How to look for records of... Foreign affairs before 1509
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
How many are online?
1. Why use this guide?
Use this guide to find sources for English foreign policy and diplomatic issues before 1509.
2. Essential information
In medieval England no single official or institution had overall responsibility for foreign affairs. There was no Foreign Office.
Responsibilities were shared by:
- the Royal Council, which discussed foreign affairs and formulated England’s policy in consultation with the king
- Chancery, which dealt with the administration of treaties and letters
- the Exchequer, which dealt with the financial aspects of diplomacy
Diplomatic missions were frequently undertaken by:
- the great officers of state
- leading churchmen
- major noblemen
- the king’s personal friends and trusted servants of lower rank
Very early documentation of the conduct of diplomacy consists of chronicles and various fragments from early Anglo-Norman times, most of which is not held by The National Archives.
These are kept among former collections of antiquarians at institutions such as:
- The British Library
- The Bodleian Library
- ecclesiastical archives and some county archive collections – search Find an archive
Many original English diplomatic documents are now in the archival collections of the countries with which the medieval crown negotiated.
- accounts (for the expenses of envoys )
- diplomatic correspondence (scattered in a number of record series or enrolled in the records of Chancery and the artificial Special Collections)
- documents relating to the royal council
There was little differentiation between foreign and domestic affairs in the management of government business. As a result, documents relating to English external policy are found in a mixture of record series.
These documents were usually written in Latin or French using medieval abbreviations.
Diplomatic sources become much fuller after the start of the Chancery enrolments in 1199.
3. General search tips
Begin by consulting published sources.
Published information about some of the documents, including full transcripts of original texts, is in:
- Foedera, Conventiones, Literae et Cujuscunque Generis Acta Publica inter Reges Angliae et alios by Thomas Rymer (20 volumes, 1727-1735) which contains many diplomatic documents transcribed in their original language
- Rymer’s Foedera: Syllabus in English with Index, 1066-1654 edited by D Hardy (3 volumes, 1869-1885)
- Letters and Papers, Richard III and Henry VII edited by J Gairdner (2 volumes, 1861-1863)
- Materials for a History of the Reign of Henry VII edited by W Campbell (2 volumes, London, 1873-1877).
- English Medieval Diplomatic Practice (2 volumes) by P Chaplais, (London, HMSO, 1975 and 1982)
- English Royal Documents, King John-Henry VI, 1199-1461 (Oxford 1971)
You can browse record series in our catalogue mentioned throughout this guide and identify relevant document references:
- record descriptions in our catalogue (though these may be limited)
For some record series you can use calendars which summarise the text of original documents. You may also wish to use calendars to access the original records.
4. Chancery enrolments
The main record series of Chancery enrolments are listed below. Click on the links to find out more about each record series:
- C 54 – Close Rolls, including letters of credence to foreign rulers
- C 61 – Gascon Rolls, which include treaties, truces and appointments of ambassadors in French lands under English rule
- C 66 – Patent Rolls, from 1201, including letters of safe conduct, protection, the appointments and powers of ambassadors, and negotiations and general correspondence
- C 67 – Patent Rolls, Supplementary, 1275-1749
- C 76 – Treaty rolls, which includes enrolments of treaties, letters and other diplomatic material, 1234-1675. Many of them concern the administration of England’s territory in France, but diplomatic correspondence with the Holy Roman Empire and other states is also present. Treaties could also be enrolled on the other rolls mentioned above
- C 64 – Norman Rolls, including diplomatic letters patent, writs and treaties between English kings as dukes of Normandy and the dukes of Brittany and Burgundy
- C 70 – Roman Rolls (correspondence to the Pope and cardinals), 1306-1358
- C 71 – Scotch Rolls, including letters of safe-conduct, treaties, and material on the Scottish succession and Edward I’s diplomacy
4.2 How do I search for documents?
- the Calendar of Close Rolls for the summary of documents and their references in C 54 (the close rolls)
- the Calendar of Patent Rolls for the summary of documents and their references in the C 66 (the patent rolls)
- the published volume of Gascon Rolls for summaries of documents in C 61 (Gascon rolls)
- the published volume of Treaty rolls preserved in the Public Record Office for advice on how to use the treaty rolls in C 76
You may wish to read Using calendars to access the original records.
Browse by date the following record series to identify relevant document references:
5. Other Chancery documents
5.1 Chancery Miscellanea (C 47)
Browse C 47, Chancery Miscellanea, which includes foreign documents many of which are letters, petitions or warrants and a number of documents which are not described in published sources.
- bundles 22-23 Scottish documents, including homage rolls
- bundles 24-26 concern French possessions of the English kings
- bundles 27-32 are the main sequence of diplomatic documents
Much diplomatic correspondence was issued under the privy or secret seals in an effort to control the dissemination of instructions, reports and other information. Correspondence issued in this way was intended only for the named individuals or officers to whom it was addressed and not for wider public scrutiny.
5.2 Chancery Warrants (C 81 and PSO 1)
Warrants were the accepted means of issuing authenticated instructions from the king or royal council to representatives of the crown engaged on particular diplomatic or other official activity.
Locate warrants summarised in:
- the Calendar of Chancery Warrants preserved in the Public Record Office, 1244-1326 (1927) for the record series C 81 and PSO 1 which will include material such as issue of letters of safe conduct for foreign envoys, appointments of English representatives, letters of protection and sometimes the text of diplomatic letters to be drawn up under the Great Seal
5.3 Miscellaneous diplomatic documents in DL 34
Some miscellaneous diplomatic documents survive for the period 1129-1596 in the Duchy of Lancaster records in DL 34.
Most of these:
- date from the 13th and 14th centuries
- are a miscellaneous collection of records which were inherited by or acquired by the dukes of Lancaster
- include the treaties of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, as King of Castile and Leon
6. Exchequer documents
- the Calendar of Documents relating to Scotland preserved in her Majesty’s Public Record Office (5 vols, 1881-1986) and other items are transcribed in Documents Illustrative of the History of Scotland (1870) to locate summaries of documents in E 39, Scottish Documents, Henry III to Elizabeth I, which contains documents of similar type to those in E 30 (see below)
Find documents by browsing by date in:
- E 28 for Council and Privy Seal records which includes material on the conduct of foreign affairs, Edward III to Elizabeth I (a Chancery series of similar council and parliament material is in C 49)
Browse these record series by description and date:
- E 36 books, Exchequer (Treasury of Receipt) especially E 36/186-192, diplomatic documents Edward II to Henry VIII, and the Registrum Munimentorum (Liber A and B, E 36/275) which contains transcripts temp, Edward I of diplomatic documents from John to Edward I
- E 30, diplomatic documents, Henry I to James I (see below)
The diplomatic documents in E30 contain some of the earliest diplomatic documents in The National Archives and include:
- original treaties
- abstracts of agreements and oaths
- diplomatic instructions
- some material relating to foreign loans,  to 1624
- notarial instruments
- powers to ambassadors to treat
- royal letters
- letters of protection and safe conduct
Browse relevant Exchequer accounts in:
- E101 for the accounts for expenses of ambassadors and nuncii, 1251-1616. It also includes the praestita, or accounts of vouchers or imprests issued for the king’s service abroad, as well as payments to envoys from abroad
- E 159 for King’s Remembrancer Memoranda Rolls, recording memoranda, copies of other documents, or case papers resulting from all types of business found in other Exchequer series – including diplomatic matters
- E 164 for King’s Remembrancer Miscellaneous Books, Series I, of particular interest for the campaigns of Edward III
- E 175 for Exchequer and Parliamentary and Council proceedings, Edward I to James I, including some documents relevant to the council’s direction of foreign policy
- E 315 for the accounts of Calais, 1409-1412 and of Ponthieu and Montreuil
- E 361 for Enrolled Wardrobe and Household Accounts, 1257-1548, which might include evidence of payments for specific diplomatic missions
- E 364 for accounts of nuncii and foreign merchants
- E 368 for Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer Memoranda Rolls, 1217-1835 (departmental duplicates of the E 159 rolls)
- E 372 for Pipe Rolls, which mention the particulars of account of the ambassadors
- E 373 for Exchequer of Normandy Pipe Rolls, 1180-1203
- E 405 for Journalia and Tellers’ rolls of receipts and issues, 21 Edward I -1834, summarising income and expenditure, but can supply specific details of the costs of foreign missions, embassies or campaigns
- E 403 for enrolments and registers of issues, Henry III – 1834
- E 404 for writs and warrants for issues, Henry II -1837
- E 403 and E 404 include monies advanced to ambassadors or paid retrospectively
7. Special collections
You can search our catalogue within:
- SC 8 (for Ancient Petitions, Henry III to James I, which includes petitions from Gascony and other French provinces) by using the name of petitioner – digital images are freely available
- SC 1 (for Ancient Correspondence, Henry II to Henry VI, mainly 13th and 14th century in origin and including ‘domestic’ as well as ‘foreign’ material) by using name of individuals or place
Browse by date and catalogue descriptions which separate the foreign-related content from the domestic content in:
- SC 7 for Papal Bulls, -1533 which includes documents concerning relations between the papacy, royal government and the ecclesiastical authorities
8. Transcripts of diplomatic documents
Original English medieval documents held in other European archives were transcribed in the nineteenth century. These transcriptions now form part of The National Archives collection in:
- PRO 31/2 for Milan, 1425-1768
- PRO 31/8 for Germany, Portugal and France, c1162-1572
- PRO 31/9 for Rome, 1066-1815
- PRO 31/11 for Spain, 1485-1555
- PRO 31/14, 1202-1797 and PRO 30/25, 1224-1877 for Venice
Some of these documents relating to Milan and Venice have been calendared for the medieval period in the following publications:
- the Calendar of Entries in the Papal Registers Relating to Great Britain and Ireland for summaries of entries which may indicate English diplomatic activity at the papal court, or activities of other states that affected English foreign policy
9. Using the calendars to access the original records
Calendars cover specific date periods for particular record types (patent or close rolls in C 66 or C 54 respectively). Use the calendar alongside our catalogue to identify the original manuscript it refers to.
9.1 How do I locate The National Archives’ document references from the calendar entries?
You can cross-reference an entry in the calendar with our catalogue to locate a full document reference to the original manuscript it refers to.
If you are looking at rolls, each roll normally relates to a regnal year and the corresponding calendar summary presents the entries on the front and back of the relevant rolls in the sequence they are found in the manuscript.
The regnal year is recorded at the top of each page of the calendar as a running entry until the subject roll changes.
Look for the entries for a single regnal year which might be broken down into several parts – in the format ‘1 Henry IV, part 1’.This is the key information, since it can be converted using our catalogue.
Browse the series in question within our catalogue to locate the year referenced in the calendar.
If you are looking at the Calendar of Patent Rolls, Henry IV, vol 1, 1399-1401, this volume contains the text of the rolls for 1-2 Henry IV.
When the text at the top of the calendar changes to 1 Henry IV part 2 we know that the entries in C 66/355 are now being summarised in the calendar.
- some of the calendars provide summaries of their contents in English
- depending on the date, the publisher and the type of document being summarised, the other entries will be in Latin and French. This is especially the case with calendars published before 1939
- where all HMSO calendars produce extended transcripts of the original text this is not normally translated into English
10. Further reading
P Chaplais, ‘English diplomatic documents to the end of Edward III’s reign’, in D A Bullough and R L Storey, The Study of Medieval Records (Oxford, 1971)
Henry S Lucas, ‘The Machinery of Diplomatic Intercourse’, in J F Willard and W A Morris, eds The English Government at Work, 1327-1336 (vol 1, Cambridge, Mass 1940)
G P Cuttino, English Diplomatic Administration, 1259-1339 (Oxford, 1971)
J Ferguson, English Diplomacy, 1422-1461 (Oxford, 1972)
D E Queller, The Office of Ambassador in the Middle Ages, (Princeton, 1967)
T F Tout, Chapters in the Administrative History of Medieval England (Manchester 1920-1933)
Calendar of Documents in the Public Record Office relating to Scotland, 1108-1509; W H Bliss, et al