How to look for records of... Medieval maritime personnel and ships

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

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How many are online?

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1. Why use this guide?

Use this guide to find records relating to English maritime personnel, ships (primarily those in service to the Crown for war) and naval administration from the late 12th to the early 16th century.

‘Ships’, in the medieval sense, was a term which applied specifically to large, deep-hulled sailing vessels, such as cogs and hulks. This guide also covers records of other sailing craft such as barges and ballingers.

Most of the records that date from prior to the mid-15th century are written in Latin, with the rest in French or English.

The majority of the records are not available online. In most cases, to search for (and view) them you will need to visit us at our building in Kew.

2. The navy in the medieval period

During the medieval period England did not possess a navy in the modern sense. There was no permanent fleet specifically assigned for defensive and offensive operations at sea in service to the realm. Ships were raised for military service on an ad hoc basis according to the policies and needs of the English Crown.

The closest thing medieval England had to a navy in the modern sense were those ships which the monarchy directly owned or held shares in. These fleets were not permanently maintained and for much of the medieval period (with the exception of the reigns of Edward III and Henry V) were modest in size.

The raising and financing of fleets by the Crown was administered by royal officials in co-operation with local officials of maritime counties and ports or with admirals assigned to oversee and raise fleets in designated regions.

Detail showing a painting of ships in a harbour from the illuminated border of the Treaty of Amiens between England and France, 18 August 1527. Catalogue reference E 30/1113. The full image is available through our Image Library.

Detail from the illuminated border of the Treaty of Amiens between England and France, 18 August 1527. Catalogue reference E 30/1113. The full image is available through our Image Library.

Very few naval battles actually occurred during the Middle Ages, primarily because the role of the navy was usually to aid the army: transporting troops or supplies to theatres of war, for example, or to garrisons in castles and towns within the British Isles and on the continent.

Soldiers made up the majority of fighting manpower for naval expeditions, with support from ships’ crews, but there were no specialist troops trained specifically for naval warfare before the mid-17th century.

3. What kinds of records does The National Archives hold?

There are no records that equate to modern service records for this period, nor was there a separate body for managing naval administration – the Admiralty was not created until much later.

Instead, royal clerks and officials in the departments of the Exchequer and Chancery oversaw and handled the administration of naval business during the medieval period and it is primarily in the records of these two departments that most of the information on maritime personnel and administration from this era is found.

Records of Crown administration and expenditure on shipping and maritime operations in our collections begin at the end of the 12th century in the Pipe Rolls and appear in other kinds of records from the early 13th century.

The records we hold can contain information on

  • the service of individual ships
  • ships’ crews (as collectives rather than individual crew members)
  • royal expenditure for expeditions
  • the raising, requisition and supply of fleets and vessels for Crown service
  • wages, payments and expenses to maritime personnel
  • maintenance of ships in Crown hands and other logistics such as the victualling trade
  • evidence of shipping capacity and resources in ports maritime communities and individuals living in them

4. Online records

Only a very small proportion of records, and a larger proportion of resources for finding records, are available to view online, as described in the table below.

Type of record What will you find? Record series How to view
Data extracted from central and local customs accounts and port books, navy payrolls and shipping surveys in State Papers Information on the merchant voyages undertaken by ships’ masters and theirs vessels, both within the British Isles and abroad between 1400 and 1580 E 122, E 190, E 101, E 403, SP 15 Search the database on the Merchant Fleet of Late Medieval and Tudor England website, either by the names of vessels and ships’ masters or a specific port
Gascon rolls with accompanying English calendars Information on maritime trade, transport and supplies to and from English-held Gascony in the 14th and 15th centuries C 61 Search The Gascon Rolls project (1317-1468) for free
Ancient petitions in special collections Contains petitions from merchants, mariners and others from maritime communities SC 8 Browse and download SC 8 from our catalogue for free
Muster rolls and related records of army personnel that served on naval expeditions Lists of soldiers extracted from several record series at The National Archives providing evidence of soldiers who served on naval expeditions between 1369 and 1453 E 101, C 71, C 76, C 61 Search on the Medieval Soldier Database at www.medievalsoldier.org for free
The Calendars of Patent Rolls
and Close Rolls
Orders appointing and instructing officials to commandeer or decommission vessels, to provide them with supplies or to investigate complaints or crimes; in C 66 there are also licences issued to merchants to ship or purchase goods; and grants of protection and safe conduct for individuals and vessels C 66 and C 54 View Calendars of Patent Rolls for free at the Haithi Trust Digital Library and the Calendars of Close Rolls on the British History website (institutional subscription required)
Original archival material on ships and crews collated by the universities of Hull and Southampton Data on the ships and crews of merchant vessels during the 14th century N/A UK Data Service Re-share (institutional subscription required; The National Archives does not subscribe to this resource)

5. How to search for and view original records

To view original records at The National Archives you first need to find document references in our catalogue. A search for an individual’s or ship’s name in the online catalogue will rarely find a relevant document reference for records from this period. In most instances, to get a document reference you will need, instead, to consult printed and published finding aids, including calendars, containing summaries of the records. These finding aids are available at our building in Kew.

Most of The National Archives document references for these records begin either with E or C, indicating that they are records of the Exchequer or Chancery respectively.

If you can find, or already have, exact document references then you can order copies of records to be sent to you without having to visit us.

The following sections of this guide provide more detailed help on how to locate document references.

6. Maritime personnel

No formal service records for individual mariners were created in the medieval period so any information you find on individual maritime personnel will usually be very limited in detail.

There are no crew lists for this period; we do hold a small number of ships’ musters providing the names of individual crew members, mainly for royal ships. The majority of records in which maritime personnel are mentioned only name the master of the ship and record the number but not the names of other crew members.

To find evidence of naval service to the Crown you may have to consult a large number of different record series. Searching with an individual’s name on our catalogue will rarely find a relevant record.

Use the advice in the table below to search the record series most likely to contain information about individuals.

Type of records Record series Search advice
Accounts of royal officials, musters, contracts, wage payments or other records of ships’ masters and crews performing maritime service in royal expeditions. E 101C 47E 404E 403E 372E 364 Click on the record series links and search by year range

Search in E 101 and C 47 using keywords like ‘ship’, ‘mariner’ or the name of a royal official

Use the published index to E 364 (and 13th and early 14th century material in E 372), especially the ‘Army, Navy and Ordnance’ section

See also the advice in section 4 on the  Merchant Fleet of Late Medieval and Tudor England database

Musters and protections confirming intended and actual service of soldiers serving as fighting personnel in naval expeditions.

Records of  the granting of protection and/or safe-conduct for maritime personnel on trade ships or on crown naval operations.

E 101C 61C 66C 71C 76 Search by name on the Medieval Soldier Database for records between 1369 and 1453

Search in C 61 on the the Gascon Rolls Project 1317-1468 website

Use the calendars in the Deputy Keepers Reports of the Public Record Office 1883 and 1887 to search the Treaty Rolls in C 76 from the reigns of Henry V and Henry VI

Use the online Calendars of Patent Rolls 1232-1509 on the Hathi Trust Digital Library

Pardons issued to individuals and ships crews in exchange for military service or in acknowledgement of military service. C 66 Consult Calendar of Patent Rolls 1232-1509 online in the Hathi Trust Digital Library
Crown orders and appointments of individuals or commissions concerning maritime criminal matters, seizure or sale of ships where masters are named; grants of pardon or licences to masters or mariners; grants of petition made by maritime personnel or communities in which individuals are mentioned. C 54C 66 Consult Calendar of Patent Rolls 1232-1509 online in the Hathi Trust Digital Library

Consult the published sources:

Rotuli Litterarum Clausarum in Turri Londonensi asservati 1204-1227

Close Rolls of the Reign of Henry III 1227-1272

Calendars of Patent Rolls 1272-1509

Litter arum Patentium in Turri Londonensi asservati, 1201-1216

Calendar of the Patent Rolls of the Reign of Henry III

Records of legal cases, some of which contain biographical information, in which members of maritime communities are either litigants in the Court of Chancery or deponents in the Court of Chivalry. Soldiers testifying as deponents in some cases in the Court of Chivalry give details of military service and battles that took place at sea. C 1C 47/6 Click on the link to search C 1 by name of plaintiff or defendant.

Proceedings of the Scrope vs Grosvenor case in the Court of Chivalry (C 47/6/2) published in Scrope and Grosvenor controversy in the Court of Chivalry 1385-1390.

Pardons issued to individual mariners and whole crews in exchange for military service; miscellaneous correspondence from merchants; masters or mariners to the king; letters from the king to royal or port officials concerning diverse maritime matters. SC 1, C 47/10 to C 47/16, C 47/20 to C 47/21 Click on the link to search SC 1 by name of author or recipient of correspondence.

Consult The Cely papers: selections from the correspondence and memoranda of the Cely family, merchants of the staple, A.D. 1475-1488.

Petitions by mariners, ships’ masters and owners and members of maritime communities concerning unlawful arrest or compensation at loss or damage to their vessels and other matters. SC 8 Click on the link to search SC 8 by name.

7. Records of vessels in English ports and in Crown ownership

Records of ships from this period include records of the requisition of vessels over a certain tonnage in ports across England; orders to impress or release certain named vessels; evidence of shipping capacity in ports; inventories of equipment on royal ships; the accounts of royal officials handling payment of wages and expenses and other records.

7.1 Key terms used in the records

Vessels under the direct or nominal control of the English monarchy were known as ‘King’s Ships’ and in the 14th century the office of the clerk of the King’s ships was created to help manage the burden of administration.

You may come across the terms ‘ship of Westminster’ and ‘ship of the Tower [of London]’, both used in the records to identify King’s ships and the latter term sometimes used to describe any warship.

For more terms, see the glossary in the Appendix of this guide.

7.2 Searching for records

See the table in section 4 for advice on searching for records of merchant vessels on the Merchant Fleet of Late Medieval and Tudor England online database.

For original records, use the following keywords to search the record series listed below:

  • ‘ship’ or ‘vessel’
  • a specific port such as ‘Southampton’ or ‘Cinque Ports’
  • a county or region, such as ‘west’, with the keyword ‘port’
  • combinations of ‘clerk’ or ‘keeper’ or other offices of naval administration with the terms ‘navy’, ‘king’s ships’ or ‘admiral’ may find financial and administrative records generated by or directed to such officials

Click on the references to search with the series with the keywords listed above.

You can also try searching with a ship’s name or the master or owner of a ship but this is less likely to find records as very few of the document descriptions in our catalogue contain this kind of detail.

The record series below cannot be searched by keyword in our catalogue so follow the search advice in the table to locate documents:

Type of records Record series Search advice
Exchequer pipe rolls, 1129-1832 E 372 Pipe Roll accounts in E 372 for the late 12th and early 13th centuries have been published with indexes by the Pipe Roll Society. Search for the ‘Great Roll of the Pipe’ in our Library catalogue.
Exchequer Pipe Office Foreign Accounts, 1219-1661 E 364 Use the published index to E 364, especially the ‘Army, Navy and Ordnance’ section.
Close rolls, 1204-1903 C 54 Consult Rotuli Litterarum Clausarum (1204-1227); Close Rolls of the Reign of Henry III (1227-1272); Calendars of Close Rolls (1272-1509)
Patent rolls, 1201-2012 C 66 Consult Litterarum Patentium, (1201-1216); Calendar of the Patent Rolls of the Reign of Henry III (1216-1232); Calendars of Patent Rolls (1232-1509)
Image of a 14th-century seal depicting a ship.

A 14th-century seal depicting a ship. Catalogue reference E 30/333.

7.3 Images of ships in seals

Some medieval seals, used to authenticate documents (such as charters, letters and writs) and also used literally to ‘seal’ documents, contain contemporary impressions of ships. These are primarily seals for the municipal and royal officials of port towns as well as seals for the office of admiralty. The National Archives holds a rich collection of seals and advice on searching for them is in our guide on seals.

8. Records of raising and supplying fleets for Crown service

When raising fleets for Crown service, orders would be sent either to royal officials or, from 1295, to admirals in charge of ports in a particular region, to commandeer ships and mariners for the king’s service.

Orders may also have been sent to local officials in maritime counties and ports to assist in the seizure of ships or to gather supplies for shipment.

These orders were usually recorded or referred to in the Close Rolls (C 54) and Patent Rolls (C 66).

8.1 Searching the rolls for records from mid-13th century onwards

There are published English calendars, available in our reading rooms, for Close Rolls from 1272 and for Patent Rolls from 1232. Find information in the rolls from these years onwards by following these steps:

Step 1: Look for names of royal officials (such as serjeants-at-arms, royal clerks or admirals) or keywords such as ‘ship’ or ‘navy’ in the indexes of the calendars.

Step 2: From the calendar entry referenced by the index, note the year and the membrane. Where there is more than one roll covering a single year, the documents will be divided into parts and so where applicable the correct part in which the entry falls needs to be noted from the calendars.

Step 3: Use the C 54 series search or the C 66 series search to search by year or year range and if applicable by part. Dates will need converting from regnal years to calendar years. Use ‘A Handbook of Dates: For students of British history, eds. C. R. Cheney and Michael Jones available in the second floor reading room or online converter tools.

Step 4: From the search results, using the appropriate C 54 or C 66 references, request the roll referred to in the calendar.

8.2 Searching the rolls for records from the early 13th century

For entries in the close rolls and patent rolls that precede the published English calendars use the published Latin transcriptions available in the reading rooms at The National Archives.

8.3 Searching for other records

Other record series contain material on maritime activity in specific areas of English control, such as:

  • Gascony in C 61
  • Scotland in C 71
  • Calais and other parts of France in C 76

9. Records of royal expenditure for maritime operations

Records of expenditure relating to maritime operations, logistics and service for royal expeditions, towns or garrisons may include information on

  • wages and expenses for maritime personnel (masters, mariners and ship owners) and workers carrying out ship maintenance or construction ( shipwrights, carpenters and suchlike)
  • expenses for victuals and apparatus supplied to ships
  • maintaining and repairing or commissioning vessels belonging to the king

Click on the series references below to search in each series with keywords like ‘ship’, ‘victuals’ or ‘mariners’:

  • E 101 – includes the accounts of Royal Wardrobe and Privy Wardrobe which may contain information on royal expenditure on ships, equipment and weaponry and raising and paying fleets.
  • C 47
  • E 36 – late 15th and early 16th century accounts with details of expenditure on shipping such as victualling or construction of ships some of which have been published: see Oppenheim in the ‘Further Reading’ section below.

The following series of Pipe Rolls, chronologically arranged, are not keyword searchable in the catalogue so follow the search advice in the table to locate documents. Accounting for a wide range of expenditure, they include details of royal expenditure on the construction, supply, maintenance and raising of ships.

Type of records Record series Search advice
Exchequer pipe rolls – accounts by county E 372 Pipe Roll accounts in E 372 for the late 12th and early 13th centuries have been published with indexes by the Pipe Roll Society. Search for the ‘Great Roll of the Pipe’ in our Library catalogue.
Exchequer pipe rolls – Foreign Accounts (accounts ‘foreign’ to the ordinary county accounts) E 364 Use the published index to E 364, especially the ‘Army, Navy and Ordnance’ section.

10. Records held elsewhere

10.1 County archives

Many local county archives, particularly those in counties with a strong tradition of shipping and seafaring, hold records of

  • ships
  • maritime communities
  • personnel in administrative and legal records covering certain ports and maritime communities
  • local trade
  • administrative documents and correspondence sent to local officials concerning shipping and logistics for maritime operations and service to the Crown
  • seals

Use our catalogue to search for descriptions of records held in county archives around the country.  On the search results page, use the filters on the left hand side to restrict results to ‘Other archives’.

10.2 British Library

The British Library holds illuminated manuscripts with imagery of ships, sailors and naval warfare as well as a small proportion of administrative records such as some wardrobe accounts.

10.3 National Maritime Museum

The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich holds medieval seals from port towns both within and outside the British Isles which contain representations of ships. You can also find letters, manuscripts and original research notes on archival sources amongst their collections.

11. Further reading and resources

11.1 Latin and palaeography tutorials

The majority of the records up until the mid-15th century are written in Latin, with the rest in French or English. You may therefore find our Latin and palaeography tutorials useful.

11.2 Books

The following books are available in our library.

Brooks F.W. English Naval Forces 1199-1272 (London, 1932)

Burwash, D. English Merchant Shipping, 1460-1540 (Newton Abbot, 1969)

Cushway, G. Edward III and the War at Sea: The English Navy 1327-1377 (Woodbridge, 2011)

Flatman, J. Ships and Shipping in Medieval Manuscripts (London, 2009)

Friel, I. Henry V’s Navy: The Sea-Road to Agincourt and Conquest: 1413-1422 (Stroud, 2015)

Gorski, R. ed. Roles of the Sea in Medieval England (Woodbridge, 2012)

Hutchinson G. Medieval Ships and Shipping (Leicester, 1994)

Lambert, C. Shipping the Medieval Military: English Maritime Logistics in the Fourteenth Century (Woodbridge, 2011)

Nicholas, N. H. A History of the Royal Navy from the earliest Times to the French Revolution (London, 1847), 2 Vols.

‘Naval accounts and inventories of the reign of Henry VII 1485-8 and 1495-7’ ed. Michael Oppenheim

Roger, N.A.M. The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval history of Britain (London, 1997), vol.1.

Rose, S. England’s Medieval Navy 1066 – 1509: Ships, Men & Warfare (Barnsley, 2013)

Appendix: Glossary of medieval nautical terms

Below is a glossary of nautical terms for items of ship equipment and apparatus found in medieval records held at The National Archives.

There are more comprehensive glossaries in:

Bear in mind that the records contain variations in the spelling of many of these terms.

Backstay – ropes/cables to secure the mast to the stern or aft of the ship

Berder – ship’s carpenter

Bonnett – a piece of canvas laced to the foot of a fore-and-aft sail

Bowsprit – a spar jutting from the front of a vessel used for ropes to secure the mast and sail to the front of the vessel

Clencher (‘shipwright clencher’) – a carpenter who fastens overlapping planking using nails and clenches on clinker built ships

Crane line/Crane Lyne – part of tackle used to haul iron darts/gaddes to the top castle to be thrown on enemy ships in battle

‘Diol’ – sandglass or hour glass used to time the ships passage

Forestay – the ropes/cables attaching the mast to the bow or front of the ship usually to the bowsprit

Freightage – transport of goods in bulk

Gaddes – iron spears or spikes thrown from the top castle of ships

Gittons – small flags

Haliers/Halyers – ropes used to hoist or lower the sail on it’s yard

Hauncer/Haunser/Haunsar – large ropes or middle sized cables

Know/Kne (Knee) – piece of timber with two arms at an angle

Mekhoke – possibly a support to hold up spare spars or a lowered mast

Mizzen/Misan/Missan – the mast rearmost sail closest to the aft or back of the ship

Pavis – shield or board fixed along the sides and sometimes the forecastle and poop deck of a vessel

Pollyancre ropes/Pollances – a special type of block and tackle used for hoisting heavy articles

Portage A ships total carrying capacity

Roll Teldes – roll of awning

‘Rosyn’ – resin

Sail yard/yard – beam hung horizontally to the mast supporting the top of the sail

Shores – wooden beams or props to support a ship when aground

Sounding lead The metal weight at the end of a sounding line

Sounding line – A weighted line with distances marked off at regular intervals, used to measure the depth of water under a boat

Stroppes – Portions of rope spliced in a circle and put rough a block used for fitting tackle to a rope or amongst the mast and rigging

Tackle – rigging and apparatus for a ship

Tontight – Refers to a unit of cargo capacity or ton weight

Truss/truss pulley – Rope and pulleys used to haul back the yard to the mast and to heave it down as required

Upties – the ropes by which the yard is suspended from the mast head

Wronges – Floor or ground timbers