How to look for records of... Political history in the medieval era – an overview

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This guide provides an overview of medieval political records held at The National Archives, dating from the 12th to the start of the 16th century.

The advice here will help you to get your research into English medieval political structures, affairs and government started, with links to our more specialist guides to help you take your next steps and locate specific records. For political relations with other countries, see our guide to foreign affairs before 1509.

Medieval documents are usually written in Latin or French, often heavily abbreviated.

Central government in the medieval era

Throughout the Middle Ages political authority was vested in the monarch. He exercised power, dispensed patronage, raised armies and conducted diplomacy through a structured network of administrative institutions. ‘Policy’ was determined by the king and a council of advisers drawn from the elite of society.

There were two great offices of state in medieval English government, the Chancery and the Exchequer, whose roles became more defined after the Norman Conquest in 1066. Both offices, and their officials, acted directly on behalf of the crown. Broadly speaking, the Chancery was the crown’s writing office, and the Exchequer managed its finances. However, both departments accumulated other functions (including acting as law courts) throughout their long histories, and their roles and functions often overlapped.


The Chancery was responsible for ensuring that official instructions were carried out and recorded. The Chancellor was the king’s principal administrative officer and the custodian of the great seal, used to authenticate the king’s written instructions, official letters, and grants. Chancery also operated an equity court where decisions were based on evidence and conscience.

The Exchequer

The Exchequer was the main financial department of royal government. It had two primary functions – to receive and issue money on the king’s behalf and to audit the accounts of royal officials. It also operated a court where disputes largely over personal debts involving the crown were tried. The principal Exchequer officials were the treasurer, chamberlains and barons, who oversaw daily business and the annual audits.

How to start a search for records

In general, locating individual medieval records in our collections is more difficult than finding modern records. While searches for modern records usually begin in our online catalogue, the listings for medieval records in the catalogue are less comprehensive and more often a catalogue search will come up short. Furthermore, the vast majority of medieval records are not available to view online.To find individual items within medieval records you are likely to need to use printed calendars and other finding aids held in our reading rooms in Kew or other reference libraries. This research is therefore likely to require a visit to our building, or to a reference library, or you may be able to find the calendars of some of the key record series online (many of which are now out of copyright and can be found freely available).

These calendars provide summarised, indexed translations of the records in each series. For orders given by government and grants made in public or private by the king and his ministers, and for offerings made to the king for these grants, see the following calendars, all available at our building in Kew:

  • Calendar of Patent Rolls (HMSO, 1891-1986)
  • Calendar of Close Rolls (HMSO, 1900-1963)
  • Calendar of Charter Rolls
  • Calendar of Fine Rolls (various). There is an online calendar of the fine rolls of Henry III available here.

For published, indexed transcripts in abbreviated Latin of the annual central rolls of audited accounts in the Exchequer (between 1130 and 1226) see the publications of the Pipe Roll Society.

Sometimes the printed lists, calendars and other indexes contain transcripts and translations of the records and may provide all the information that you need, without having to consult the original document itself.

If you do decide to consult original documents, you will need to find a document reference for each one. Document references are usually broken down into three parts: department, series and piece. For more on this see the Discovery Help Glossary. For medieval records the department code is most likely to either be C (for Chancery), E (for Exchequer) or SC (for Special Collections). The Chancery and Exchequer departments are split into hundreds of series and this guide will highlight some of the most useful for research into medieval politics.

How to view records

Only a very small proportion of medieval documents are viewable online and we flag these in the subsequent sections of this guide.

For all other records you will either need to consult them at our building in Kew or pay for copies to be made and emailed to you, in both instances using document references to place your request.

Many medieval documents are preserved in rolls, made of sheets of parchment sewn at the top and bottom, one for each type of document issued.

Records of Chancery

Records of the Chancery are identified by the department code C. Chancery had its origins as the secretariat, or writing-office, of the emerging English state, and after the Norman Conquest it developed rapidly into the principal non-financial department of state.

Although Chancery’s functions, throughout its history, derived logically from this origin as the king’s formal writing-office, they developed into several separate categories which went far beyond those origins. Read the department description of Chancery in our catalogue for more historical background.

Enrolments of letters under the great seal

The two primary functions of the medieval Chancery were the writing and enrolment of letters sent in the King’s name to various people around the country, and as a court of law.

The main series of Chancery enrolments were:

  • the Charter Rolls (C 53, ended in 1516)
  • the Patent Rolls (C 66)
  • the Close Rolls (C 54)
  • the Fine Rolls (C 60, ended in 1648)

See our guide to Royal grants in letters patent and charters from 1199 for more information about the writing office. If you are interested in the Chancery’s role as a central law court, see our guide to Chancery equity suits before 1558.

Royal letters, writs, and grants were sent to a wide variety of individuals such as lords of manors, individuals who received gifts from the king, and royal officials. Most of these original letters were kept by their recipients, and many no longer survive. From 1199, however, Chancery enrolments were introduced – a system of creating registers of important official documents, where the content of these documents was copied onto extensive series of rolls, stored as an official crown copy. Chancery rolls were arranged by type of document or the subject they related to. Read the catalogue description of the Chancery’s enrolment division to get a better sense of the material covered by the 28 series of rolls that were produced, and where you can find documents.

Watch our Spotlight On Chancery video for a brief introduction to the records.

Parliament Rolls

Among the Chancery Rolls, a series of particular importance for this research is C 65, Parliament Rolls.

The rolls of parliament were the official records of the meetings of parliament, containing the principal decisions taken and acts passed, along with procedural material, compiled by the clerk of the Parliaments after the end of the assembly. They are not transcripts of what was said in parliament. They differ from the majority of Chancery rolls in being the official records produced by parliament, rather than enrolled copies of documents sent out of Chancery.

Search for transcriptions and translations of medieval Parliament Rolls, from 1275 to 1504, on the British History Online website alongside introductions to each parliament (institutional subscription required; free access on site at The National Archives in Kew). The original rolls are held at The National Archives, primarily in both C 65 and SC 9.

Records of the Exchequer

Records of the Exchequer, the main financial department of the medieval English state, contain insights into most aspects of royal finance and of the income and expenditure of many royal officials. Exchequer records include political and diplomatic material too. They are all identified by the department code E.

Exchequer accounts contain an incalculable array of material relating to political and material culture, landscape and economy, taxation, warfare and society.

Read the catalogue description of the Exchequer department for a broad summary of the material it holds and how it is organised. By browsing the Exchequer divisions within the catalogue you can get a better sense of the material. The most famous set of Exchequer records is Domesday Book, a detailed survey and valuation of landed property in England at the end of the 11th century. See our guide to the Domesday Book for in-depth advice.

Below we highlight some of the key Exchequer series for research into medieval political structures and government. Key among them are enrolments (information recorded on rolls of parchment). These are large, unwieldy documents containing thousands of payments, debts and other financial instructions and disputes.

If you are interested in the Exchequer’s role as a law court, see our guide to the Court of Exchequer.

Pipe Rolls

The records of the annual audit in the Exchequer are the Pipe Rolls (series E 372). They are the earliest continuous series of medieval records of any kind, surviving in almost unbroken sequence from 1130. These rolls give us the most accurate picture available for this period of the financial resources of English royal government, revealing payments made and debts owed to the Crown as well as Crown expenditure, details of royal officials and the judiciary and how aspects of the judicial system worked in medieval England

See our guide to pipe rolls for in-depth advice and information on finding aids and publications.

Memoranda Rolls

Pipe Rolls did not, however, record all types of royal income or expenditure and should not be considered a complete record of government and royal finances. Records of Exchequer business can be found in the so-called ‘memoranda rolls’. Amongst other things, these record, in increasing volume by the end of the 13th century:

  • notes about the arrival of officials
  • copies of writs emanating from the exchequer
  • enrolment of private deeds
  • acknowledgements of debt
  • returns of documents from external institutions and officials to help process accounts
  • notes on the status of accounts as they are processed

They were compiled for two ‘remembrancers’, those officials responsible for capturing daily business, one for the King and one for the Treasurer. They therefore survive in two parallel series:

The memoranda rolls are almost entirely unpublished but you can access digital images through the Anglo-American Legal History website and we hold indexes to both series at our reading rooms in Kew.

Particulars of Account

Enrolled accounts essentially contain fair-copy, abridged summaries of the accounts submitted by a vast range of royal officials. As evidence of audit they survive in greater number and frequency than the documents submitted by accountants. These are known as ‘particulars of account’ and can consist of draft accounts, royal writs mandating actions, and receipts.

They were submitted by numerous different officials, dealing with such diverse business as military and naval array and ordnance, immigration, the Irish Exchequer, the Jewish community, mines and the Wardrobe and Household (an independent department responsible to the Exchequer which dealt with provisioning and those closest to the royal family). In the 19th century many accounts were brought together in an artificial series, E 101. For more in-depth advice and information on finding aids and publications, see the following research guides:

Other useful records

In the 19th century, officials of the Public Record Office (the predecessor of The National Archives) created a separate series of documents known as Special Collections, identified by department code SC. The records in this department were collected from across the Public Record Office for their historical importance. Many of these records have lost their original context but they can still be very useful for illuminating personal, political and official relationships. Unlike many medieval records, the two Special Collections series we describe below are keyword searchable in our catalogue.

SC 1 Letters

SC 1 is an artificial collection of correspondence. The records are enormously diverse in format, purpose and content, covering the wide range of secular and ecclesiastical subjects which were of direct or indirect interest to the royal government.

Use the search box in the series description of SC 1 to search for correspondence by name, place and date in our catalogue.

SC 8 Petitions

SC 8 is a series of petitions from the king’s subjects asking for resolution of their problems. Many of the petitions in SC 8 were submitted to parliament.

Use the search box in the series description for SC 8 to search for records by place, person or subject and date. The series description also contains a list of related records series.

Records of law courts

The records of the Court of King’s Bench, the most senior criminal court in England, and records of the general eyres, the itinerant (travelling) law courts, contain much information on individuals, their relationships, and the powers of local lords and officials. These records are difficult to access as they have not been calendared or catalogued in detail. For information on how to find and use these records, see our guides to Court of King’s Bench records and general eyres.