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The fine rolls record offers of money to the Monarchs of England for concessions and favours from the 12th to the 17th centuries.
In general, a fine is an agreement made with the king, or one of his chief ministers, to pay a certain sum of money for a specified benefit. In some cases the sum of money was paid immediately. However, in the vast majority of cases this did not happen. More often than not, the sums recorded on the fine roll, whether given or fined for, were monies that had been promised to the king, and which had yet to be collected. Moreover, the king did not receive this money directly. Rather, it was collected by, and paid into, the Exchequer at Westminster.
The rolls on which the fines were recorded provide the earliest systematic evidence of what people and institutions wanted from the king and what he was prepared to give.
Those working within Exchequer knew what money to collect because copies of the fine roll were sent to them in installments throughout the year. This is why in the rolls there are intermittent notes (sometimes in the margin, sometimes in the body of the text) "hinc mittendum est ad scaccarium", "from here it is to be sent to the Exchequer". The note identifies the point at which the last installment of the fine roll had been dispatched to the Exchequer, and where a new one had to be prepared. A typical note from October 1219 reads:
From here it is to be sent to the Exchequer and what is above has been delivered to the Treasurer [of the Exchequer] by the hand of R[alph] de Neville.
Ralph de Neville here is the keeper of the seal and the man in day-to-day charge of the Chancery, the king’s writing office. The copy of the fine roll sent to the Exchequer was known as the "originalia roll". On receipt of the originalia roll, the Exchequer transferred the debts to the "summonses", that is, the list of debts which it sent twice annually to the sheriff for him to collect and pay into the treasury. Simultaneously, the Exchequer copied the debts onto the Pipe roll (the annual record of the audit of all money owed to the crown) where they were placed, county by county, under the heading "nova oblata", "new offerings". On the rare occasions when fines was paid direct to the king (usually into his personal department, the Chamber, or as it became known later, the Wardrobe) a note was added to the fine roll stating that the fine in question should not be sent to the Exchequer. This meant that the debt would not be placed on the originalia roll.
The fine rolls also include a lot of material that was unrelated to fines but of importance to the Exchequer. For example, they contain various letters relating to the rates of debt repayment, the taking of land into the king’s hands on the death of a tenant-in-chief, the seizure of land in cases of rebellion, the taxation levied on the royal demesne (including the Jews), and the terms of appointment to sheriffdoms and the custody of manors. Sometimes, when the relevant letters were addressed to the sheriff or another official, the intention, it may be supposed, was to keep the Exchequer informed of them through a copy on the originalia rolls. In other cases, where the letter was addressed to the Exchequer in the first place, it was probably entered on the fine roll rather than the close roll because of a growing belief that the former was the more appropriate roll for that type of Exchequer business. The rolls are now kept at The National Archives (TNA), Kew.
Creation and composition
The earliest fine rolls
The origins of the fine rolls can be traced to the late-twelfth century. The earliest rolls that survive come from the reign of Henry III’s father, King John of England (r. 1199–1216). Six rolls survive from John’s reign, covering the king’s first, third, sixth and ninth regnal years. After 1208 the rolls are lost until that for year regnal year fifteen (1213–14). Another roll survives for regnal year seventeen. The nomenclature of John’s rolls is not fixed. The headings of the surviving rolls vary from "oblata recepta", "offers received" to "rotulus finium receptorum". The rolls that survive for John’s fifteenth and seventeenth years are titled "rotulus finium" "roll of fines". This heading is used exclusively on the rolls of Henry III’s reign (r. 1216–1272).
The fine rolls in the reign of Henry III (1216–1272)
In form, the fine rolls of Henry III are much like those of King John’s last years. As with all the Chancery rolls, a new set was opened each regnal year. The Henrician fine rolls therefore run from 28 October (the date of Henry’s first coronation) to 27 October. The rolls were written on membranes of parchment in a heavily abbreviated Latin cursive, the membranes being sewn end to end. In the roll for John’s first year, the membranes are only 195 mm to 225 mm wide. Thereafter, they expand, with those for 1213–14 and 1215–16 varying in width between 320 mm and 370 mm, roughly their size under Henry III. The membranes could also vary in length, although usually within comparatively narrow limits. For example, the thirteen membranes of the roll for 1228–29 are between 460 mm and 560 mm long, with a fairly uniform width of 340–350 mm. The total length of the roll is 6,480 mm or 21 and a quarter feet. The rolls down to 1234 typically contain between nine and thirteen membranes and include roughly 300 to 500 separate items of business. In contrast, the fine rolls from 1234–1248 are longer, containing 400–800 items of business. In certain years, often when the king spends time on the Continent, more than one roll is employed during a single regnal year, one being kept in Chancery and the other (or others) itinerating with the king. In its English translation, the roll for 1229–30 includes some 35,000 words. Some later rolls have 10,000 words more.
Like other Chancery rolls in the minority of Henry III, and the last years of King John, the fine rolls were written in duplicate, though only down to 1227. It is clear that the duplication was accomplished by one roll being copied from the other. Thus the second roll omits cancelled entries found on the first roll, yet incorporates many of its amendments. Many but not all, for it is equally clear that it was the first roll which was the main working copy. Thus changes made after the second roll had been drawn up were often included on the first roll but not the second. As a result of these differences, the second roll, although sometimes written more carelessly, has a neater appearance than the first one, lacking the alterations and having smaller gaps between entries and fewer changes of ink and hand. The impression is that the first roll was entered up at much shorter intervals than the second roll. The purpose of the second roll was doubtless to provide back up in case of loss or damage, but there may have been more to it than that. Another possibility is that the rolls were associated with different ministers. At the Exchequer there were two copies of the pipe roll, one belonging to the treasurer, the other, to the chancellor. Likewise there were two memoranda rolls (largely though not entirely with the same business), one drawn up by the king’s remembrancer and one by the treasurer’s. In respect of the fine rolls, it may be that the first roll was the king’s roll and the second the chancellor’s.
The fine rolls of King Henry III are central to the study of politics, government and society in a reign – the third longest in English history – which saw the implantation of Magna Carta into English political life and the beginnings of the parliamentary state. The rolls reveal what the king was prepared to give his subjects and what his subjects wanted from the king. The social range of those involved in making fines expanded during the reign, as did the type of the concessions for which they paid. Earls, barons, knights, freemen, peasants, women (particularly widows), Jews, ecclesiastics and ecclesiastical institutions, towns and townsmen are all found in the rolls. The fines made by magnates and ministers for major favours (for example, the concession of marriages and wardships) are a vital source for the workings of royal patronage. The fines made for exemption from knighthood and local office cast important light on the aspirations and changing structures of the gentry. The gigantic expansion in payments for writs to initiate and further legal actions is key evidence for the widening scope of the common law. The fines to set up new markets and fairs reveal the commercialisation of the economy, as those for permission to create new private parks and warrens show rising social aspirations. The new material which enters the rolls (and some of the old) makes them a major source for the death of tenants-in-chief, the running of local government, the exploitation of the royal demesne, the taxation of towns, the position of the Jews, and (through orders for the seizure of land), the course of politics in periods of crisis. Throughout, the rolls are full of evidence of family relationships and social networks, the last through the long lists of backers which those making fines had sometimes to supply.
All this material is on the rolls without them losing their intimate relationship with the king. On the roll for 1207–08 there is the extraordinary offer of 200 chickens made by the wife of Hugh de Neville to be allowed "to lie one night with her lord, Hugh de Neville." Was she John’s mistress and were the two of them joking about what a night back with Hugh would be worth, the answer a ridiculous 200 chickens? On the roll of 1242–43 we have an example of Henry III’s rather more benign sense of humour. In the ship sailing home from Gascony, "having a joke" (ludendo) at the expense of his clerk, Peter the Poitevin, he invented and recorded on the fine roll a whole series of risible debts which Peter supposedly owed: "five dozen capons for a trespass in the ship; 28 casks of wine from the arrears of the wine which he bought for the use of the king at Mussak where he dreamed he saw the emperor Otto" and so on. Henry was careful, however, not to let the joke go too far. Doubtless after Peter had been baffled and perhaps alarmed by the sight of his obligations, Henry ordered them, "Peter not looking", to be crossed out with the result that they never reached the originalia roll and the Exchequer.
Publication of the fine rolls
Despite their compelling interest, the fine rolls of King Henry III have never been properly published. Whereas those of King John appeared in full Latin text, edited by Thomas Duffus Hardy, under the auspices of the Record Commission, in 1835, those of King Henry were only afforded a series of excerpts, selected exclusively on the basis of genealogical interest, which ran to some 10–15% of the content of the rolls. These were edited by Charles Roberts and published in two volumes by the Record Commission in 1835–36, under the title Excerpta e Rotulis Finium in Turri Londinensi asservatis Henrico Tertio Rege A.D. 1216–1272. There was no subject index and the indices for people and places were completely inadequate. Consequently, the use made of the fine rolls by such historians of the reign of Henry III as E. F. Jacob, R. F. Treharne and Sir Maurice Powicke, writing between the 1920s and 1950s, was limited to the printed Excerpta. The briefing paper that circulated at the first meeting of the Public Record Office Consultative Committee on Publications, which met on 27 November 1947, observed that "Among Chancery Records a full text of the Fine Rolls, Henry III is still needed to supersede the Record Commission’s Excerpta". This was considered amongst "the most outstanding needs."
After an abortive attempt in the mid-1970s, by Dr. David Crook at the then Public Record Office, to make a calendar of the rolls, it was Dr. Louise Wilkinson who conceived the project which has at last led to their publication. A committee was formed consisting of Wilkinson, David Carpenter of King's College London’s History Department, Harold Short, Director of King’s College’s Centre for Computing in the Humanities (CCH), and David Crook and Aidan Lawes of The National Archives. This group put together a bid to the Arts and Humanities Research Board (now Council) seeking funding for a three-year project which would publish the rolls down to 1248, a second (ultimately successful) bid being envisaged for another round of funding which would carry publication down to the end of the reign in 1272. The bid was successful and work began in April 2005.
The Henry III Fine Rolls Project
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and combining King's College London’s Department of History and Centre for Computing in the Humanities, along with The National Archives and Canterbury Christ Church University, The Henry III Fine Rolls Project is a unique and pioneering enterprise which aims to democratize the rolls by making them freely available in English translation through its website http://www.finerollshenry3.org.uk/. The fine rolls are the first medieval source to be treated in this way.
From the start, the project has endeavoured to make the fine rolls as usable and available as possible to as wide an audience as possible. To that end, the Latin text has been turned into English. Although this has been done in a way comparable to that found in the great series of Chancery roll calendars published by HMSO in the last century (hence the title Calendar of Fine Rolls for the Reign of Henry III for the new series), the English rendering is in fact much fuller than that found in many PRO calendars, and amounts almost to a full translation. Within the translation, another departure from old PRO practice, all place names, and toponymic surnames, where identifiable, have been modernised, with a record of original forms being kept in the index. There are also full indexes of persons, places and subjects. Publication in book form (published by Boydell and Brewer) is complemented by publication of the translation and indexes on the Project’s website where the text, encoded electronically, is linked to a sophisticated search engine and digitised images of the original rolls. The form of reference is the same whichever version is used.
Since December 2005, members of the fine rolls project team, as well as members of the general public, have been contributing "fines of the month". These short articles focus on a single, or group, of fines and show how material from the rolls can be used to shed new light on the politics and society of thirteenth-century England. Anyone can contribute a "fine of the month". A prize is awarded for the best "fine of the month" at the end of the year. Previous fines of the month can be accessed from the project’s website.
- Calendar of Fine Rolls for the Reign of Henry III, 1218-1219, no. 435.
- A full discussion of the Originalia Rolls, by Dr Paul Dryburgh, is provided on the Henry III Fine Rolls Project website: "Originalia Rolls"
- Fine rolls are filed under C 60 at The National Archives
- For the origin and nature of the fine rolls, see The Memoranda Roll for the Michaelmas Term of the First Year of the Reign of King John (1199-1200), ed. H. G. Richardson (Pipe Roll Soc., new series, xxi, 1943), pp. xxi–xxxiii.
- For a full analysis of the business on the rolls of John's reign, with an indication of how it expanded thereafter, see Hardy's introduction to Rotuli de Oblatis et Finibus in Turri Londinensi asservati tempore Regis Johannis, ed. T. D. Hardy (Record Commission, 1835), pp. i–liii.
- Ibid., p. 275. For comment, see S. Painter, The Reign of King John (Baltimore, 1949), pp. 231–32; J. Holt, Magna Carta and Medieval Government (London, 1985), p. 88.
- C. Bémont, "Un Rotulus Finium retrouvé 1242-1243", Bulletin Philologique et Historique, 26 (1994), pp. 225–39, at 238–39; C 60/39B (CFR 1242 (20 May – 27 October 1242), nos. 39–44.
- The conclusions of the committee are recorded in a pamphlet preserved in TNA's Library: 027.041 PRO 1 Pamphlet, Library pamphlets in pamphlet boxes.
- "Fine Rolls of Henry III"
- A technical discussion, written by Paul Spence and Dr Arianna Ciula of King's College London's Centre for Computing in the Humanities, is provided on the project's website "Technical Introduction"
- "Fine of the Month"
- Henry III Fine Rolls project website
- The National Archives (TNA), Kew
- Centre for Computing in the Humanities (CCH)
- Calendar of the fine rolls of the reign of Henry III: preserved in the National Archives, ed. Paul Dryburgh, Beth Hartland (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007): vol. 1: 1216–1224 (ISBN 9781843833376); vol. 2: 1224–1234 (ISBN 9781843833581)