litterarum patencium noni anni”

27. Rotuli de Liberate ac de Misis et Praestitis, regnante Johanne (ed. T. D. Hardy, 1844), 102-3; Rotuli litterarum clausarum (ed. T. D. Hardy, 1833-1844), 3

28. www.frh3.org.uk, 12/118, 19/17, 19/20, 19/26, 19/69, 23/302

29. Four out of six of the aforesaid entries contain the phrase “quia constat nobis per inspectionem rotulorum” which the Henry III Fine Rolls Project translators rendered “because it is clear by an inspection of his rolls”. This may prove that the clerks succeeded in locating the entries they were looking for. The use of the plural for “rotulorum” may point to a protracted search in more than one roll.

30. At least that’s what Nicholas Vincent appears to hint at when he criticizes Richardson’s argument that the scribes were “mere automota”, “incapable of constructing an intelligent précis”, Vincent, Why 1199, 36. While there doesn’t seem to have been any financial rationale underlying the enrolling of chancery records, I suspect the charter roll entries to have been enrolled in full so that their general terms could serve as serviceable memory for future inquiries.

31. Jocelin of Brakelond, Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, (Oxford, 1989), 117

32. The Latin verb Jocelin used was inquirers

33. Rotuli chartarum, 91

34. Jocelin of Brakelond, The chronicle of Jocelin of Brakelond : concerning the acts of Samson, abbot of the monastery of St. Edmund (tr. T. Nelson, London, 1949); Jocelin of Brakelond, Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, (Oxford, 1989)

35. Clanchy, From Memory, 80

36. The Latin word for registrar is registrator; Du Cange et al., Glossarium mediæ et infimæ latinitatis. There is no instance of the word registrum having been used as the official responsible for keeping the official records. Besides, if John’s records mention such an office, then it is merely referred to as custody of the rolls, like the note contained in the Close Rolls, Rot. claus., 196b, where William Cucuel “receipt rotulos custodiendum” 

37. Vincent, Why 1199, 48

38. Ibid., 29

39. Jocelin of Brakelond (1989), 117: “in the same year”

40. Rotuli clausarum, 21

41. Ibid., 23

42. Rotuli patentibus, 51

43. Ibid., 60, 87, et al.

44. Ibid., 71

45. Rotuli de Oblatis et Finibus (ed. T. D. Hardy, 1835), 61

46. Ibid., 173

47. Rotuli chartarum, 182

48. Ibid. 74b: the Charter Roll for 3John is regrettably missing.

<< back to part I of the interview

Calendar of Chancery Warrants (1244-1326) (London 1927).

Jocelin of Brakelond, The Chronicle of Jocelin of Brakelond : Concerning the Acts of Samson, Abbot of the Monastery of St. Edmund (London 1949).

Jocelin of Brakelond, Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds (Oxford 1989).

M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record (London 1979).

D. Carpenter, ”In Testimonium Factorum Brevium’: The Beginnings of the English Chancery Rolls’, in: N. Vincent (ed), Records, Administration and Aristocratic Society in the Anglo-Norman Realm (Woodbridge 2009), 1-28.

M.T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record (London 1979).

Fine Rolls Henry III Project, available from www.frh3.org.uk.

V. H. Galbraith, Studies in the Public Records (London 1949).

T. D. Hardy (ed.), Rotuli Litterarum Patentium (London 1835).

  •     (ed.), Rotuli Litterarum Clausarum (London 1833-1844) 1v.

  •       (ed.), Rotuli De Oblatis Et Finibus (London 1835).

  •       (ed.), Rotuli Chartarum (London 1837).

  •       (ed.), Rotuli De Liberate Ac De Misis Et Praestitis, Regnante Johanne (London 1844).

The National Archives (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO) C53: Charter Rolls, C53/1.

S. Painter, The Reign of King John (Baltimore 1949).

H. G. Richardson, ‘Introduction’ Memoranda Roll for the Michaelmas Term of the First Year of King John (1199-1200) (London 1943).

N. Vincent, ‘Why 1199? Bureaucracy and Enrolment under John and His Contemporaries’, in A Jobson, ed., English Government in the Thirteenth Century (Woodbridge 2004), 17-48.

W. L. Warren, The Governance of Normand and Angevin England (London 1987).

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