1. Accounting records
Exchequer pipe rolls are the written record of the audit process of the king's accounts for one financial year, which ran from Michaelmas (29 September) to the next Michaelmas. After the very early years, when the Exchequer's terms were usually quite short, by about 1220 the audit process usually began on the day following the closure of one financial year, and lasted between eight and ten months. The earliest surviving pipe roll covers the 1129-1130 financial year. A nearly continuous series runs from 1155 until 1832, the earliest series of English royal records; only four are missing. Originally, two copies of each account were made. Pipe rolls are in E 372, whilst the second versions were filed in the Chancellor's rolls, in E 352.
Printed transcriptions of every roll until 1224 have been published, along with the individual rolls for 1229-30 and 1241-42, mainly by the Pipe Roll Society, which was founded in the Public Record Office in 1883 to publish them, and is still based at Kew. A few calendars of other pipe roll material have been published by county record societies.
The Introduction to the Pipe Rolls (Pipe Roll Society, volume III, 1884) provides a comprehensive account of how the rolls were created and how to use them, along with an extensive glossary and list of abbreviations.
Apart from a brief period in the 1650s, when English was used, the rolls were written in abbreviated Latin until 1733, when they changed to English. They were written in what was originally a clear Exchequer hand, which later became stylised and more difficult to read. In the period before 1300, and for some time afterwards, they are quite easy to read.
Each pipe roll was made up from a number of rotuli. A rotulus, the Latin word for 'roll', was composed of two membranes of sheepskin parchment, stitched together in the middle, and with both sides used for writing: the front was known as the 'face', and the back as the 'dorse'. The rotuli were sewn head to head 'Exchequer style'; rolled up together to look like a section of drainage pipe, and stored, usually covered with waxed parchment for protection. It was this resemblance to a pipe that gave the documents their usual name. Before the thirteenth century, and officially until at least the early eighteenth century, the roll for the year was known as 'the great roll', or the 'roll of the year'. Chancery rolls, which began in 1199, were composed of membranes sewn head to foot 'Chancery style': they lacked the sewing ridge at the centre of an Exchequer style roll, and thus were rolled into a much smaller roll.
4. Arrangement: by county
Pipe rolls each include a number of county accounts, with an increasing number of miscellaneous accounts being added at the end. Dockets which serve as an index of the contents on each rotulus are at the foot of its dorse. They can be checked without unrolling the roll very far, and are particularly useful where, as is often the case, an account is continued on another rotulus.
5. Arrangement: within each county
Within each county account are a number of sections, some with headings, beginning with the county farm, presented by the sheriff. This was a fixed sum due annually (hence 'farm', from the Latin 'firma' for 'fixed'), based largely around lands retained as 'demesne' by the crown. Over the years, royal land grants, recorded in the pipe roll as terre date entries, reduced the base from which sheriff could draw revenue. As well as terre date deductions from the county farm, standard grants such as alms to religious houses and statutory payments to individuals were also recorded in this first section. Local expenditure (e.g. on royal castles and houses, such as building works and repairs, or supply of munitions), was authorised by writ to be paid from local funds, and the sum deducted from the county farm payment. Accordingly, this section of the pipe roll can provide information on local government, especially before the Chancery rolls begin. The farms section became almost unaltered after most of the crown lands were granted away, so the farms were removed from the pipe roll in 1284. They were placed in the 'rotulus de corporibus comitatibus' (E 372/129), to which a cross-reference was made in each county account, although they were temporarily restored to the individual county accounts between 1299 and 1312.
After the farm, the county account continues with debts carried over from previous years, some under old, often abbreviated, headings. For example, De Oblatis signifies old offerings and fines made by individuals to the crown before the current year repeated annually, with new payments against them being recorded as they were made.
Common law eyres and forest eyres, visits by royal justices to dispense justice in the shires, are under headings beginning De Amerciamentis, and which often also give the names of the leading justices. They provide an important source of information for legal historians where specifically legal sources are lacking. The earlier rolls give lists of names of those on whom financial penalties were imposed in the eyres, identifiable through the indexes to the published volumes. Not all the names are included, because even before 1200 most of them were accounted for in subsidiary rolls to save space in the account, but fuller lists are sometimes available from receipt rolls (E 401), where they have survived. In the 1270s long-standing debts of this type began to be removed from the rolls, a process carried out even more systematically in the reign of Edward II.
Records of taxation in the form of scutage, a commutation of military service, and tallage, a tax on boroughs, towns and royal manors, are also given separate sections. Scutage accounts often list those exempted, and the number of knight's fees for which they were liable, which can provide information on land-holding in the counties. Tallage accounts give the names of the more important inhabitants of towns liable for the tax.
New financial offerings to the crown for favours are also recorded, under the heading Nova Oblata ('new offerings'), usually at the end of each county account, and are the most recent entries on the roll, often being added after the financial year under review had ended. The details were taken from the original rolls (E 371), created in Chancery using information first recorded in the fine rolls (C 60) and passed to the Exchequer. Fine rolls, C 60/8-C60/69 covering the period, 1216-1272, are available as facsimile images and searchable English translations at Henry III fine rolls as part of a free resource at King's College, London.
6. Miscellaneous accounts
Miscellaneous 'foreign' accounts, so-called because they were outside the county accounts, were commonly enrolled in the main body of the pipe roll from the early thirteenth century onwards, after the county accounts. They covered lands temporarily in the custody of the crown, vacancies in bishoprics, wardrobe accounts and the accounts of royal building projects. They can provide information about a variety of subjects, including prices, estate management and building works. Their numbers increased to such an extent after 1300 that they were eventually removed from the pipe rolls and removed to a separate series of rolls of foreign accounts (E 364).