How to look for Royal grants in letters patent and charters from 1199

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1. Why use this guide?

Use this guide if you are researching grants from royal government to individuals, public bodies or institutions.

This guide deals with the enrolments of grants which were issued under the Great Seal as royal charters or letters patent. It does not deal in depth with other record series which can provide evidence of grants (for example, warrants).

2. Essential information

Royal grants cover a wide range of topics. The following are just a few examples – this is by no means a comprehensive list:

  • land
  • offices
  • titles
  • pensions
  • pardons
  • patents for inventions
  • licences
  • leases of crown lands
  • presentations to churches
  • rights to hold  markets and/or fairs

Until early in the reign of Henry VIII, the most solemn royal grants were issued as charters; these were enrolled on the Charter Rolls (C 53). Other grants could be issued as letters patent and enrolled on the Patent Rolls (C 66). After 8 Henry VIII, all grants under the Great Seal were issued as letters patent, enrolled in the Patent Rolls.

The rolls are large sheets of parchment (membranes), sewn head to tail to form a continuous roll.

Many records for the earlier period are in Latin. Entries were made in a highly abbreviated form of Latin, to which CT Martin’s The Record Interpreter is a useful guide. You may also find our Latin tutorials useful.

3. General search help

To identify relevant records you will most often need to start by using calendars (summaries) and indexes, all of which are available at The National Archives, Kew. Details of these finding aids are provided in the sections below.

The calendars and indexes are usually dated by regnal year, reflecting the arrangement of the rolls. References in the calendars and indexes will need to be converted into modern document references. Membrane or item numbers are internal references, use these to find the entry on the actual roll.

4. What are letters patent?

Letters patent (open letters) issued under the Great Seal cover a huge diversity of subjects, including grants of official positions, lands, commissions, privileges and pardons. Copies are enrolled on the Patent Rolls in C 66.

4.1 The Patent Rolls

The Patent Rolls run in an almost unbroken series from 1201 to the present day however there are significant gaps for the Civil War and Interregnum period (c.1642-1659).

Most entries are in Latin in the early period but some entries are in English, even in the 16th century. In the 1650s and after 1733 all entries are in English. Letters patent are addressed ‘To all to whom these presents shall come’.

Modern patent ‘rolls’ (now in fact, books) contain entries as diverse as the constitution of Southern Rhodesia and the appointment of judges in India.

Up until c 1655 royal proclamations and commissions were enrolled on the back of the Patent Rolls.

From 1595 commissions are more comprehensively recorded in the:

  • Crown Office Docket Books in C 231 – searchable by date
  • Miscellaneous Books in C 193 – browse by type of book and date.

5. How to search for Patent Rolls

There are a number of resources which will help you.

5.1 Published patent rolls (before 1603)

Consult the printed transcripts of the original Latin enrolments for the period:

After 1232 the Calendars of Patent Rolls (HMSO, 1891-1986) – often abbreviated in secondary sources as CPR- provide a full indexed summary of entries, in English, up to 1595, except for the period 1509-1547 when calendar entries are in Letters and Papers Foreign and Domestic Henry VIII (HMSO, 1862-1932).

Calendars for 1595-1601 have been published by the List and Index Society and more are in preparation.

Calendars do not always give full modern document references. The rolls are identified by regnal year, and then by part number: this can be converted into a modern reference by looking at the C 66 list in the reading rooms, Kew. Membrane or item numbers are internal references which you use to find the entry on the actual roll.

5.2 Manuscript ‘indexes’ from 1603

From 1603, you will need to use the original manuscript indexes and calendars in C 274 which, like the enrolments, may be in Latin until 1733. These indexes are not as straightforward to use as modern indexes.

Those for James I have been published in facsimile by the List and Index Society. Others are only available at The National Archives, Kew. Many have been annotated with the modern document references. There is also a card index at The National Archives for letters patent issued by George V.

The format of these ‘indexes’ varies. In general they are arranged by regnal year and either summarise or index each entry in the order in which it appears on the roll. Indexes to the names of grantees are by the first initial of the surname only.

Grants of:

  • commissions may be indexed under C
  • naturalisation under ‘Indigen’
  • pardons, presentations and proclamations under P

See the C 274 series list in the reading rooms, Kew for more details and information about interpreting and using the indexes.

6. Letters patent not enrolled

Not every document issued under the Great Seal was enrolled. Grants issued to private persons were enrolled for a fee and not all were willing to pay. Some grants were enrolled but never formally issued; others were amended after enrolment or cancelled.

The warrants authorising the use of the Great Seal in C 81-83 provide supplementary evidence for royal grants, some of which were never enrolled.

Read the publication note within the C81 and C 82 series descriptions to find out how to search these.  Browse C 83 by regnal year, please note there can be more than one part per regnal year.

You may sometimes find petitions for grants in:

  • Ancient Petitions within SC 8. Search by keyword (for example, sheep or sheep AND grant) within SC 8 using advanced search.
  • the various State Papers series (SP)

7. Supplementary patent and confirmation rolls

Between 1483 and 1625, confirmations of previous grants were enrolled separately on the Confirmation Rolls in C 56. A manuscript index to these is available at The National Archives.

Some common form patents – letters of protection, pardons, passes for ships and commissions of bankruptcy – were occasionally enrolled separately on the Supplementary Patent Rolls. Browse these in C 67.

8. Palatinates of Durham and Lancaster

The Palatinates of Durham and Lancaster had their own chanceries, issuing and enrolling letters patent under their own seals.

Those for Durham are in DURH 3 and those for Lancaster are in PL 1. For Durham start by browsing DURH 3 from the enrolments subseries. For Lancaster see the publication note within the PL 1 series description for help on how to search the records.

9. What are charters?

The most formal royal grants made in the medieval period were issued as Latin charters addressed to the leaders of society, with elaborate lists of named witnesses.

They may be original grants in perpetuity of lands, privileges or other possessions. Often they are a confirmation, or ‘inspeximus’ (a sealed official copy), of earlier grants. In these cases, the earlier texts would normally be repeated in full, sometimes with the addition of further privileges.

The original charter would have been issued to the individual or corporate body to whom the grant was made, and may survive with the archives of that family or institution. It is unlikely to be in The National Archives.

Some original charters do survive with the public records, acquired by confiscation, inheritance or purchase, such as the fine collection of Duchy of Lancaster royal charters in DL 10, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

From 1199, enrolled copies of charters issued survive with the records of the Chancery in The National Archives, in C 53.
These may include the text of earlier grants in confirmations, as do the Cartae Antiquae Rolls in C 52.

Regnal years, for example 1 Richard II, can be converted into calendar years using C R Cheney’s  Handbook of Dates.

10. Searching Charter Rolls (1199-1517)

Published Latin transcripts exist for most of the Charter Rolls for King John’s reign (1199-1216) in the Rotuli Chartarum (Record Commission, 1837). This was printed in record type, copying the abbreviations of the original.

There were no Charter Rolls for the early years of Henry III’s reign (1216-1226) but for later dates there are printed calendars (summaries), in English, in the six volume Calendar of Charter Rolls (HMSO, 1903-1927) – often referred to in secondary sources as CCR or CChR.

Each volume is indexed by place name and personal name. Names of witnesses are not included but there are separate indexes of witnesses for the reigns of Henry III and Edward III.

After 1517 the Charter Rolls were discontinued. Any charters issued, mainly for grants of titles, were enrolled on the Patent Rolls in C 66 (see sections above).

Calendars do not always give full modern document references. The rolls are identified by regnal year, and then by part number. This can be converted into a modern reference by looking at the C 53 list in the reading rooms, Kew. Membrane or item numbers are internal references, which you use to find the entry on the actual roll.

11. Further reading

Some of the publications below may be available to buy from The National Archives’ bookshop. Alternatively, search The National Archives’ library catalogue to see what is available to consult at Kew.

Calendar of Patent Rolls 34 Elizabeth I (1591–1592) C66/1379–1394, Second (revised) edition (Lists and Index Society, 2017)

HC Maxwell-Lyte Historical Notes on the Use of the Great Seal of England (HM Stationery Office, 1926)

RE Latham, ‘Hints on Interpreting the Public Records II Letters Patent’ The Amateur Historian, vol I, no 2 (1952)

CT Martin The Record Interpreter (London 1892)

P Chaplais English Royal Documents (Oxford 1971)

Guide reference: Domestic Records Information 2