The Henry III Fine Rolls

David Carpenter introduces a major new resource for the understanding of 13th-century history.

The fine rolls of Henry III (r.1216-72) are a key source for the study of politics, government and society in a reign that saw the implantation of Magna Carta into English political life and the beginnings of the parlia­mentary state. This month, the first instalment of this resource, hitherto largely inaccessible and unusable, will become freely available online in English translation.

Written in Latin on parch­ment by the royal chancery, and surviving in annual sequence from the start of King John’s reign in 1199, the fine rolls recorded offers of money to the king for a whole variety of concessions and favours. (A fine is essentially an agreement to pay money for a concession). The rolls are central to the study of royal patronage, family structures, the position of women, ur­ban privileges, the changing nature of the gentry, the development of the common law, and (with payments for licences to set up new mar­kets and fairs) the commer­cialization of the economy. Expanding considerably in size and content during Henry’s reign (a roll might contain as many as 25,000  words), they also came to provide information about appointments to local office, rates of debt repayment, seizure of lands into the king’s hands, taxation levied on towns, the financial predicament of the Jews, and even the sense of humour of the king. It was on the fine rolls that, aboard the ship returning home from Gascony in 1243, Henry recorded a whole series of ridiculous debts that he pretended ‘in jest’ had been incurred by his clerk, Peter the Poitevin.

Hitherto the Henrician fine rolls have only been available in print form in two obscure volumes of Latin excerpts, which appeared in 1835-36. These published a mere 15 per cent of the whole, confining themselves entirely to entries with genealogical information. The aim of the pro­ject is to demo­cratize the rolls, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible. Funding has come from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the project is being jointly handled by the National Archives, where the rolls are housed, and the Department of History and the Centre for Computing in the Human­ities (CCH) at King’s College London. Two researchers, Dr Paul Dry­burgh and Dr Beth Hartland, are translating the rolls into English and modernizing all their place names (though keeping a record of the original forms). At the same time, they are encoding this translation so that it can respond to a sophisticated electronic search engine, in effect an electronic index. This is being done using XML (Extensible Markup Language) in its TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) form, ‘an international standard for libraries, museums, publishers, and scholars to present texts for online, research teaching and preservation’. A textual mark-up scheme has been evolved to include the physical structure of the rolls (membranes and margin­alia), the place and dates of the fines, and the content of the entries themselves in terms of themes, people and places. Instead of having to trawl through roll after roll or (if the rolls had been published simply in book form) index after index, building up references to a particular person, place or theme, it will be possible to call up all references, or references within selected dates and regions, in a moment saving huge amounts of research time.

Take the case of Godfrey of Crowcombe in Somerset, steward of the royal house­hold under Henry III, whose remarkable career in the royal service lasted over forty years. The forty-two entries for him across fifteen rolls can be pulled out chrono­logically or sorted themat­ic­ally thus casting light on his friendship circles, acquis­ition of property, develop­ment of markets, and long struggle to control Oxford castle and the royal palace at Wood­stock.

The launch this May is the first phase of the English translation, for the years 1216-34, the 1234-48 instalment will follow in 2008. It is hoped that funding will be secured to take publication to the end of Henry’s reign in 1272. The rolls between 1216 and 1234 cover the establishment of Henry III on the throne with the winning of the 1215-17 civil war (the first entry is about the release of a rebel from prison), the definitive version of Magna Carta in 1225, and the testing of the Charter during the tyran­nical rule between 1232-34 of Bishop Peter des Roches. They cast graphic light on these events, as well as on the wider structures of government and society.

Undergraduate and postgraduate students, school­children working on projects, archivists, keepers of museums and buildings, those in the heritage industry, and professional, amateur, local and family historians, will all be able to access the resource both to explore the research ques­tions opened up by the pro­ject, and to pose and answer questions of their own.

There are three other key features of the project. First it does not neglect the rolls themselves, and their digitized images appear on the website. It is possible to look through them mem­brane by membrane, zoom in on a particular entry or part of an entry, and click back and forth between translation and image. Secondly, the historical interest of the material is being revealed in the ‘fine of the month’ feature on the website where experts highlight material of particular significance. Thirdly, publication in electronic form is com­plemented by public­ation in book form by Boydell and Brewer. Those involved in searching for many entries will employ the electronic version, but those wishing to check a particular entry or put an entry into context may well prefer the printed volumes, which now com­plete the great series of printed Henrician chancery rolls.

The principles and practices informing the elec­tronic publication of the fine rolls are readily trans­ferable to the publication of other medieval records including those currently published only in book form. There is the opportunity here to open up for the public a great bank of cross-searchable resources for the study of medieval history.