Featured Resources in the Rossell Hope Robbins Library: II

Rotuli parliamentorum; ut et petitiones, et placita in parliamento. Collected and arranged by R. Blyke, P. Morant, T. Astle, & J. Topham. Ed. J. Strachey. 6 vols. London: 1767-1777.


The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, 1275-1504. Ed. C. Given-Wilson, A. Curry, R. Horrox, G. Martin, S. Philips, & M. Ormrod. 16 vols. + CD-ROM. Woodbridge: Boydell Press; London: National Archives, 2005.



Scope and Background


The Rolls of Parliament were the official records, compiled and kept by clerks appointed by the crown, of the meetings of the English parliament from the reign of Edward I (1272-1307) up to the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509). Afterwards, the rolls were superseded by the journals of the two houses of parliament, that is the House of Lords and, later on, the House of Commons. There have been two editions of the parliament documents, the eighteenth-century Rotuli parliamentorum (1767-1777) and the 2005 edition of the Parliament Rolls, which also includes a CD-ROM. Both of them begin with the reign of Edward I (1272-1307), which, according to scholars, is the first reign when any records of parliament proceedings were kept in official custody. The editors of the Rotuli parliamentorum started their first volume with copies of transcripts of petitions they assigned to a parliament of 1278. This particular year is also the date of the earliest documents included in the 2005 edition (Given-Wilson, Curry, Horrox et alii, 2005: Vol.1. 1).


One could trace back the origins of the English parliament to the great councils which began to take place in the early tenth century, during the reigns of Edward the Elder (899-924) and Athelstan (924-939). By that time, the West Saxon monarchy had conquered the Scandinavian settlements in the east and north of the island. With the emergence of a larger English Kingdom, the Anglo-Saxon kings periodically summoned large assemblies of the witan, the king's "wise men", who mostly included illustrious members of the clergy and nobility. Overall, the type of business conducted in these early assemblies embraced all possible spheres of power. For instance, there were religious and political ceremonies such as crown wearings, and state trials against treason and decisions on war and peace were also part of these assemblies (Maddicott, 2009: 3-9). However, it was not until the decades following the issue of the Magna Carta in 1215, that we can talk about an institution going through a series of innovations that greatly defined and shaped its role throughout the late Middle Ages. Paul Brand argues that this decisive period comprised almost a century, ending with the death of Edward I in 1307. It is decisive because the parliament meetings included an increasingly larger number of attendees: members of the king's council, a broad group of magnates, both lay (earls and barons), and ecclesiastical (bishops, abbots and priors). Additionally, representatives of the counties, towns and cities, and even members of the lower clergy, were invited. It is also the period when petitions to the king and council were submitted, and the time when the term "parliament" started to be used to designate these special meetings (Brand, 2004: 14-38; 2009: 10-15).


A historical analysis of how and when the word "parliament" (parlement in French; parlamentum in Latin) was eventually employed in an exclusively political context is not a mere linguistic exercise. It helps us understand not only the origin and evolution of parliament as an institution, but also how contemporaries back then judged the actual working of these meetings, a testimony that can shed a light upon the  content of the parliament rolls themselves.  Originally, the meaning of parliament was that of a meeting, council or convocation. They could take place in different ways, such as between kings or between the king and his court (curia regis). It was understood that whenever a parliament was summoned, a discussion, a debate, or something close to free speech, would take place. While the word gradually made its way into formal and official documents, it was initially regarded as vulgar and inelegant, as a bad replacement of the more formal Latin coloquium (Richardson, 1968: 146-157). The first extant record of the term "parliament" appears in an English plea roll of 1236. The document is a record of essoins (allegations of excuses for not appearing in court at the appointed time). The litigation in question had been originated over the right to nominate a person to hold a church office in a parish, or what in English law is technically known as advowson. In particular, it is about the advowson of Stapleford church in Wiltsshire, which, funded by a knight's fee, had been held by Geoffrey Husee under king John and by his heir, Henry Husee, under Henry III. Though Henry had granted the land to another member of the family, Hubert Husee, after the king's death in 1235, Hubert's special privilege had been questioned. Consequently, he challenged the bishop (Robert Bingham) and the dean and chapter of Salisbury by bringing a legal action called "assize of darrein presentment", whereby a plaintiff can protest when he considers himself been unlawfully deprived of the right to nominate a person to hold an office in a particular church. On the date set down for hearing in the king's bench [1], on 23 November 1236, the subdean Adam, who represented the Chapter, was allowed to present an excuse, promising that he would appear at the parliament at Westminster (apud Westmonasterium ad parliamentum) on 20 January 1237 (in octabis sancti Hillarii). Indeed, scholars have viewed this particular text as evidence of how the term parliament was gradually acquiring a technical meaning, designating a special meeting of the king's council to which the justices of the king's bench could refer for consideration cases that might interest the king. Therefore, besides matters of high politics, which were surely handled by the king, representatives of the nobility, and high dignitaries of the Church, there were occasions to discuss other relatively unimportant issues such as the litigation under discussion (Richardson & Sayles, 1967: 747-750). Furthermore, this early example anticipates the petitions of common people as they would be regularly recorded in the parliament rolls.


But the first extant record of the decisions taken in a parliament comes from a series of texts describing the exceptional parliament held at Oxford in the summer of 1258. At this parliament a group of barons attempted to initiate a number of revolutionary administrative and legal reforms, which are generally designated as the "Provisions of Oxford" of 1258. Specifically, a recently elected council of  twenty-four men (twelve from the king's side and as many from the community) established the general guidelines about when and how parliaments should be summoned (Treharne & Sanders, 1973: 96-113):


Be it noted that the twenty-four have decreed that there shall be three parliaments every year: the first at the octaves of Michaelmas [6 October], the second on the morrow of Candlemas [3 February], and the third on the first of June, that is, three weeks before St. John. To these three parliaments shall come the elected councillors of the king, even if they be not summoned, to review the state of the realm and to deal with the common business of the realm and of the king together; and at other times by the king's summons when need shall be (Treharne & Sanders, 1973: 110-111).


Additionally, it was agreed that the community should select twelve men to attend these parliaments and actively participate in the business of the king and the realm. Though these specific reforms did not survive the period of the barons' dominance, it is clear that, overall, the Provisions of Oxford are the earliest evidence of the progressive consolidation of this institution.


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The Editing and Printing of Rotuli parliamentorum



Rotuli parliamentorum. vol. 1. 1a. recto.

The first volume of the Rotuli Parliamentorum includes the tables of contents for each tome of the set. One can see how the editors scrupulously acknowledged the provenance of the material used in this edition, such as Sir M. Hale's manuscripts in Lincoln's Inn Library.


In the early decades of the eighteenth century, the English government sponsored a series of editorial initiatives aimed to publish state records for official consultation. 17 volumes of Foedera, edited by Thomas Rymer (1642/3-1713) [2], had been published by 1717, and the multi-volume sets of Rotuli parliamentorum and Domesday Book had already appeared by 1777 and 1784 respectively. Perhaps, to be precise, we should not strictly use the term "publication" for these two major texts. Originally, both Rotuli parliamentorum and Domesday Book were printed exclusively for the use of parliament and distributed only in parliamentary circles.  Initially, they were not sold to the public or registered for copyright at Stationers' Hall. In fact, neither collection included any information on their title pages, causing much confusion about when and by whom they were actually printed (Condon & Hasam, 1984: 348-349). In this section, we will briefly describe the history of the editing and printing of Rotuli parliamentorum. This account is relevant not only for historiographical reasons, such as furthering our understanding of the intellectual and historical impulses driving this and similar editorial enterprises, but for an assessment of the scholarly quality of this project as compared with the 2005 edition of the rolls.


In 1729 the House of Lords committee on the public records summoned the king's printer Jacob Tonson (1655/6-1736)—who is probably best known as one of the greatest promoters of John Dryden—for an inquiry regarding the future publication of the parliament rolls. For years Tonson had been planning the printing of the rolls up to 1483, and on 28 November 1726 he and his assistants were granted an official warrant to transcribe the rolls at the Tower of London. Some time between 1726 and 1733 Tonson issued an advertisement, claiming that the transcripts had been "Collated with the most exact Care by the Original Records in the Tower." These transcripts were mainly the work of two editors who had also worked for Tonson in the edition of Foedera: James Stewart and George Holmes. By November 1731 James Stewart officially declared to the House of Lords committee that the transcripts had been completed (Condon & Hallam, 1984: 360-361).


Though Tonson's plan never materialized, likely because he was unable to attract enough subscribers to fund it, the idea of printing the parliament rolls was kept alive in the decades following his death in 1736. Among those who played a role in rescuing and eventually implementing the project two individuals were decisive: Philip Carteret Webb (1702-1770) and Hugh Hume Campbell, third earl of Marchmont (1708-1794).  An MP for Haslemere from 1754 to 1768, Webb often used his political connections to support his scholarly interests. In fact, he was already interested in the parliament rolls from 1763 to  1764, when he had the opportunity to examine them during Nosborne Berkeley's claim to the Botetourt peerage. Regarding the project itself, Webb purchased transcripts,  participated in the selection of its editors, and was assigned the task of examining the sheets after printed. Equally influential was the role of Lord Marchmont, the chair of a House of Lords committee which on March 1767 was authorized to investigate into the state of the parliament records. Work towards the planning of an edition of the rolls began immediately. In March 1767 Tonson's son Jacob (1682-1735) offered the Stewart-Holmes transcripts to the committee for the use of the public, charging only 150 guineas, the amount  paid by his father for their collation, and by the end of March William Bowyer (1699-1777) was appointed printer. Next the committee selected a group of the best scholars in the field. The project would be supervised by the Rev. Dr John Strachey (1738-1818), and the main editorial work was undertaken by John Topham (1746-1803) and Thomas Astle (1735-1803). Initially, however, Webb had suggested Richard Blyke (d. 1775) as one of the two main editors. Blyke did the transcription and collation of the rolls and petitions from 1767 to 1768, unfortunately introducing so many mistakes that he was replaced by Rev. Philip Morant (1700-1770), and expert in palaeography and Anglo-Norman (Richardson & Sayles, 1935: XX. xxii-xxviii; Condon & Hallam, 1984: 361-365).


The Tonson transcripts, collated with the original rolls and corrected when necessary, formed the foundation for the six published volumes. However, Tonson had anticipated ending with the reign of Edward IV, a time framework that the editors soon decided to expand until the reign of Henry VII. Moreover, petitions presented in sessions of the parliament, which were not part of the rolls and, consequently, excluded from those original transcripts, would be included in the printed edition.  While some of these petitions, along with other parliament documents taken from the Close and Patent Rolls [3] had been printed in William Ryley's (d. 1667) Placita Parlamentaria una cum judiciis forensibus, sive sententiis diffinitivis desuper latis, regnantibus Edwardo Primo & Edwardo Secundo Angliae regibus. (London: H. Twiford & T. Dring, 1661), the editors had to search for other transcripts and original documents held in several institutional locations and even in private libraries. For example, Webb reported that his private library held the transcripts for the parliament rolls dealing with the period between 1 Richard III to 6 Henry VIII, which would become the bulk of the last portion of the sixth and last volume.  Eventually, and after the death of Webb, the House of Lords committee finally established that those transcripts were full of errors, suggesting that they should be collated with the original rolls deposited in the Chapel of the Rolls [4] (Condon & Hallam, 1984: 366-368).


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Regarding the question about how the actual work of editing was distributed, the evidence mostly comes from the transcripts and annotations on them.  Work on the transcripts themselves,  including emendations in previous readings as well as the creation of new transcripts, was undertaken by Philip Morant and Thomas Astle.  John Strachey worked with the printed proofs, whereas Morant and Astle checked Strachey's corrections against the transcripts and the original manuscripts. John Topham focused on the transcription of the petitions and the collation of the Vetus Codex [5] (Condon & Hallam, 1984: 368).


It would be relatively easy to criticize the first printed edition of the rolls. Abbreviations were not consistently expanded, modern headings were added arbitrarily, and an appropriate critical apparatus addressing philological or historical issues was wanting. Nevertheless, within the scholarly standards of the second half of the eighteenth century, there is no doubt that the publication of these six volumes was an outstanding intellectual achievement. Unfortunately, for the rest of the century parliament continued to restrict distribution of the rolls to learned and official circles, and only in the following century were the rolls available to a broader readership (Condon & Hallam, 1984: 368-370).


Why are the Rolls of Parliament Relevant to Scholars?


Personal petitions played a central role in the development of the English parliament. Since most of them were originally part of a separate set of documents filed in bundles, it is often the case that the rolls provide scholars with the only extant record of these individual requests being handled in a session of parliament. In other words, apart from the business of the high politics of the realm, there is plenty of evidence of how individuals from a wide social spectrum of the population were able to be heard by the king and his council. For instance, the earliest documented petition at a parliament, which took place in the sixth year of Edward I's reign, describes the plea of Richard Russel, who had been accused of abducting Joan of Boneville. Below is an image of the page where this petition was first edited and printed in Rotuli parliamentorum, followed by a transcription of the English translation from Anglo-Norman taken from the 2005 edition—a clever film script writer would turn the text of this petition into the next Hollywood blockbuster!


Rotuli parliamentorum. vol. 1. 1A. recto.


Richard Russel shows this to our lord the king and to his council: that, whereas Joan de Boneville was abducted by Philip de Stackpoole and William his brother and Ralph de la Roche, the same Richard was arrested and imprisoned in the town of Carmarthen for this offence, although he knew nothing of this wrongdoing, and the same Joan well attested at his release that he had known nothing of this misdeed, and did not assent to it. The same Richard remained in her service and came with her to England and then subsequently left her by her agreement. Afterwards, this same Joan by the enticement of one Richard Coffyn and by the hatred that he had against the said Richard Russel, came and sued an appeal both against him and against the others who had committed this offense in the county court of Devonshire, of which he knew nothing, while he was at home in the county of Somerset, and so she had the same Richard outlawed and obtained a writ to have him arrested wherever he might be found; and so he requests the grace of our lord the king that he may come into the peace and answer, so that he be not condemned, since he is not guilty.




The Sheriff and coroners are to be written to for them to produce the record; and it is to be examined to see if the deed was committed in Welsh territory or in England (Given-Wilson, Curry, Horrox et alii, 2005: Vol. 2. 570).


Admittedly, the clerks who recorded the parliament proceedings knew that the rolls were ultimately official memoranda for the use of the crown and its council, especially for matters of precedent. While scholars have detected cases of omissions and even censorship, it is also true that the clerks would sometimes include, for instance, entire speeches that could support the cause of certain individuals and groups. Furthermore, the 2005 edition of the rolls provides an extraordinary amount of background information in the form of introductions and appendices, including additional documents that improve, or even challenge, the evidence contained in the rolls themselves.


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The 2005 Edition of the Parliament Rolls of Medieval England


After collating the text of Rotuli parliamentorum with the original rolls held in The National Archives (TNA, C 65), the editors of the 2005 version have faithfully reproduced the rolls from the eighteenth-century edition,  adding those afterwards published by H. Cole, F. W. Maitland, and Richardson & Sayles. This latest edition also includes material never published before,  such as the rediscovered twelfth and final membrane of the roll for the parliament of October 1318 (Cavill, 2006: 1451). Clearly,  this new edition is carefully designed to target a wider audience of historians by making the material more accessible. The first volume opens with a historical overview of the evolution of the English parliament in the Middle Ages as evidenced by the rolls and additional documents, and all the texts in the three languages used by the clerks (Latin, Anglo-Norman, and Middle English) are fully translated in parallel text format. It also contains a historical introduction to every parliament known to have been held by an English king (or on his behalf) between 1275 and 1504, regardless of the fact that the roll for a particular parliament may no longer exist. In addition, appendices have been added to both the individual introductions and the texts of the documents, supplying information about parliaments coming from sources other than the rolls. A feature of great relevance for those interested in palaeography is the inclusion of notes on glosses, erasures, lacunae, and other scribal marks. Furthermore, as part of the introductions to single parliaments one can find full codicological descriptions for each roll.



The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, 1275-1504. vol. 1. pag. 169.

The latest printed edition indeed offers a more friendly view to the user. Apart from the translation into English, the editors have added useful annotations in brackets to clarify the historical context. As the footnote states, this edition includes numbers in brackets referring to the eighteenth-century edition of the rolls. For a comparison, see below the transcription of this very same document, the beginning of  first extant roll, as edited in the old Rotuli Parliamentorum.



Rotuli parliamentorum. vol. 1. 2D. recto.


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Undoubtedly, the CD-ROM version of the 2005 printed edition offers unique search possibilities to scholars. From the opening screen the researcher can swiftly select the king whose parliaments are going to be examined. Within any particular screen it is always possible to return to other parliaments by using the contents in the drop-down scroll menu. Full-text searches can be applied to the entire content of the edition or to a particular reign. Furthermore, the drop-down menu at the right of the navigation bar allows one to do searches by inserting the volume and page from the eighteenth-century edition. Moreover, a great improvement of the CD-ROM version is the inclusion of 110 digital images from the original rolls. Indeed, the high quality of these images, which are searchable by individual reigns, provides a unique window to different palaeographical aspects of the scribal culture in the late Middle Ages.


First Membrane of the first surviving parliament roll: Edward I.

From the electronic database, this is a close-up picture of the same document reproduced in the two previous images. See how the editor of both editions have aptly expanded the abbreviations: Placita coram ip[s]o d[omi]no rege et...


Nevertheless, the CD-ROM should not totally supersede the two printed editions. While the word search of the computerized version is extremely fast, this search might overlook some variant spellings since the option of a wild card, an asterisk, can only be used at the end of a word. Conversely, a comprehensive list of name variants is only found in the index to the old Rotuli parliamentorum, authored by John Strachey, John Pridden, and Edward Upham: Index to the Rolls of Parliament, Comprising the Petitions, Pleas, and Proceedings of Parliament,  from Ann. 6 Edw. I. to Ann. 19 Hen. VII. (A. D. 1278.- A. D. 1503.). (London: Committee of the House of Lords, 1832) (Cavill, 2006: 1452). Additionally, as we mentioned above, the computerized texts can be located by using the volume and page numbers from the Rotuli parliamentorum, which oddly excludes the possibility of finding from a volume and page reference in the new printed edition the same text in the electronic version. Finally, both the new printed and CD-ROM versions do not include the Ancient Petitions to parliament (TNA, SC 8) beyond the reign of Edward I, whereas these documents were entirely included by the editors of Rotuli Parliamentorum.




1. The king's bench was one of the superior courts of common law in England. It recieved that name because it was originally held coram rege ("before the monarch") so that it traveled wherever the king went.


2. As translated from the title page of Rymer's edition, Foedera is a collection of "all the leagues, treaties, alliances, capitulations, and confederacies, which have at any time been made between the Crown of England and any other kingdoms, princes and states."


3. The function of the Close Rolls was the enrolment of the so-called Letters Close (letters sealed closed) issued by the clerks of the Chancery under the Great Seal of England. They normally contained orders to the officers of the crown such as writs summoning peers to parliament. The Patent Rolls were enrolments of Letters Patent (letters left open) issued also under the Great Seal. Their subject matter was pretty diverse, including grants of land, pardons, confirmation of charters, and licenses to widows to marry.


4. On the eastern side of Chancery Lane, London, there was a "house for converted Jews" (domus conversorum Judaeorum) built by Edward III, who in 1377 annexed this house and its chapel to the premises of the Master of the Rolls. The early Masters of the Rolls used to keep the court records in their respective private houses. However, after the reign of Edward IV these documents were stored in the domus conversorum, now known as the Chapel of the Rolls.


5. The Vetus Codex is a transcript, possibly written between 1320 and 1322, of the early parliament rolls. This document was the foundation for William Ryley's printed edition Placita Parlamentaria.


Select Bibliography


Brand, Paul. "Petitions and Parliament in the Reign of Edward I." In Parchment and the People: Parliament in the Middle Ages. Ed. Linda Clark. Special book issue of Parliament History 23, part 1 (2004): 14-38.


________. "The Development of Parliament, 1215-1307." In A Short History of Parliament: England, Great Britain, The United Kingdom, Ireland & Scotland.  Ed. Clyve Jones. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2009. Pp. 10-15.


Cavill, P. R. Review of The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, 1275-1504. Ed. C. Given Wilson, P. Brand, A. Curry, et al. CD-ROM version (Scholarly Digital Editions: Leicester, 2005), subscription-access internet version (Scholarly Digital Editions: Leicester, 2005), print version (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2005; 16 vols.). The English Historical Review cxxi. 494 (Dec. 2006): 1451-1453.


Condon, Margaret M. and Elizabeth M. Hallam. "Government Printing of the Public Records in the Eighteenth Century." Journal of the Society of Archivists 7. 6 (1984): 348-388.


Curry, Anne. " 'A Game of two Halves' ": Parliament 1422-1455." In Parchment and the People: Parliament in the Middle Ages. Ed. Linda Clark. Special book issue of Parliament History 23, part 1 (2004): 73-102.


Documents of the Baronial Movement of Reform and Rebellion 1258-1267. Selected by R. E. Treharne. Ed. I. J. Sanders. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.


Maddicott, John. "Origins and Beginnings to 1215." In A Short History of Parliament: England, Great Britain, The United Kingdom, Ireland & Scotland. Ed. Clyve Jones. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2009. Pp. 3-7.


Richardson, H. G. "The Origins of Parliament." In Essays in Medieval History, selected from the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society on the occasion of its centenary.  Ed. R. W. Southern. London:  Macmillan; New York: St Martin Press, 1968. Pp. 146-178; 172-176. Reprinted in The English Parliament in the Middle Ages.  London: The Hambledon Press, 1981. Pp. I. 146-178; 172-176.


Richardson, H. G. and G. O. Sayles."The Custody and Publication of the Parliament Rolls." Rotuli Parliamentorum Anglie Hactenus Inediti. Camden Society Third Series. Vol. 51 (1935). Pp. xviii-xxxiii. Reprinted in The English Parliament in the Middle Ages. London: The Hambledon Press, 1981. Pp. XX. xviii-xxxiii.


________. "The Earliest Known Official Use of the Term 'Parliament'." English Historical Review 82 (1967): 747-750. Reprinted in The English Parliament in the Middle Ages.  London: The Hambledon Press, 1981. Pp. II. 747-750.


Turner, Marion. "Troilus and Criseyde and the 'Treasonous Aldermen' of 1382: Tales of the City in Late Fourteenth-Century London." Studies in the Age of Chaucer 25 (2003): 225-257.


Pablo Alvarez



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