1. What are letters patent?
Grants of official positions, or land, or commissions are made by the Crown as letters patent (i.e. open letters) issued under the Great Seal. They are addressed 'To all to whom these presents shall come'. Copies were and are enrolled (to act as a record) on the Patent Rolls, now in The National Archives, in C 66.
The Patent Rolls run in almost unbroken series from 1201 to the present day (although there are significant gaps for the Civil War and Interregnum period). Latin is the usual language in the early period, but some entries are in English even in the sixteenth century. In the 1650s and after 1733 all entries are in English.
They record a huge variety of documents issued under the Great Seal - treaties, charters, grants of land, offices, titles and pensions, judicial commissions, pardons, patents for inventions, licences, leases of crown lands, presentations to churches, grants of markets and fairs, etc. Modern patent 'rolls' (now in fact, books) contain entries as diverse as the constitution of Southern Rhodesia and the appointment of judges in India.
On the back of the Patent Rolls royal proclamations and commissions were enrolled (up to c.1665; from 1595 commissions are more comprehensively recorded in the Crown Office Docket Books and Miscellaneous Books in C 231 and C 193).
Not every document issued under the Great Seal was necessarily enrolled - grants 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 use of the Great Seal in C 81-83 provide supplementary evidence for royal grants, some of which were never enrolled. Petitions for grants may be sometimes be found in SC 8 (Ancient Petitions) or in the various SP (State Papers) series.
2. Published patent rolls
There are printed transcripts of the original Latin enrolments for the period 1201-1216 in Rotuli Litterarum Patentium (Record Commission, 1835) and for 1216-1232 in Letters Patent of the Reign of Henry III (HMSO, 1901,1903). Thereafter the Calendar of Patent Rolls (HMSO, 1891-1986) - often abbreviated as CPR- provides a full indexed summary of entries, in English, up to 1595, except for the period 1509-1547 when calendar entries are made in Letters and Papers Foreign and Domestic Henry VIII (HMSO, 1862-1932). Draft calendars for 1595-1603 are being published by the List and Index Society.
The calendars do not always give full modern references. The rolls are identified by regnal year, and then by part number: this can be converted to a modern reference by looking at the C 66 list. Membrane or item numbers are internal references, used to find the entry on the roll.
3. Manuscript 'indexes' from 1603
From 1603, it is necessary to use the original manuscript indexes and calendars in C 274 which, like the enrolments, may be in Latin until 1733. Those for James I have been published in facsimile by the List and Index Society: others are only available at The National Archives. Many have been annotated with the modern document references. There is a card index for letters patent issued by George V.
The format of these 'indexes' varies, but in general they are arranged by regnal year, and summarise or index each entry, in the order in which it appears on the roll, with indexes to the names of grantees (by the first initial of surname only). Grants of commissions may be indexed under C; of naturalisation under Indigen; and pardons, presentations and proclamations under P. See C 274 for more details.
4. Supplementary patent and confirmation rolls
Between 1483 and 1625, confirmations of previous grants were enrolled separately on the Confirmation Rolls in C 56. Some common form patents - letters of protection, pardons, passes for ships and commissions of bankruptcy - were occasionally enrolled separately on the Supplementary Patent Rolls in C 67.
5. 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. See the Catalogue for publication details.
6. What are charters?
The most formal grants made by the Crown under the Great Seal of England in the Middle Ages 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. Chancery enrolments were made on large sheets of parchment (membranes), sewn head to tail to form a continuous roll, usually arranged by regnal year. Entries were made in a highly abbreviated form of Latin, to which C T Martin's, The Record Interpreter is a useful guide. Regnal years, e.g. 1 Richard II, can be converted into calendar years using C R Cheney, Handbook of Dates.
7. Published charter rolls
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 minority of Henry III (1216-1226) but thereafter there are printed calendars (summaries), in English, in the 6 volume Calendar of Charter Rolls (HMSO, 1903-1927) - often referred to as CCR. 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.
References given in the published works in the form of regnal year have to be converted to modern C 53 references by consulting the C 53 list. Membrane or item numbers are internal references, used to find the entry on the roll.
8. Further reading
H C Maxwell-Lyte Historical Notes on the Use of the Great Seal of England (H. M. Stationery Office, 1926)
R E Latham, 'Hints on Interpreting the Public Records II Letters Patent' The Amateur Historian, vol. I, no.2 (1952).