1. Why use this guide?
This guide will help you find and interpret government financial records known as pipe rolls from the medieval period held at The National Archives.
Pipe rolls give us the most accurate picture available for this period of the financial resources of English royal government, revealing:
- payments made to the Crown
- debts owed to the Crown
- Crown expenditure
They reveal more than just financial information and can also tell us, amongst other things:
- who the occupants of royal lands and castles were
- the identity of royal judges and other officials, including relatively low ranking local government officials
- how different aspects of the judicial system in medieval England worked (through the recording of judicial fines)
They did not, however, record all types of royal income or expenditure and should not be considered a complete record of government and royal finances.
2. What are pipe rolls and what kind of information do they contain?
Pipe rolls are the annual financial records of the Crown. More precisely, they are the written record, maintained by the Exchequer, of the audit process of the monarchy's accounts for one financial year.
The earliest surviving pipe roll covers the 1129-1130 financial year.
They are some of the earliest financial records available from the medieval period and one of the richest sources of governmental history from that era. A nearly continuous series runs from 1155 until 1832, the earliest series of English royal records; only four are missing.
Payments made to the Crown recorded in the pipe rolls include:
- debts owed
- offerings for the king's favour
- land rents
- financial penalties imposed by the king's justices in eyre courts or assize courts
- feudal taxes
- money from vacant Church land
Crown expenditure recorded in the pipe rolls includes:
- grants of alms and statutory payments to individuals
- money spent on royal manors and houses
- wages for royal servants and royal gifts
3. How to find and view pipe rolls
3.1 The original records
To view pipe rolls at The National Archives you must first use Discovery, our catalogue, to find document references within one of the two record series listed below. Originally, two copies of each account were made and these separate copies are kept in separate record series.
Use the advanced search in our catalogue, to search by year within:
- E 372 for the pipe rolls themselves
- E 352 for the Chancellor's rolls; these are largely duplicates of the pipe rolls but often contain minor variants and occasionally more substantial differences
See section 6 for guidance on finding related records.
Search our library catalogue using the search term 'pipe roll' for printed transcriptions of rolls up until 1224, published predominantly by the Pipe Roll Society.
Consult The Pipe Roll Society website for a similar list of the rolls that it has so far published and information on recent and forthcoming publications. The Pipe Roll Society is dedicated to publishing editions of the pipe rolls and other related medieval documents.
A few calendars of other pipe roll material have been published by county record societies.
4. Understanding the rolls: composition and materials
Each pipe roll was made up of a number of rotuli. A rotulus, the Latin word for 'roll', was composed of two membranes of sheepskin parchment, stitched together in the middle, and with both sides used for writing. The front was known as the 'face', and the back as the 'dorse'.
The rotuli were sewn head to head 'Exchequer style', rolled up together to look like a section of drainage pipe, and stored, usually covered with waxed parchment for protection. It was probably this resemblance to a pipe that gave the documents their common name; before the 13th century, and officially until at least the early 18th century, the roll for the year was known as 'the Great Roll', or the 'roll of the year'.
Chancery rolls, which began in 1199, were composed of membranes sewn head to foot 'Chancery style': they lacked the sewing ridge at the centre of an Exchequer style roll, and thus were rolled into a much smaller roll.
5. Understanding the rolls: timing and language
The financial year ran from Michaelmas (29 September) to the next Michaelmas. In the very early years the Exchequer's terms were usually quite short, but by about 1220 the audit process usually began on the day following the closure of one financial year, and lasted between eight and ten months.
Apart from a brief period in the 1650s, when English was used, the rolls were written in abbreviated Latin until 1733, when they changed permanently to English. They were written in what was originally a clear Exchequer hand, which later became stylised and more difficult to read. In the period before 1300, and for some time afterwards, they are quite easy to read. See our online tutorial for help with reading Latin and old handwriting.
Read the Introduction to the study of the Pipe Rolls which includes an extensive glossary and list of abbreviations used in the rolls.
6. Understanding the rolls: arrangement and content
Each pipe roll is usually divided into separate accounts for all the English counties plus one for Wales, though sometimes two counties are combined or a county is missing. As the years progressed an increasing number of miscellaneous accounts were added at the end.
On each rotulusA section of pipe roll composed of two membranes of sheepskin parchment, stitched together in the middle, at the foot of its dorseThe back of a pipe roll, there is a note of the contents, known as a docket. These dockets can be checked without unrolling the roll very far, and can be particularly useful where, as is often the case, an account is continued on another rotulus.
Within each county account are a number of sections, some with headings. However, pipe rolls differ in their arrangement from roll to roll and while some follow the straightforward pattern described below, in others the categories get jumbled and it is not always easy to identify what is being recorded.
6.1 First section: the county farm
A county account begins with the record of a fixed annual sum known as the county 'farm' (from the Latin 'firma' for 'fixed'). This was a sum, presented by the sheriff to the Exchequer for auditing, based largely around income from lands held by the Crown (sometimes referred to as land retained as 'demesneLand retained by the crown for its use and purpose').
Over the years, royal land grants, recorded in the pipe roll as 'terre dateLiterally 'land having been given'' entries, reduced the base from which the sheriff could draw revenue. As well as 'terre date' deductions from the county farm, standard grants such as alms to religious houses and statutory payments to individuals were also recorded in this first section.
This section of the pipe roll can also provide information on local government, especially useful before the Chancery rolls begin at the end of the 12th century. The kind of information recorded can include local expenditure on:
- the building and repair of royal castles and houses
- the supply of munitions
- the building and maintenance of local infrastructure such as bridges and docks
These were payments authorised by writA formal written command of the Crown or of a court to be paid from local funds, and the sum deducted from the county farm payment.
The farms sections were removed from the pipe roll in 1284, as by this time most of the Crown lands had been granted away and the farms section therefore remained unaltered from year to year. They were instead recorded in the 'rotulus de corporibus comitatibus' (E 372/129), to which a cross-reference was made in each county account, although they were temporarily restored to the individual county accounts between 1299 and 1312.
6.2 Second section: debts from previous years
After the farm, the county account continues with debts carried over from previous years, sometimes using headings found on previous rolls, often in abbreviated form. These may appear as De Oblatis (see section 6.5).
6.3 Judicial section
There is often a section headed De Amerciamentis, under which is listed income from:
- common law eyres (also known as general eyresTravelling royal courts)
- forest eyresTravelling royal courts assigned to forested regions
The names of the leading justices are often provided in this section and it provides an important source of information for legal historians, especially where specifically legal sources are lacking.
The earlier rolls give lists of names of those on whom financial penalties were imposed in the eyres, identifiable through the indexes in the Pipe Roll Society publications detailed in section 3.2. Not all the names are included, because even before 1200 most of them were accounted for in subsidiary rolls to save space in the account, but fuller lists are sometimes available from receipt rolls in E 401, where they have survived. In the 1270s long-standing debts of this type began to be removed from the rolls, a process carried out even more systematically in the reign of Edward II.
Search by year or date in E 401 using the advanced search in our catalogue.
6.4 Taxation sections
There are often sections for the following:
- scutage, a tax levied in lieu of military service; scutage accounts often list those exempted from paying scutage, and the number of knight's fees for which they were liable, which can provide information on land-holding in the counties
- tallage, a tax on boroughs, towns and royal manors; tallage accounts give the names of the more important inhabitants of towns liable for the tax
6.5 Nova Oblata and De Oblatis
Nova OblataLiterally 'new offerings'; refers to new payments made to the Crown were payments made to the crown in exchange for favours; they are usually at the end of each county account, and are the most recent entries on the roll, often being added after the financial year had ended. The details were taken from the 'originalia rolls', created in Chancery using information first recorded in the fine rolls and passed to the Exchequer.
When Nova Oblata were transferred to subsequent rolls and were over a year old they often appeared as De Oblatis.
Use the advanced search, placing an asterisk in the keyword field and searching by date only to find:
6.6 Miscellaneous accounts
Miscellaneous 'foreign' accounts, so-called because they were outside the county accounts, were commonly enrolled in the main body of the pipe roll from the early 13th century onwards. They appear after the county accounts.
- lands temporarily in the custody of the crown
- vacancies in bishoprics
- wardrobe accounts
- accounts of royal building projects
They can provide information about a variety of subjects, including prices, estate management and building works. Their numbers increased to such an extent after 1300 that they were eventually removed from the pipe rolls and kept as a separate series of rolls of foreign accounts.
You may also wish to consult the Introduction to the study of the Pipe Rolls which provides a comprehensive account of how the rolls were created and how to use them.
7. Further reading and other resources
The Introduction to the study of the Pipe Rolls (Pipe Roll Society, volume III, 1884)
The GenGuide website, a resource for genealogists, has a section on Pipe Rolls.
The Pipe Roll Society website provides an image of a pipe roll and some brief information on pipe rolls in general.