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

At the turn of the fourteenth century, king Edward I enjoined his chancery clerks to “search all the rolls and remembrances, search Domesday at the Exchequer at York and all the other rolls of the Exchequer and Chancery, so that nothing is left unsearched, then go to London to search all the other rolls there”1 Nothing is known about what came of their efforts but judging by the overwhelming mass of royal records that had thitherto accumulated, one is likely to expect little from such an endeavour. A hundred years had passed since the English chancery started compiling, keeping and storing its documentary output. From the reign of king John, different sets of rolls survive which indicate that although enrollment may have started long before he came to the throne2, the Chancery activity was accelerating at an unprecedented rate. Rolls were kept for the two types of documentary instruments that the Angevin government could issue, namely, the sealed writ and the solemn charter. These documents were increasingly being enrolled so that by the fourth year of John’s reign, four types of chancery rolls survived to the present day: The fine roll, the patent roll, the close roll and the charter roll. It is not the place here to discuss the particulars of each roll in turns nor to decide when the outgoing chancery letters and charters “took the quantum leap into enrolment”3. A word, however, should be said in this introduction about what these rolls came to signify by the beginning of the thirteenth century. The English chancery was experimenting with a new model of literacy that was to set the society on a new course. By keeping all these rolls, let alone going to all the effort of compiling them, the Chancery was transforming itself. The seals evolved4,  diplomatic practice was enriched with an improved dating clause5, the intitulatio formulas reached new levels of standardization6.

The first rolls to come into existence seem to have been the fine rolls. This is because the fine roll was closely connected with the Exchequer which had started enrolling its proceedings before 1130. The fine rolls were used to draw up the so-called Originalia rolls which were an essential tool to the barons of the Exchequer in the annual auditing process7. There has been a lot of research into the nature, purpose and scope of the chancery rolls but it seems to me that one question is yet to be fully appraised: to what degree, if at all was the first generation of the chancery records prone to be of any use for consultation as a reference tool. All documentary records abide by the principles of the human memory: production, storage and retrieval. Indeed, there would be no use for drawing up annual rolls if they weren’t eventually going to serve as written memory and facilitate the access of lost information.  Whatever roll the chancery was drawing up, its chief purpose was to be used as memoranda8. I am introducing this metaphor of the human memory to draw attention to the importance of retrieving stored but remote knowledge. My first presumption is that this key moment in the existence of records, whether royal, monastic, baronial, etc, informs the whole process of documentary production.

In this essay I shall be looking at the earliest chancery rolls so as to determine  the extent to which the Angevin royal records were used for consultation and reference and if so, whether the chancery clerks did make any use of the available and inflating amount of enrolled records. The retrieval of information was a vital step in the production and handling of government records.

This question has not been ignored by historians like Galbraith9, Richardson10, Clanchy11 and Vincent12 but none of them, to my knowledge, has looked far enough for evidence that the early rolls were capable of being or actually were searched for information. Most of them have contented themselves with precipitous pessimistic conclusions, pointing out the laboriousness of searching the rolls or the inadequacy of the Chancery for storing and retrieving its own archive material13. Moreover, Michael Clanchy noted that it was only in the 1300s that “the government subjected them [i.e. administrative documents] to comprehensive inspection14. I agree with them as to the scarcity of evidence concerning instances of actual attempts to search the rolls in the first quarter of the thirteenth century but I wouldn’t stop there. I think it presumptuous to infer ex silentio that the chancery staff were simply unable to locate an entry in some previous roll nor that they completely gave up searching the compiled archives15.

A sensible starting point is not the substance of the rolls but rather their “para-textual” structure. It has been argued that the mere fact that English chancery preferred enrolment over the other, continental way of enlisting written records, namely the register or cartulary, was a stumbling block in itself.  It is admittedly much more difficult to search the sewn roll than the bound register but not altogether impossible. If the roll was favoured above the codex for reasons of portability and lightweight convenience16, then it is safe to assume that John’s peripatetic chancery expected to have easy and quick access to the knowledge contained in the roll and not to wait for the rolls to be fetched from the multiple depository locations.

Our discussion takes us to the question of storage and safekeeping. Let us remind ourselves that this is a time of great transformation and unless we are cautious, we may fall into anachronism when discussing the depository of chancery records. It is therefore difficult to tell where the rolls were more likely to be at any one time but there is evidence of different places where royal records were kept by the Angevin kings. The court was itinerant and some rolls were travelling with the king  “in cofris suis”. When not moving, the documents stayed in many places, ranging from the Treasury to palaces, monasteries and churches around London. Whether on the move or in a fixed place, the records were kept in boxes bearing different identifying signs, albeit not alphabetical, systematic or coherent, that show, to some extent, that the Chancery was at least envisaging the possibility of coming back to those boxes and rolls if need be. The impression is one of orderliness, at least insofar as an itinerant chancery was capable of17.

The layout, headings and listings indicate that the rolls were at least developed with the purpose of reference in mind. Everyone who has seen and worked with the rolls knows perfectly well how clear and orderly their layout is. Each entry is sufficiently spaced out from the others so as to increase visibility. Nicholas Vincent has pointed out a major limitation of the rolls in their inability to index entries by subject. The Charter Roll for the first year of king John bears almost as many marginal notes as entries, which might even be considered to be listings18. These notes describe the nature of the contiguous enrolled charters thus displaying what I believe to be strong evidence that the rolls were actually held to be approachable as a reference tool. Similarly, the Patent Roll for the seventeenth year of king John contains a large number of marginal notes that go in the direction of an index by subject matter. For instance, the entry for a letter patent addressed to the knights and servants of the castle of Oxford carries a marginal note that reads “custodia castri”19. Further down, Emilius the moneyer is confirmed the right to continue issuing coin in the king’s name. The adjoining note says “De moneta facienda”20. Other thematic notes refer to granted lands, wardship of counties, letters of protection, advowson, keeping of the peace, election of abbots and miscellaneous financial transactions. It is evident that the chancery was experimenting with different ways of rendering the rolls more accessible. The mention of the month is increasingly present in the marginalia21. On the dorse of the Patent Rolls late in John’s reign, there are marginal notes serving as headings and describing the place where the writ or charter was issued22. I shall now discuss the layout of the fine rolls where marginal notes abound. Apart from the county headings, there is a great deal of information about the nature or the outcome of the different pecuniary pledges made to the king. For instance, when Radolphus Bloet gave the king a palfrey to have a licence to enclose a hunting park on his manorial land in Colchester, the sheriff of Essex, Hugh de Neville was instructed to secure the palfrey on the king’s behalf. There are two marginal notes affixed to this entry and one just below it: the marginalia notations describe the county the entry belonged to, which is mistaken for Wiltshire, and the subject of the matter pertaining to forest law; the lower note is a clause quitting Hugh of all debt and preventing the fine from being sent to the Exchequer23.

>> proceed to part II of the article

1 Calendar of Chancery Warrants (London 1927), I, 120

2 For the beginnings of the Chancery rolls, see D. Carpenter, “‘In testimonium factorum Brevium’: The Beginnings of the English Chancery Rolls’, in Records, Administration and Aristocratic Society in the Anglo-Norman Realm, ed. N. Vincent (Woodbridge 2009), 1-28; N. Vincent, ‘Why 1199? Bureaucracy and Enrolment under John and his Contemporaries’, in English Government in the Thirteenth Century, ed A Jobson (Woodbridge 2004), 17-48

3 Vincent, Why 1199…, 17-8

4 S. Painter, The Reign of King John (Baltimore 1949), 106-108

5 M. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record (London 1979), 236-41

6 Vincent, Why 1199, 40

7 Carpenter, In testimonium…, 6-8

8 Painter, King John…, 104

9 V.H. Galbraith, Studies in the Public Records (London 1948), 26-88

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

11 M. Clanchy, From Memory…, 138-47

12 Vincent, Why 1199…, 44-48

13 Ibid. 48

14 Ibid. 48

15 Painter takes a quite different view from the other historians who discussed the early chancery practice. While discussing the charter roll and its value for retrieving grants made in the king’s name, he concludes that “the mere fact that one cannot produce clear evidence that they used it for purposes of general reference seems to me to be of slight importance”, King John, p. 101

16 Ibid. 48

17 W.L. Warren, The Governance of Normand and Angevin England (London 1987), 126: “Not even the papal chancery could match the royal chancery of King John’s day in the ordering of its archive”

18 National Archives C53/1; Rotuli chartarum (ed. T.D. Hardy, London)

19 Rotuli litterarum patentium (ed. T.D. Hardy, Record commission), 159

20 Ibid. 160

21 Ibid. 88

22 Ibid. 83

23 Rotuli De Oblatis Et Finibus (ed. T.D. Hardy, 1835), 221

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