Thursday, April 9, 2015

Introducing the Irish plea rolls.

What are the Irish plea rolls? Simply put, plea rolls are court records. They include a summary of judicial cases, verdicts and the punishments or awards meted out.

These are actually manorial rolls, but you get the idea.

The administration of royal justice in late medieval Ireland was conducted in the justiciar's court (the justiciar was the English king's representative in Ireland, therefore the justiciar's court was the equivalent of the king's bench in Ireland) and the common bench, or by itinerant justices (that is judges wandering around the country, um, dispensing justice). The lordship of Ireland was a colony of England, and the English king was also lord of Ireland. This means if you see a Henry, Edward or Richard with a Roman numeral after his name in this blog, you will know that it is a king I'm referring to. There was a John as well, but he doesn't need a numeral since he was a one-off, in all senses of the word.

King John, not a fan of hipster beards...or barons.
Source: De Rege Johanne, 1300-1400. MS Cott. Claud DII, folio 116, British Library.

I won't be mentioning him much, since we don't have any plea rolls from his reign. Basically, we're stuck with the Henrys, Edwards and Richards.

Lots of Henrys, Edwards and Richards.

In administrative records you will often see a number before their names too, this denotes their regnal year, more information on regnal years can be found here: Each regnal year began at the date of the king's accession, so Edward II's reign began on 8 July 1307, the day after his father (Edward I) died. The first regnal year of his reign was 8 July 1307 until 7 July 1308, the second year started on the following day, and so on. To make matters even more complicated documents were usually dated to the nearest feast day – for example 31 March 1316 is the Wednesday next after the feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary anno regni (translates as in the year of the reign) 9 Edward II. Confusing? You bet.

Thanks to an explosion in 1922 that destroyed the Public Records Office of Ireland [PROI], located in the Four Courts, most of our medieval judicial records are now gone. Some genius thought it would be a good idea to store ammunition in the same building as irreplaceable historical documents. Before the explosion, 488 medieval plea rolls were stored in the PROI, afterwards only three complete rolls, and various fragments of other rolls survived. I could weep! Fortunately, before this calamitous event, the PROI had started to calendar these valuable records, though what survives can't possibly make up for the devastating loss of so much of our past. To date, the Justiciary Rolls dating from 1295 to 1314 have been published.

Destruction of the Four Courts.

What else remains? Quite a bit as it happens, and the late (and brilliant!) Philomena Connolly provided us with a useful summation of what survives in her book Medieval Record Sources. If you have any interest in medieval Ireland then you need to pick up a copy of this book. You can find it here:

Just in case you don't have a copy to hand, this is what is left: two original justiciary rolls for 6-7 Edward II (1312-13) and a common bench roll from 6 Edward IV (1466-7). (See, I told you those regnal years were going to be important.) Also, two rolls that had gone astray sometime before the explosion (and isn't it a shame that whoever stuffed them under his jacket didn't take more of them) found their way back to the PROI back in the 1960s. One is a justiciary roll from Edward II's reign and the other is a common roll from Henry V's reign. The National Archives of Ireland [NAI, previously the PROI] also has unpublished calendars, particularly RC 7 and KB 2, though some plea rolls can also be found in RC 8. Other calendars and copies of court proceedings can be found in the Royal Irish Academy, the National Library of Ireland and The National Archives of the United Kingdom. Of course there's always the chance that more material will be found in archives.

Okay, now we know what plea rolls are, and what survives, but why am I looking at them? In 2004 I embarked on my post-graduate thesis, which dealt with lands held by the English crown in south-west county Dublin. During the course of my research I became fascinated by the published justiciary rolls, particularly by the case of the outlaw Henry Tyrel, I will discuss Henry in my next post, and possibly the one after that too. Henry is my pet.

If you can't wait that long to find out more about Henry, (because, let's face it, it could be two years before I write my next post) I've written about him in Medieval Dublin X: He also pops up in my book, if they ever find his bones in a carpark I'm going to be one excited girl. Here's a gratuitous book plug:

My book. It's pink!

I think court records are a valuable resource for social historians, they offer us a window into the lives of people who lived long ago and they help us reconstruct their lives. I am writing this blog to demonstrate how much valuable material, both published and unpublished survives. The aim here is to be entertaining and light-hearted, but also to be informative and (hopefully) occasionally scholarly. There will be lots of very lame attempts at humour (see above), and I apologise in advance. Some of the cases dealt with in the plea rolls can be dark, and justice was often harsh, so a bit of gallows humour is always good. There will also be actual gallows.

Execution gallows on a town square. Brussels, Royal Library, Ms. 9231, fol. 90v, ca. 1450

If you have any feedback or comments, please feel free to comment below, or email me at

After all this, I feel like I should leave you with an odd and interesting plea roll entry. This one is unpublished and can be found in the National Archives of Ireland [NAI], the source is KB 2/8 pp 40-1. I have left the spelling as it is in the calendar, and haven't modernised names. The dashes in document denotes gaps in record. It is a classic twist on the dog-ate-my-homework excuse, except it was a patent letter, and the dog was framed. Enjoy.

Pleas of the Crown at Cassell [Cashel] before Edmund le Botiller Justiciar of Ireland on the Thursday next after the feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a.r. 10 Ed. II.f
9 December 1316

Margaret daughter of Luke de Stoketon accused that whereas Luke de Stoketon by his deed had enfeoffed Thomas de Stoketon his son of the manor of Moygorban with its appurtenances and by another letter patent of his had granted to Thomas all his goods and chattels as well living as dead being at time in the said manor, and by another letter patent had commanded all the tenants of the said manor to be as intendent to Thomas as they had been accustomed to be to him before the making of the said feoffment, the said Margaret stole the deed and letters patent which she found in the chamber of Thomas his brother in the said manor deposited in a certain box (pyx) under the head of the bed of Thomas, at the instigation of the said Luke her father, and handed the box, deed and letters patent who afterwards broke their seals, comes and says that she is not guilty and puts herself upon the country. And John de Lond, Stephen de Lond, Adam Byford, Andrew Sauce, John de Cantewell, Milo de Cantewell, John de Valle, Henry Euijas, Henry Haket, _ _ O Conagh, Abel Brysky, John de Stokes, Roger le Bret, Joceus Manclerk, and Philip Haket of S_ _ _ _ say that Margaret is guilty. Therefore let her be recommitted _ _ _ _ to await judgment. She has no chattels and no free land.
And Luke de Stoketon, accused of aiding and abetting his daughter Margaret to commit the said theft and receiving from her hand the box, deed and letters patent and breaking the seals, comes and says that he is not guilty and puts himself upon the country. 
And [John de] Lond, Stephen de Lond, Adam Byford, Andrew Sauce, John de Cantewell, Milo de Cantewell, _ _ _ _ Vaal, Henry Ewyas, John de Stokes, Andrew Seysell, Maurice son of Walter, and Elyas Burdon, jurors, say that Luke aided and abetted Margaret in committing the said theft and that Luke received the box, deed and letters patent which she had stolen, at her hands and broke the box with his teeth and threw it into the manger of Thomas' stable, so that when it was found it would be thought that mastiffs or other dogs of that house had broken it and gnawed the deed and letters patent, and afterwards tore off the seals from the deed and letters patent and broke them, well knowing that they had been stolen by Margaret. Therefore let him be recommitted to gaol to await his sentence. He has no chattels and no free land.

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