Reconstructing the rolls of the medieval Irish chancery

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Introduction

Even before the ashes had cooled on the Four Courts blaze of 1922, a desperate effort was underway to mitigate the effects of the disaster. In July 1922 notices appeared in the press seeking the recovery of records that had been dispersed by wind across the city and scavenged as far away as Howth. Alas, the response was negligible. A dejected PROI began to haemorrhage staff in 1920s, and the operations of the office were constrained for several decades by the meagre resources allocated to it. Such as was accomplished under these adverse circumstances was impressive and of lasting value. But, generally speaking, the attitude of the fledgling Irish state towards the remnants of its archival heritage was one of calculated indifference.

The burden of reconstituting what had been lost, therefore, devolved in large part to individual scholars, whose private enterprises were encouraged by the Irish Manuscripts Commission, founded in 1928. The reconstruction of the Irish chancery rolls was the brainchild of one of the members of that commission, Annette Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven, Lecky professor of history in Trinity College, Dublin, between 1951 and 1980. Otway-Ruthven had earned her doctoral stripes with a dissertation on the king’s secretary in the fifteenth century, an almost intractable subject owing to the destruction of the records of the signet office in 1619 by a fire in the old banqueting house at Whitehall. No training could have better prepared her for a second career working on medieval Irish institutional history mostly using substitute source material.

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The Irish Chancery Project

The Irish chancery project was to be the work of Otway-Ruthven’s retirement. Funding was first accessed c.1977 from the British Academy and later the Leverhulme Trust. When Otway-Ruthven was overtaken by illness in the early 1980s, the directorship of the project passed successively to James Lydon and, upon his retirement in 1993, to Katharine Simms. It was the achievement of this early phase of the project to create a ‘paper database’ comprising all known references to Irish chancery letters. By the late 1980s over 20,000 record cards had been gathered and sorted by regnal year. Some of these data were transferred to a computer in an early experiment in ‘digital humanities’, and a trial reconstruction of the close roll of a single regnal year (48 Edward III) was published in 1992. Between c.1997 and 2002 Philomena Connolly, a former student of Otway-Ruthven’s and senior archivist at the National Archives of Ireland, worked privately on the project, bringing the existing record cards into good order and setting in train plans for the final stage, namely the creation of a new calendar of Irish chancery letters. Sadly the project seemed blighted. Dr Connolly died prematurely in June 2002, her work incomplete. The current phase of the project dates from July 2007, when the present author and Katharine Simms collaborated on a new proposal to bring the project to completion. Funding was granted by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences, and a three-year project began in July 2008 to produce an internet-based resource entitled A Calendar of Irish Chancery Letters, c.1244–1509 (hereafter CIRCLE), to be followed by a print edition. The question that arises immediately is this: given the loss of all the original chancery rolls, from what sources has CIRCLE been created?

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RCH: The Record Commission’s Latin calendar (1828)

The keystone of the reconstruction process is the Latin calendar (referred to here by the abbreviation RCH) published by the record commissioners in 1828. RCH is a problematic volume. Although its editor, Edward Tresham, claimed in his preface that ‘[n]o article legible on the rolls has been omitted nor a material part of the substance thereof’, it is immediately apparent from the fact that there are only 273 pages of text that the contents of letters were severely compressed. This attracted criticism immediately upon publication, but it is important to recall that nineteenth-century calendars were intended to act as a guide to the contents of the original rolls, which could be consulted in case of doubt. Unfortunately, RCH also made mischief by mislabelling a great many chancery rolls and attributing some rolls to the wrong regnal year. The final objection is a practical one. RCH is printed in ‘record type’, a Latin typeface used in the nineteenth century to replicate in print the abbreviations employed by medieval clerks. For the non-specialist, this is a major encumbrance. For all this, RCH was by no means the most defective enterprise undertaken by the record commission. In a report of 1822 that trenchant critic of the editorial procedures adopted by the commissioners, Sir William Betham, contented himself with the comment that: ‘[t]he patent and close rolls have been I believe better done’. Furthermore, in the absence of the original enrolments, RCH is indispensable as a guide to the structure of the original chancery rolls. In recognition of these virtues, RCH provides the spine of the reconstruction process.

CIRCLE is not intended, however, merely as an English rendering of the existing Latin calendar. Ireland is richly endowed with ‘substitute’ materials. Broadly speaking, these survive in two pools. One pool of parchment was formed by the leakage of records from the colonial government based at Dublin to its ‘mother’ administration at Westminster. The second springs from the collections of those antiquarians who transcribed from original chancery enrolments between the late sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. By sifting these reservoirs of source material, it is often possible to find superior texts of letters calendared in RCH, and indeed letters that never appeared there because the rolls on which they were registered had been destroyed or defaced before the record commission was established in 1810. One of the principal aims of CIRCLE is to collate all such references, setting them out in a classified concordance at the foot of each letter with the intention of creating a sliding scale of ‘diplomatic authenticity’ from which the reliability of the source material used in the reconstruction of the letter can be discerned at a glance. This concordance arranges the sources into the following classes in order of declining quality, as follows: originals, facsimiles, transcripts, calendars and notices.

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Originals

Although no original Irish chancery rolls are extant, substitute sources in the class of originals are surprisingly plentiful. For convenience, they can be thought of as consisting in five sub-categories. The first comprises engrossed letters patent and letters close―the ‘outgoing post’ of the Irish chancery. Enrolments are, strictly speaking, copies of these engrossed letters made by the chancery for its own reference. Modest quantities of such instruments survive in municipal and seigniorial archives, the three most important collections being the archives of the Butler lordship in Ireland and the Dowdall family, both preserved in the National Library of Ireland, and the collection of royal charters granted to the city of Dublin, now preserved in the J. T. Gilbert Library, Dublin. Original engrossments such as these are the most authoritative sources we have; running a close second are ‘certified copies’. Beneficiaries of Irish chancery letters often found it advantageous to have their patents inspected and confirmed under the great seal of England. The anxiety to seek confirmations of Irish-seal letters tended to become acute at moments of political crisis: a rash of letters of inspeximus concerning Ireland breaks out on the English patent rolls in the years immediately after the Lancastrian revolution of 1399, as beneficiaries of grants and appointments made in the last years of the reign of Richard II scrambled to have their patents confirmed by the usurper, Henry IV. A third source of original material is derived from records sent to England as part of the audit of Irish exchequer accounts undertaken at Westminster. These accounts were often supported by particulars, including what H. G. Richardson termed ‘vouchers’―that is, writs of liberate issued by the chancery to the treasurer and chamberlains of the exchequer authorizing them to make payments from the treasury. Such ‘vouchers’ survive in bursts between the late thirteenth and mid-fifteenth centuries in London, mostly in the class of Exchequer Accounts Various. A fourth source of original material was generated at Westminster itself. There are no ‘Irish rolls’ in the English chancery equivalent to, say, the rolls dedicated to Gascony or other dominions within the Plantagenet empire. Instead, the considerable amount of ‘Irish’ business that passed under the great seal of England was enrolled in the English patent, close, charter and fine rolls. Some of these documents were notified to the king’s ministers in Ireland and enrolled in the Irish chancery: consequently, the English enrolments can be used as the basis for a fuller text of the letter from the Irish chancery rolls. The fifth and final sub-category of original material might be classed as ‘simple’ copies. These are contemporary transcripts of engrossed letters found, for instance, in the chartularies of monastic houses or the registers of the archbishops of Armagh.

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Facsimiles and Transcripts

Our second class of substitute material is closely akin to originals. The nineteenth century was the golden age of the facsimile. The Irish record commissioners included a number of illustrative plates in their annual reports, and these are especially precious for they include some of our only images of the original Irish chancery enrolments. The most impressive collection is, without doubt, J. T. Gilbert’s Facsimiles of national manuscripts of Ireland―a magnificent publication in five imperial-folio volumes that appeared in the decade from 1874 to 1884 [fig. 5]. Gilbert was at the proverbial cutting-edge in his use of ‘photozincography’, a process developed mid-century by Colonel Sir Henry James (†1877) of the ordnance survey. As secretary (that is, third in command) of the PROI, Gilbert had ready access to the medieval enrolments there. In December 1871, shortly after the transfer of the rolls to the record treasury, an order was drafted by the master of the rolls for six chancery rolls, and a dozen or so other records, to be carried by Gilbert from Dublin to the PRO, London, and thence to the offices of the ordnance survey in Southampton, where the facsimiles were to be made. The order contained one important proviso: ‘no Record included in the Schedule is to leave the Public Record Office, Dublin, until a certified copy has been made and deposited in the said Record Office’. We can only presume that these certified copies perished in 1922 together with the original rolls.

Third in order of priority are transcripts of Irish chancery letters in Latin, whether printed or in manuscript. For these we are often obliged (schematically put) to Tudor administrators, Stuart apologists, eighteenth-century patriots and Victorian antiquaries. Among the earliest are Lord Chancellor Gerrard (†1581), Sir George Carew (†1629), and Sir James Ware (†1666). Perhaps the most valuable collection of transcripts is that of Ware’s continuator, Sir Walter Harris (d.1761), known as Collectanea de rebus Hibernicis, preserved in the National Library of Ireland. In the next century the PROI acquired the manuscripts of James F. Ferguson, whose exhaustive survey of the Irish memoranda rolls includes many transcripts of chancery letters transmitted to the Irish exchequer.

 Folio from Sir Walter Harris's 'Collectanea de rebus Hibernicis' (NLI, MS 4, f. 176).

 Folio from Sir Walter Harris's 'Collectanea de rebus Hibernicis' (NLI, MS 4, f. 176).

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Calendars and Notices

Calendars―our fourth class of substitute material―are as various as they are many. The most familiar are the printed calendars of the English chancery enrolments. These have been accepted as firm friends of the historian and require no introduction, except the caveat that summary translations can sometimes be false friends too. Less familiar are those calendars that survive only in manuscript, including the genealogical collections of William Betham, and the Haliday collection in the Royal Irish Academy. Of particular value are the manuscripts of John Lodge (now in the NAI), purchased by the crown from his heirs in 1783; a century later, in 1893, they were transferred from the Record Tower, Dublin Castle, to the PROI. Mercifully they survived the 1922 fire because they were housed adjacent to the search room in the strong room, which held the PROI indexes and served as an overnight store for records in use by readers [figs 1 & 2]. The Lodge manuscripts, which often provide fuller and more accurate texts of letters calendared in RCH, remained the primary ‘index’ to the chancery material into the nineteenth century. Gilbert went so far as to remark that ‘the loss of any one [of them] would involve the department in an almost irredimable confustion and stop the progress of legal and other business for an indefinable time’. From the next century we have the inchoate productions of the record commission, the manuscript calendars of plea rolls (RC 7) and exchequer memoranda rolls (RC 8): both are rich in chancery material.

The last class is a miscellaneous one, bringing together glancing references, or ‘notices’, to a dated chancery letter in another document or list. Many of these ‘notices’ are extremely terse and stubbornly uninformative; but one class of document is especially important. These are chancery warrants, also known as fiants from their opening words: Fiant littere patentes (‘let letters patent be made’). Irish fiants did not survive as a series until the Tudor period, but clusters of them appear sporadically in other records and they can be used, with caution, to infer the existence of an otherwise-unknown chancery letter.

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Conclusion

It is from these five classes of substitute material that the new calendar of Irish chancery letters is being created. The survival rate of substitute material is not even. The later fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries are served best; but since this is exactly the era of Irish history that has been least studied, the impact of the new calendar as a stimulus to fresh research will, we hope, be all the greater. One point to be emphasized is that CIRCLE is emphatically not intended as a diplomatic edition of the Irish chancery letters indicating every variant reading from each of the multifarious sources. What the calendar seeks to provide is an accurate summary translation of each chancery letter for which a source is available in manuscript or printed form; and these sources are ranked for every letter in descending order of priority.