How to look for records of... Royal grants in letters patent and charters from 1199
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1. Why use this guide?
This guide will help you to find records of royal grants issued to individuals, public bodies or institutions since 1199 and now held at The National Archives. Royal grants cover a wide range of topics including, but not limited to:
- patents for inventions
- leases of crown lands
- presentations to churches
- rights to hold markets and/or fairs
The guide focuses on the enrolments of grants which were issued under the Great Seal as royal charters or letters patent. There are other records of grants (for example, warrants) but these are not covered in depth here.
Many records for the earlier period are in Latin.
2. What are letters patent and what are charters?
Until early in the reign of Henry VIII, the most solemn royal grants were issued as charters. Other grants could be issued as letters patent. After the eighth year of Henry VIII’s reign, all grants under the Great Seal were issued as letters patent.
Both letters patent and charters were recorded on parchment, consequently sewn together head to tail to form a continuous roll for storage. We thus refer to ‘enrolled’ grants, and to ‘Patent Rolls’ and ‘Charter Rolls’. The individual sections are known as membranes.
2.1 Letters patent
Letters patent were open letters issued under the Great Seal. They cover a huge diversity of subjects, including grants of official positions, lands, commissions, privileges and pardons. Modern patent ‘rolls’ (now in fact, books) contain entries as diverse as the constitution of Southern Rhodesia and the appointment of judges in India.
Most entries are in Latin in the early period but some entries are in English, even in the 16th century. In the 1650s and after 1733 all entries are in English. Letters patent are addressed ‘To all to whom these presents shall come’.
The most formal royal grants made in the medieval period 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.
3. Search tools and basics
To identify records you will usually need to start by consulting calendars (summaries) and indexes, all of which are available at The National Archives in Kew. Details of these finding aids are provided in the sections below.
The calendars and indexes are usually dated by regnal year (for example ‘1 Richard II’), reflecting the arrangement of the rolls. You will need to convert references in the calendars and indexes into modern document references. Membrane or item numbers will direct you to the right section of the roll. Convert regnal years to calendar years using C R Cheney’s Handbook of Dates.
4. How to search for Patent Rolls
The Patent Rolls run in an almost unbroken series of records from 1201 to the present day. However, there are significant numbers of missing records for the Civil War and Interregnum period (c.1642–1659). Copies are enrolled on the Patent Rolls in C 66.
There are a number of resources which will help you to find records:
4.1 Published patent rolls (before 1603)
Consult the printed transcripts of the original Latin enrolments for the period:
- 1201–1216 in Rotuli Litterarum Patentium (Record Commission, 1835)
- 1216–1232 in Letters Patent of the Reign of Henry III (HMSO, 1901,1903)
After 1232 the Calendars of Patent Rolls (HMSO, 1891–1986) – often abbreviated in secondary sources as CPR – provide a full indexed summary of entries, in English, up to 1595, except for the period 1509–1547 when calendar entries are in Letters and Papers Foreign and Domestic Henry VIII (HMSO, 1862–1932). Digitised calendars of the rolls for the reigns of Henry III and Edward I are now available through British History Online and later reigns are being added incrementally.
Calendars for 1595–1601 have been published by the List and Index Society and more are in preparation.
Calendars do not always give full modern document references. The rolls are identified by regnal year, and then by part number: this can be converted into a modern reference by looking at the C 66 list in the reading rooms, Kew. Membrane or item numbers are internal references which you use to find the entry on the actual roll.
4.2 Manuscript ‘indexes’ from 1603
From 1603, you will need to use the original manuscript indexes and calendars in C 274 which, like the enrolments, may be in Latin until 1733. These indexes are not as straightforward to use as modern indexes.
Those for James I have been published in facsimile by the List and Index Society. Others are only available at The National Archives, Kew. Many have been annotated with the modern document references. There is also a card index at The National Archives for letters patent issued by George V.
The format of these ‘indexes’ varies. In general they are arranged by regnal year and either summarise or index each entry in the order in which it appears on the roll. Indexes to the names of grantees are by the first initial of the surname only.
- commissions may be indexed under C
- naturalisation under ‘Indigen’
- pardons, presentations and proclamations under P
See the C 274 series list in the reading rooms, Kew for more details and information about interpreting and using the indexes.
5. Letters patent not enrolled
Not every document issued under the Great Seal was enrolled. Grants issued 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 the use of the Great Seal in C 81-83 provide supplementary evidence for royal grants, some of which were never enrolled.
You may sometimes find petitions for grants in:
- Ancient Petitions within SC 8. Use the search box within SC 8 to search by keyword (for example, sheep or sheep AND grant)
- the various State Papers series (SP)
6. Supplementary patent and confirmation rolls
Between 1483 and 1625, confirmations of previous grants were enrolled separately on the Confirmation Rolls in C 56. A manuscript index to these is available at The National Archives.
Some common form patents – letters of protection, pardons, passes for ships and commissions of bankruptcy – were occasionally enrolled separately on the Supplementary Patent Rolls. Browse these in C 67.
7. Royal proclamations and commissions
Up until c.1655 royal proclamations and commissions were enrolled on the back of the Patent Rolls.
From 1595 commissions are more comprehensively recorded in:
- the Crown Office Docket Books in C 231 – searchable by date
- Miscellaneous Books in C 193 – browse by type of book and date
8. 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. For Durham start by browsing DURH 3 from the enrolments subseries. For Lancaster see the publication note within the PL 1 series description for help on how to search the records.
9. How to search for Charter Rolls, 1199-1517
The original charter is unlikely to be at The National Archives as it 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. We do, however, hold some original charters, usually acquired by confiscation, inheritance or purchase, such as the fine collection of Duchy of Lancaster royal charters in DL 10.
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 early years of Henry III’s reign (1216–1226) but for later dates there are printed calendars (summaries), in English, in the six-volume Calendar of Charter Rolls (HMSO, 1903–1927) – often referred to in secondary sources as CCR or CChR. 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 (see section 4).
10. Further reading
‘Calendar of Patent Rolls 34 Elizabeth I (1591–1592)’ C66/1379–1394, Second (revised) edition (Lists and Index Society, 2017)
H C Maxwell-Lyte, ‘Historical Notes on the Use of the Great Seal of England‘ (HM Stationery Office, 1926)
R E Latham, ‘Hints on Interpreting the Public Records II Letters Patent’ The Amateur Historian, vol I, no 2 (1952)
C T Martin, ‘The Record Interpreter‘ (London, 1892)
P Chaplais, ‘English Royal Documents‘ (Oxford, 1971)