Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Henry III’s Fine Rolls

                Hello fellow manuscript enthusiasts.  Today I will be telling you about the fine rolls of King Henry III of England.  Fine rolls were records of offers of money made to the king in exchange for concessions or favours.  For example, if a lord wished to expand his holdings, he would have to seek the permission of the current monarch, and make a payment which could vary from gold to goods or even political hostages.  These fine rolls are an important source for historians because they tell us what types of transactions were common amongst the nobility in the Middle Ages and also show what sorts of services the nobility were willing to request from the king.

            The fine rolls of Henry III provide an invaluable insight into the reign of this medieval monarch, which lasted from 1216 to 1272.  At first these fine rolls do not look like much.  Unlike other manuscripts we have worked with, the fine scrolls are very plain, being little more that light brown parchment pages with a messy insular hand in red-brown ink.  The manuscripts were clearly meant for function, rather than display, which makes sense as they were used to record financial transactions and would probably not be seen frequently by anyone outside of the royal Exchequer.

            The fines scrolls provided an exacting record of the services rendered by the king and the compensation he received in exchange, which could be quite varied, as the following examples amply demonstrate:

[No Date] (1216).  Kent.  Robert Arsic has made fine with the king by 100 m. for his delivery from the king’s prison, and he is to serve the king with three knights (se quarto militum) for a year, namely by Robert himself, Hasculph de Soligny, and two of Hasculph’s nephews, and he gave hostages for rendering that fine at the set terms and for performing faithful service to the king.

[No Date] (1217) Bedfordshire. Buckinghamshire. Northamptonshire. Kent.  Robert de Lisle and Rose of Tattershall, his wife, and Robert of Bassingham and Angnes of Bassingham, sisters of John of Odell, have made fine with the king by £200 for their relief and for having the lands formerly of John wich fall to them by inheritance, of which they are to render £100 at Hilary in the second year and the other £100 at Easter next following in the same year.  Order to the sheriff of Bedfordshire that, having accepted security from Rose and Agnes for rendering the aforesaid £200 at the aforesaid terms, he is to cause them to have full seisin of the lands formerly of John which fall to them by inheritance.  Order to the sheriffs of Buckinghamshire, Norhthamptonshire, and Kent that once the sheriff of Bedfordshire has sent to them by his letters that he has taken security from Rose and Agnes for rendering that fine to the king, they are to cause them to have full seisin of all lands formerly of John in their bailiwicks without delay.

17 June (1242) Saintes.  For H. earl of Essex and Hereford.  To the barons of the Exchequer.  The king, for himself and his heirs, has granted to H. de Bohun, earl of Essex and Hereford, that he may henceforth render £40 10s. at the Exchequer for the remainder of the whole debt he owes him of the 20000 m. by which Geoffrey de Mandeville, formerly earl of Essex, his uncle, made fine with King J., the king’s father, for having Isabella, formerly countess of Gloucester, to wife, and for all other debts which the same earl owes the king at the Exchequer, for which he previously made fine with the hing to render £50 at the aforesaid Exchequer, and that the king and his heirs, by the hand of the sheriff of Essex who will be, will take those £40 10s. that the same earl was accustomed to take each year from the county of Essex in the name of the Earl.  And the king and his heirs will retain them in their hand in part payment of the aforesaid debts and will cause this to be allowed to him and his heirs each year until the king will be satisfied for all of the aforesaid debts.  In the meantime, the hing or his heirs will not distrain the same earl or his heirs by their lands, chattel, or tenements for the aforesaid debts, or casue them to be distrained.  Once the aforesaid £40 10s. and thereafter will not claim, or be able to claim, anything when the earl and his heir shall take the aforesaid rent as fully and freely as the same earl was accustomed to take before that grant from the aforesaid county.  Order to cause this to be done and enrolled thus.

            These passages reveal not only the medieval fondness for repetition, but also the great care that was taken by officials within the exchequer to ensure that not a single shilling in a transaction with the crown would be misplaced.  The fine rolls also serve the purpose of identifying who owned what in medieval England for later historians, and allowed an intricate view of the politics, economy, and governance of English society during the Middle Ages.  Henry III’s fine rolls also included some rather strange entries which served to illustrate that even the high nobility and chancellery could have a sense of humor, such as an offer from the wife of Hugh de Neville of 200 chickens for the honor of spending one night with her lord, Hugh de Neville.  All of these insights are provided by the scrolls, which are invaluable to anyone who wishes to know more about the society of Medieval England.


  1. What these rolls really do, outside of their obvious original intention to act as a record of dues or promises of payment, is show modern-day historians how life worked at the time that they were first written. Most notable to me is the mention of the trade of knights in the example, above: “[…] and he is to serve the king with three knights (se quarto militum) for a year […]” (1216). Much like crops and livestock, personal servitude was, in some cases, another legitimate form of payment at this time; however, rather than operating on single units, as crops and livestock did, the promise of servitude dealt with number of knights as well as length of service, and these factors were individually flexible depending on the personal quality of the knights in question. For instance, a young, strong knight in his prime would “sell for more” than an older one that has been out of commission for a time. I find this personally interesting because of a small obsession I had with knights as a child, though unfortunately not in a way that reaffirms my admiration; whereas I considered knights to be awesome, chivalrous heroes, it turns out that, to some extent, they could simply be considered stock to be traded for some length of time. Rather than real loyalty, they “[…] perform[ed] faithful service […]” to whomever their lord was indebted (1216).

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  3. Looking at the Fine Rolls today is interesting because they provide an extremely thorough depiction of England’s history of commerce and interaction between royalty and subjects and familial and societal structure. The Fine Rolls show just how involved the king was in the affairs of his subjects, and how precisely the king accounted taxation of his people. The breadth of the cases recorded in the Fine Rolls is also interesting to me; subjects are recorded owing money for things from owning land to paying debts to marriage rights. They even document the evolution of commercialization, the standard of living of higher ranked people and their benefits, and documentation of an increased number of law cases providing information about the initiation of early common law. Although the entries themselves are very repetitive and include many references to names and places that may not mean much individually, but the entries taken together give comprehensive information about many aspects of life during this period. Similarly to the Domesday Book and the Pipe Rolls, the Fine Rolls are part of the beginning of the tradition of committing deals and asset transfers to written documentation. They are especially interesting to me because I am so used to leaving paper trails everywhere I go; written accounting being a novel idea seems so strange. Although, even modern record keeping is evolving as more and more transactions occur digitally. I don't typically consider paper a "technology", but comparing the Fine Rolls with digital record keeping today it is easy to see it as an evolution of technology.

  4. Please tell me I was not the only one who could not help but stare at the script on the rolls. As the course has gone on I have come to realize, for better or worse, I possess a personal affinity for the more simplistic manuscripts that we cover and being able to include the various rules for medieval writing in this period from our handouts made looking at something like this almost like a puzzle to be sorted and made it a lot of fun rather than looking at ornate depiction. The Fine Rolls are a fantastic representation of the shift in medieval society of the use of writing as a means of verification, representation and record keeping as European society began to become less orally based and made more use of writing as a tool for organization. While the rolls look almost like the hastily scribbled notes of a college student, due to the non-uniform paragraphs and lines, the script itself is still extremely mesmerizing, legible for the most part and fairly uniform in the letter formation, which, in addition to a greater use of punctuation, makes the rolls much easier to read, even to modern eyes.

  5. Ever enthused by the various scripts we’ve been covering, I have to say that it was hard to move on from the beautifully sweeping letters that these records were written in. Studying the intricacies of this style of script would certainly be interesting – I might just have to try it at some point, though I’d probably try to write in a more orderly fashion. The organization of the rolls themselves is a far stretch from the clean lines of the Carolingian style we’d been studying, but it is interesting to see the different way that the rolls have been organized and the way the text is separated. The organization of the content, on the contrary, is amazing. Reading about it, I just loved the incredible insight that these rolls gave into the culture and practices of the time, as well as the attention to detail. Though, with the knowledge that this point in history was when oral practices were diminishing in favor of written contracts and records, the observation of these rolls and the sheer amount of organization that went into them is hardly surprising. I’d be interested in looking more into the different kinds of records kept in this format when I find the time.

  6. King Henry III’s Fine Rolls provide a new aspect of the importance of record keeping and the stress of having verification and written proof. The oral tradition of the earlier middle ages was fading out, and was no longer an authenticated way to prove what you owned, what you owed, etc. While the Fine Scrolls relate greatly to the Domesday book, of which we studied earlier, the Fine Scrolls take on a different purpose, and show their information in a different way. One of the most important characteristics of the Fine Scrolls, as since it is a scroll, it could be added to, as time went on. It wasn’t just restricted to a book, so the fact that scrolls could be added to greatly affects how these scrolls could be used. And because it could be added to, historians have a better sense of how not only taxation was changing, but how society was changing from year to year. The first purpose of the Fine Rolls, was to record the money offered for the fines imposed by the King. But it should be noted, that this was the first purpose, and grew to include material unrelated to the topic of fines. They ranged from including the seizing of land for the crown, to taxation of groups of people, etc. Not only does the inclusion of these different topics let historians learn of the monetary/taxation purposes, but also in a socio-political sphere as well. This provides the evidence of the growing importance of writing, as it was becoming a more important source of recording and authenticating information, and in today’s world, a way to study the history of then. The changing nature of the original purpose of the scrolls (while it still endured as the prime purpose of the scrolls), shows that the royal chancery was seeing the ever evolving importance of the written language as a way to record.