Spotlight On: Chancery – transcript

Hello. My name is Paul Dryburgh. I’m a medieval record specialist at the National Archives. So today we’re going to look at a record from our medieval chancery collection.

Now, the medieval chancery was the writing office for Kings, so lots of the chancery archive consists of copies of letters that go out from the King to various people across the country. And some of them might be his royal officials who, you know, are running castles or manors. Others might be to individuals who are receiving gifts from the king, like wood or timber or having some allowance on customs accounts, for example. So the records of Royal Chancery start in around 1200, so bad King John. He and his chancellor decide that there are lots of things that they just don’t know about, that they’re not keeping a good enough record of. So when letters are sent out from the royal writing office, the chancery separate rolls are kept where copies are made of the text of these letters so that there would be a permanent record for the king. And those records have actually been kept by subsequent kings and have now come down to us, and we keep them at the National Archives. So we have about 800 years worth of records, and they are still being kept today. If, for example, somebody receives an award from the Queen, then there might be a letter patent that’s drawn up and that roll, which comes from around 1200, still exists and it’s still being taken today. Before we look at an example from this collection, it’s good to note that each document in this series has its own individual reference, so we can find it easily when we need to.

So this particular role has a reference C for Chancery. 60, six zero, forward slash 25. Records of this date are often made from parchment, which is animal skin, often sheep or goats that’s been specially prepared for writing so that one side would be smooth and the other side would have, still had some of the hair follicles on it. So if you look closely, you can sometimes see the hair of the individual animal on one side of the roll. They are constructed of various skins of parchment called membranes, and each membrane is maybe 30 or 40 centimeters long and maybe 20 centimeters wide, and each membrane is sewn to the other at the top and bottom, so that when you roll them up, it’s a bit like a toilet roll. So that each sheet, obviously we can’t tear them off each other like you can a toilet roll, but there, they are attached to each other. So you can roll them out like this. And as you roll through, you get more and more entries and sometimes here you can see there is text only on one side, but lots of these rolls have text on the other side as well as on the back, which we call the dorse. So there are different transfer rules for different types of letters.

So if the king wanted to send a very formal order out to one of his officials, it would often be issued patent, which is basically where a letter would be a square of parchment and it would have the king’s seal in beeswax attached to it. And if you attach a seal, that means you’re authenticating, it means the king approves what’s what’s written on the document, and they would be sent out to the recipient and the text would then be read publicly because the information in it is was for people, everybody to know if, for example, somebody was being made a new sheriff of a county say, which is the main official in the localities, everybody would need to know that. However, if the king wanted to do some more private business he wants to give somebody a gift of some oak trees in his wood. Not everybody would need to know that just one person would need to know. So the letter would be written, but it would be sealed, and then it would be wrapped, shut and sealed shut and they’re called letters closed.

So there are two types of letter there: letters patent and letters closed, and there are different roles recording those different letters that go out. However, what we have in front of us here is what’s called a Fine roll. Now, fine does not mean in this case a penalty as it would be today. What it means is that the people who are recorded here are giving money to the king or perhaps horses or beehives or something in order to have a special favour from the king. So if, for example, I wanted to have a market in my manor, I would pay money to the king or offer money to the king and it would be recorded here. The Chancery, as I said, was the King’s writing office, and there were lots and lots of people employed to be scribes, people who wrote records, and they were often specially trained for that purpose within the chancery. Each copy that they write in here is set off in the next by a little paragraph mark. And then they write whatever the letter originally said, they kind of often summarise it. So you’re not getting everything that was in the individual letter they’re putting the most important bits in that the government needed to keep to understand what it had given away or what it was going to receive. And then down the left hand side, another clerk has come along and he’s written a few words which tell you what that particular entry is about. So rolls don’t have indexes like modern books so there’s no real way you can find out what’s in a roll very easily. You have to work your way through it and you have to kind of look along the left hand side here.

Now, of course, that made the scribes jobs really difficult at the time. Occasionally they would write little sort of symbols to themselves. You see drawings of heads or animals or something in the… at the side here in the margin, and that was a marker for the scribes so that when they were going back to or trying to find something, they could find it relatively easily. Otherwise you’ve got quite a long search. So this particular roll is nearly 800 years old and it dates to the 11th year of the reign of King Henry the third. So he started his reign in October 1216. So this roll runs from October 1226 to October 1227 and it’s the roll which records entries from when the king basically becomes old enough to rule in his own right because of course when he came to the throne he was only a nine year old boy.

And so lots of the entries in this roll relate to monasteries for example wanting to have confirmation of the grants they’d received from previous kings. So one of the entries here is a fine, so a payment, offered by the Abbot of Saint Edmund, Bury St Edmonds in Suffolk where he’s offering money to the king in order to have his charters confirmed so that all of the lands he’s claiming all of the properties he’s claiming maybe on the coast or in the woods he’s allowed then to keep and the king won’t take them off him if the king recognizes that those are the properties of that particular house, and that particular Abbott.

Another thing to remember is these records are basically all written by men and lots of the entries in them concerned men. However, the fine rolls are really useful for finding out important things about women in the Middle Ages. So this record, as I say, comes from 1226-27. That was the year after King Henry, the third had reconfirmed his father’s Magna Carta. And in Magna Carta, the king was not allowed to disparage widows. He wasn’t allowed to marry them off as he saw fit anymore. And women were allowed to buy the right to choose the husband that they wanted or never to marry again. And an entry we have here is a lady called Acilia who was the widow of somebody called Richard De Wick, and she’s paying the king 50 marks. Now 50 marks is the equivalent to £33, six shillings and eightpence, and that’s old money, but it’s a lot of money in today’s terms, probably thousands of pounds. So lots of these records are written in a language called Latin. That language is not something that’s used today, but it was the language the government and the church operated in, in the Middle Ages. So in the margin here in Latin, we have ‘de fine Acilia que fuit uxor Ricardi de wyke’ so concerning the fine of Acilia, who was the wife of Richard De Wick, and in the in the entry, she’s paying for the custody of her child, after her husband has died. But she’s also paying the king so that she doesn’t have to marry again or if she does marry, she can choose her husband, it doesn’t have to be chosen for her.

So the chancery roles record things for posterity effectively and they were kept together from the medieval period so that people could refer back to them if they needed to. And you sometimes find annotations from maybe 200 years later, which is when a piece of business comes up, let’s say in 1500, and they want to refer back to something in here. But after they go out of use after their sort of useful life is over, they’re still kept and they ‘re kept with the chancery archive and eventually they end up in the Rolls Chapel, which is now in Chancery Lane in London. It’s part of the Library of King’s College London, and you can still actually go and visit the Rolls Chapel today. In the 19th century the medieval records came together in the Public Record Office with all of the modern records of government and now in the 21st Century, they’re all kept together here at the National Archives in Kew, and that’s really why we have them here today.