The Irish Chancery Rolls

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The English chancery was the royal secretariat or writing office, whose origins can be traced back to the household of the Anglo-Saxon kings. The prestige of the chancery was grounded in the fact that it was the office of the great seal of England―the most solemn of the royal seals used to authenticate instruments in the medieval kingdom.  The practice of enrolling or ‘registering’ letters issued under the great seal of England began in the reign of John (1199–1216). The rolls were arranged by regnal year and contained transcripts of letters, mostly written in Latin, issued in the king’s name.

The two best-known series of enrolments in England were the patent and close rolls, which contained transcripts of letters patent (Lat. littere patentes) and letters close (Lat. littere clause) respectively. Letters patent were open or ‘patent’: a wax impression of the great seal pendent was attached to the letter with a parchment tag, and the opening protocols were addressed universally ‘to all whom it may concern’. Letters close were literally closed: the seal had to be broken for their contents to be read, and the letters were addressed to a single recipient or corporate body such as a monastic house. These are the two basic diplomatic forms of English chancery letters. But, already in the thirteenth century, a more elaborate series of chancery enrolments was evolving, organized according to the type of business transacted (e.g., the charter, fine and liberate rolls) or by geographical location in the case of the Gascon rolls (Lat. rotuli Vasconie), Welsh rolls (Lat. rotuli Wallie) and the so-called ‘Scotch’ rolls (Lat. rotuli Scotie). (These last three series of enrolments all contain letters concerning these dependencies issued under the great seal of England. They are, therefore, entirely different from ‘Irish chancery rolls’, which were compiled in Ireland and contain letters issued under the great seal used in Ireland.) Before the turn of the fourteenth century there were ten major series of enrolments in England, and more would be added in time.

The Irish chancery was the office of the ‘great seal of the king used in Ireland’. It was a younger institution, being an outgrowth of the English invasion of Ireland that began in the late 1160s. The formal existence of a royal chancery in Ireland can be dated to 1232, when the chancellor of England, Bishop Ralph Neville of Chichester—famous as the man whose palace in London gave Chancery Lane its name—was granted the chancery of Ireland for life. Neville performed his duties in Ireland by proxy through one Robert Luttrell, who was continued as chancellor of Ireland on Neville’s death in 1244. Thenceforth, the Irish chancery existed as a discrete institution. The Irish chancery produced just two series of enrolments: patent and close rolls. Consequently, the Irish chancery rolls are notably eclectic in their contents, and many items that in England would have been hived off into other classes of record―charters, fines, writs of liberate, writs of parliamentary summons, even the occasional return from an inquisition post mortem―are found instead on patent rolls or close rolls.

Irish letters patent (20 May 1467)

Irish letters patent (20 May 1467).

A charter of English law to Sawe Kavanagh, with impression of the great seal pendent of Ireland attached by parchment tag.

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Structure and Form of the Irish Chancery Rolls

Although all the original Irish chancery rolls have been destroyed, a substantial amount of information concerning the rolls can be gleaned from four ancient inventories dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For full details see Section 4, A Revised Inventory and Concordance of the Medieval Irish Chancery Rolls. This revised inventory lists in tabular form all the Irish chancery rolls that survived to the nineteenth century. References below to individual rolls are given in the form RCI roll §1 etc. The numbers are those assigned to the chancery rolls by the Record Commission of Ireland (RCI) in the early nineteenth century.

These ancient inventories lay bare the terrible condition of the medieval Irish chancery rolls in the early nineteenth century, but they also enable us to build up a surprisingly detailed picture of the structure and form of those records. The medieval Irish chancery rolls were created in so-called ‘chancery style’. Long parchment membranes, probably between 10 and 12 inches in width, were stitched head-to-foot and rolled up to form a cylinder. The Public Record Office of Ireland later described these as ribbon rolls (‘in which the membranes are attached to one another successively, so as to form a continuous band or ribbon’), to distinguish them from the modern book rolls of chancery (‘in which all the membranes are stitched together at the top like the leaves of a book which opens end-wise … affording superior facility of reference’). The record commissioners unearthed only one medieval roll that did not conform to chancery style, namely the patent roll of 3 Henry VI, discovered in Bermingham tower, of which they observed: ‘this roll was originally formed like the others, but is now sewed bookwise’. The format of the medieval rolls explains why calendared entries in RCH are often at their most sparse at the beginning of the face and dorse of the rolls: this, being the outermost membrane, suffered most from wear and tear.

The fact that the Irish administration enrolled records may seem so obvious as to be unworthy of emphasis; but it is salutary to recall that rolls were an idiosyncrasy of English record-keeping and not at all common elsewhere in the medieval West. Nor did enrolment make for efficient administration, as Susan Reynolds complains:

Anyone who has struggled with the bulk of patent rolls, memoranda rolls, or plea rolls, or with the difficulty of keeping smaller rolls flat, knows that it is much easier to consult records in books. In other countries, where bureaucracy got going later, more up-to-date methods were more often used: that is records were kept in books or in folios that were later bound into books.

Bureaucracy ‘got going’ in Ireland comparatively late; but it was natural for the nascent colonial administration to replicate (with modifications) established metropolitan procedures. Chancery enrolments were just one cog in the machinery of the English state ‘exported’ to Ireland in the thirteenth century; once there, for better or worse in terms of efficiency, they became a hallowed administrative tradition that endured for centuries.

Irish close roll (1308x9)

Irish close roll (1308x9

Facsimile of the dorse of Irish close roll, 2 Edward II (1308x9). Original destroyed in 1922. Image from Gilbert, Facsimiles, iii, plate 3: Memorandum on records destroyed by fire at St Mary's abbey, Dublin, A.D. 1304; and enumeration of official documents delivered to Walter Thornbury, chancellor of Ireland, by the executors of Thomas Cantok, bishop of Ely, his predecessor in office, who died A.D. 1308x9.

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Marginalia and headings

One feature of the original Irish chancery rolls that may have been intended to make them more user-friendly was their marginal annotations, from which the record commissioners occasionally supplied details missing in original enrolments that had become illegible in whole or part. Such marginalia were probably intended to serve as ‘signposts’ directing the medieval clerks to the contents of the rolls, which were un-indexed and, being clogged with ephemera, time-consuming to search. In addition, nearly all the Irish chancery rolls that survived to the nineteenth century had descriptive headings (placed at the top of the front of the first membrane on the roll) or endorsements (which, by definition, appeared on the back of the roll, normally on the outermost membrane). These were dutifully listed by the record commissioners in their inventory of 1819. The use of Arabic numerals—not to mention the fact that the labels are such an uncertain guide to the nature of the rolls—indicates that the majority of these headings and endorsements were imposed in modern times. A few, however, conform to medieval dating conventions, and it is reasonable to suppose that it was normal practice to label the rolls for ease of reference. By contrast, the practice of assigning numbers to each of the enrolled letters was assuredly a post-medieval one. These numbers, which appeared in the margins of the rolls, are now familiar as the individual item numbers printed in RCH. It is clear, however, that the system of numeration was not an innovation of the record commission (or, at least, not always), since Lodge also included numbers in his chancery abstracts, and these normally correspond to those in RCH.

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Method of enrolment

The inventories also throw some light on the method of enrolment in the Irish chancery. In England it is quite common to find that the patent or close roll for a single regnal year is divided into two or more ‘parts’, especially in the later fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries when the number of letters issued under the great seal of England was at its height. Each ‘part’ seems to have been compiled concurrently rather than consecutively, no doubt for the practical reason that this enabled more than one chancery clerk to busy himself with enrolling letters at the same time. In Ireland, it seems that one roll in each class for each regnal year was sufficient for the volume of business passing under the Irish seal. It is true that several patent rolls in RCH are divided into two or more ‘parts’; but close examination of the inventories suggests that these ‘parts’ originally formed a single roll. The patent roll of 10 Henry IV, for instance, is calendared in three ‘parts’ in RCH (RCI rolls §§73–5): the second of these (§74) was a substantial roll of some twenty membranes, but the first and third ‘parts’ each consisted of a single fragmentary membrane which, presumably, became detached from the main portion of the roll over the course of time.

In other respects, Irish enrolment procedures adhere to the English pattern more closely. It is clear from the sequence of numbered entries in RCH (which preserves the order of items entered on the original roll) that, as in the English chancery, letters were enrolled in a rough, sometimes very rough, chronological order. A haphazard chronological progression can sometimes be traced between rolls that have been calendared in two ‘parts’ in RCH, as in the case of the Irish patent roll of 20 Edward III (=RCI rolls §§20–1). Edward III’s regnal year began on 25 January: ‘part one’ of this roll (§20) contains entries ranging from January to June 1346; the second ‘part’ (§21) covers the period June to December. As in England, there was also a tendency to group entries of a similar nature together (for instance fines, nominations of attorney, licences to export grain etc.), and to reserve certain places on the roll for particular types of business. The dorse of the English patent rolls was, for instance, the favoured place to enrol judicial appointments, such as commissions of oyer and terminer;  in similar manner, we often find commissions of the peace in Ireland clustered on the dorse of the Irish patent rolls.

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Errors in previous inventories and lists

Previous inventories of the Irish chancery rolls contain a number of inaccuracies, especially with regard to the dating and classification of the rolls. Three rolls were attributed to the wrong regnal years in RCH: RCI roll §7, described as Close Roll 10 Edward II, in fact belongs to 10 Edward III; RCI roll §69, described as Patent Roll 7 Henry IV part 1, belongs to 10 Henry V; and RCI roll §106, described as Close Roll 9 Henry VI, belongs to 8–9 Henry V. The close rolls of 3 Edward II, 8 Edward III and 5 Richard II ‘part 2’ (=RCI rolls §§4, 15 and 42, respectively) are all erroneously identified in RCH as patent rolls. In addition to the patent and close rolls, RCH also calendars eleven rolls that have long been assumed to belong to the series of close rolls (RCI rolls §§7, 16, 28, 95, 97, 99, 100, 101, 106, 109, 112). However, among the papers of the late Philomena Connolly preserved in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, there survives a note identifying these as ‘controlment rolls’ of the Irish exchequer. The following quotation gives Dr Connolly’s analysis in extenso:

These rolls, compiled in the exchequer (probably by the chief chamberlain), contain transcripts of writs of liberate issued by the Irish (and occasionally the English) chancery and also writs witnessed by a baron of the exchequer for the payment of minor expenses to the usher of the exchequer. The order of entries corresponds to the order in which the payments are recorded on the issue roll, and writs relating to payments to the same person for the same purpose are grouped together (as they are often found in the surviving files of writs in E 101 [Accounts Various]).They can be distinguished from close rolls of the Irish chancery by the following criteria: they contain only writs of liberate; they often include writs in favour of the usher of the exchequer witnessed by a baron of the exchequer; the arrangement of the entries corresponds to that of the issue rolls; [and] they are written on one side only. Their appearance in 8–10 Edward III coincides with the abandonment of the practice of compiling annual issue rolls. [Thereafter] controlment rolls seem to correspond to individual issue rolls and so cover the period of account.

Two further pieces of evidence corroborate the theory that these eleven rolls were compiled in the exchequer. The earliest of the controlments rolls identified by Connolly, that of 8 Edward III (=RCI roll §7), contained a single item on the dorse, namely a transcript of an indenture of receipt for money received by the treasurer as a loan from John Darcy. In the case of a later roll (RCI roll §112), which contains writs ranging from 10 to 20 Henry VI, the evidence is unequivical. The roll was endorsed: ‘Transcript of the writs of Nicholas Strangways, chief chamberlain of the exchequer of Ireland in the time of Giles Thorndon, treasurer of Ireland.’ Writs of liberate―which were addressed to the treasurer and chamberlains of the Irish exchequer and authorized the payment of specified sums from the treasury―are a species of the genus littere clause, and they were enrolled as a matter of course in the Irish close rolls, there being no separate series of Irish liberate rolls. Consequently, the writs on the eleven ‘controlment rolls’ can be used to reconstruct Irish letters close for those regnal years.

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The ‘Antiquissime’ Roll

By far the most problematic roll in the entire series is the earliest (RCI roll §1), known as the ‘Antiquissime’ roll from an endorsement of the early seventeenth century: ‘Antiquissime littere Patentes & Concessiones’. The label sets a false trail, for this was not a patent roll of the Irish chancery. Its precise nature and purpose are still far from clear. It contained letters patent and charters from as early as the reign of Henry II, though most of them date from the reigns of the first two Edwards (1272–1307; 1307–27). Moreover, the vast majority of the grants were made under the great seal of England, not the Irish seal. Perhaps the most impressive feature of the ‘Antiquissime’ roll is the extent to which its contents are not routine, but rather concern prominent figures in Irish political society and touch upon the king’s landed interests in Ireland―including a number of grants made to the king himself. This is suggestive of a record compiled within the Irish administration for its own reference, probably in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, rather than of a miscellany of deeds ‘registered’ in chancery at the request of their recipients or other interested parties. The English-seal patents and charters may, then, have been transmitted to the king’s ministers in Ireland to ensure that the left hand of royal bureaucracy knew what the right was doing. Another point worthy of note is that two of the letters were followed by memoranda indicating that they were enrolled in the Irish exchequer. Taken together with the fact that so many of the records bear directly upon those aspects of royal lordship that have been dubbed ‘fiscal feudalism’, this may indicate that the ‘Antiquissime’ roll was an exchequer production, not a roll of chancery. If so there is, perhaps, a comparison to be drawn with the registers of ‘state papers’, muniments and other diplomatic documents compiled in the English exchequer at the turn of the fourteenth century.

A final caveat concerns the manner in which the ‘Antiquissime’ roll was calendared in RCH. The original roll contained a total of eight membranes of which RCI roll §1 comprised only the first six. The last two membranes were detached by the RCI because their contents belonged to the reign of Edward II. They were calendared separately under the title Rotulus Patens de anno 11 Edw. II. 1a pars (=RCI roll §8).