How to look for records of... Foreign affairs before 1509

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • None

1. Why use this guide?

Use this guide for advice on how to find record sources documenting English foreign policy, international diplomacy and affairs before 1509 held at The National Archives.

These records are not available to view online so to see them you will have to either visit us in Kew or, if you can locate document references, order copies. However, you will probably find that to locate document references you will also need to visit us – there are calendars and indexes held in our building that are likely to prove essential in your search.

Very early records of the conduct of English international diplomacy come mostly in the form of chronicles and fragments of documentation from early Anglo-Norman times, most of which are not held by The National Archives. For these earliest records you may find it more fruitful to search in ecclesiastical archives, county archives, the British Library or the Bodleian Library. Use our Find an archive tool to locate local archives by place name. Many other documents are in the archival collections of the countries with which the English medieval crown negotiated.

2. How foreign affairs were conducted in the medieval period

In medieval England no single official or institution had overall responsibility for foreign affairs. There was no Foreign Office. There was little differentiation between foreign and domestic affairs in the management of government business.

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

3. An overview of the records and how to get a search started

Diplomatic sources at The National Archives are primarily:

  • accounts (for the expenses of envoys )
  • diplomatic correspondence (scattered in a number of record series, some in artificial Special Collections, or enrolled in the records of Chancery)
  • treaties
  • documents relating to the Royal Council

These documents were usually written in Latin or French using medieval abbreviations.

Often the best way to begin a search is to consult published sources held in our library. Published information about some of the documents, including full transcripts of original texts, is in:

In some instances you may find published sources provide enough information to make consultation of original documents unnecessary. They will certainly make locating document references (which you will need to request the documents themselves) easier and may provide them in full.

Records at The National Archives are held in record series . The series most likely to provide details of and insights into English foreign affairs in this period are listed in the following sections of this guide. To browse through a list of records held in a record series, click on the series links and find the browse ‘by reference’ link on the following page. To locate individual pieces within some record series you will need to use calendars (see next section).

4. How to use calendars to locate records

Calendars summarise the text of original documents. We hold many calendars for the medieval period at our on-site library. Each one covers a specific period and a particular record type (patent or close rolls in C 66 or C 54, for example). With information gleaned from calendar entries you can use our catalogue to identify the original documents on which the calendar entries are based and the accompanying document references which you will need to request and see the documents themselves.

Though some of the calendars provide summaries of their contents in English, others, depending on the date, the publisher and the type of document being summarised, provide entries (or some entries) in the original Latin and French. This is especially the case with calendars published before 1939 and, notably, calendars published by His Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO) where comprehensive transcripts of the original text are reproduced.

To locate a document using a calendar, bear the following in mind:

  • Each roll normally covers a regnal year
  • The regnal year is recorded at the top of each page of the calendar
  • A calendar entry summarises the front and back of the respective roll, in the sequence found in the original manuscript
  • Entries for a single regnal year might be broken down into several parts – for example, ‘1 Henry IV, part 1’
  • Once you have a regnal year reference (1 Henry IV, part 1), search for it in our catalogue in the series in question

For example, to locate references in series C 66 for the first and second years of Henry IV’s reign you will need the Calendar of Patent Rolls, Henry IV, vol 1, 1399-1401. It reproduces the text of the rolls for those years and provides you with the regnal year reference cited above: 1 Henry IV, part 1. By browsing from the C 66 description page (look for the ‘browse from here by reference’ link), you will find (after scrolling through a dozen pages) the catalogue references for these rolls, which are C 66/354-365, and the reference for the roll covering 1 Henry IV part 1 is the first in this sequence, C 66/354. With this reference you can use our document ordering system to request the original roll.

5. Chancery documents

Chancery was responsible for supervising and preparing the monarch’s formal instructions, relaying orders to the king’s officers and courts to transact business on the monarch’s behalf.

5.1 Chancery enrolments

From 1199 Chancery enrolments were introduced – a system of creating registers of important official documents. 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

There are no useful online catalogue descriptions for most of the series listed above. To locate document references in C 54, C 61, C 66 and C 76 you can consult:

In the absence of calendars, you will need to browse through the other series listed above by clicking on the links and then the browse ‘by reference’ link on the subsequent page.

5.2 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.

Note that:

  • 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.

Consult also SC 1 which contains ancient chancery and exchequer records. See section on Special collections for further guidance.

5.3 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.

Read the catalogue descriptions in C 81 and PSO 1 for more information about these records.

Locate warrants summarised in:

5.4 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


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
  • agreements
  • abstracts of agreements and oaths
  • diplomatic instructions
  • some material relating to foreign loans, [1103] 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

These are made up of largely artificial groupings of records.

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, [1131]-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:

Some of these documents relating to Milan and Venice have been calendared for the medieval period in the following publications:


9. 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