Ancient rolls reveal parliamentary history

Tuesday 19 July 2005

An entirely new translation of the oldest records of the English Parliament has painted a picture of a national assembly gripped by corruption, petty crime, incapacitated Kings, class wars and xenophobia.

In the Middle Ages, parliamentary debates grew so heated, quarrels often escalated into bloody fights between Lords. The official Medieval records describe in great blow-by-blow detail such debates, as well as the criminal cases heard by Parliament… and the ghastly punishments dealt to those found guilty.

The seven-year project headed by Medieval historians at the University of St Andrews has involved researchers poring over original large-scale parliamentary rolls (minutes of each meeting), which were hand-written on strips of parchment around a foot wide. The rolls, which date from the first record in 1275 to 1504, were written at the time by clerks of the crown in a variety of Medieval languages from Latin and Medieval French to Middle English. If laid end to end the rolls would make a line of parchment stretching more than a mile, and, until now, no attempt has been made to fully translate the ancient texts.

Professor Christopher Given- Wilson, of the School of History at St Andrews, is general editor of the new edition, entitled PROME (Parliament Rolls of Medieval England). He said:

“In those days Parliament was not just a place for nobility, and in addition to its role as the national assembly, it was also the supreme judicial body of the realm. It gave normal people the ability to directly access the King, to seek justice or to make complaint. Our research covers the 250 parliaments called during the period from the first recorded debate in 1275 to the last roll in 1504.

“This new edition is the first complete translation of the official records of the early English parliament – previous translations only account for around 5% of the records of that time. Our project has resulted in previously unaccessible yet highly important records being made accessible.”

During the course of the project, the team of researchers based at St Andrews, Cambridge, Oxford, Dublin, Southampton and York found descriptions of some of the most colourful episodes of English Parliamentary history. These included King Henry VI’s madness, fistfights between Lords and the accusation that King Richard II had tampered with the official rolls during his reign. Even in those days there is evidence of spin doctoring, with information that would make the king or his ministers look less than positive simply being omitted from the official records.

In the days of no appeal, the records recount in gruesome detail the acts of capital punishment that were carried out immediately after sentence was passed. One account describes how a man accused of being party to the murder of the Duke of Gloucester ‘merited the harshest death to which he could possibly be sentenced’. As a result of being found guilty of killing the King’s uncle, he was immediately drawn and disembowelled, with his entrails being burned before him. His grisly end included being hung until he was almost dead, beheaded and cut into four quarters, which were subsequently publicly displayed in prominent places. Ironically, history suggests that the King himself was really responsible for his own uncle’s murder.

Other typical accounts include the parliament dealing with family quarrels, issues of morality and rape and complaints by the poor for unfair treatment by the rich. One law passed in 1305 allowed the University of Oxford to arrest prostitutes attempting to ply their trade to students.

Another account demonstrates the levels of racism which existed in the middle ages, with a petition being put forward in 1376 complaining against a prominent Italian banking family who helped develop London as a financial centre. Not only were the complainants unhappy at the ‘evil’ act of lending money for interest, but they further claimed that the family were ‘Jews and Saracens and secret spies’ who had brought ‘a most horrible vice which should not be named’ (researchers believe they meant homosexuality) to England.

The painstaking process of translating the four million ancient words has been undertaken since 1998 by a team of seven editors and five research assistants (funded by the Leverhulme Trust) and the final result is a 21st century retelling of the historical records on cd- rom. The guide is a fully searchable multimedia tool with comprehensive commentaries, and is aimed at scholars, libraries and academic institutions including schools. It will later be published in hard copy, with the nine million words expected to go into 17 volumes.

The National Archives, who sponsored the project, will officially host the launch of PROME at the Houses of Parliament today (Wednesday 20th July 2005).



The General Editor of PROME is Professor Chris Given-Wilson, a Professor of Medieval History at the University of St Andrews.

The volume editors are Dr. Paul Brand (All Souls College, Oxford), Professor Anne Curry (University of Southampton), Dr. Rosemary Horrox (Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge), Professor Geoffrey Martin (Former Keeper of the Public Records), Professor Mark Ormrod (University of York) and Professor Seymour Phillips (University College Dublin).

The PROME project was funded by a major grant from the Leverhulme Trust and sponsored by the National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) at Kew, and by the History of Parliament Trust. The CD-Rom of PROME is published by Scholarly Digital Editions; the hard copy will be published by Boydell and Brewer.



Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews

Contact Gayle Cook, Press Officer on 01334 467227 / 462529, mobile 07900 050 103, or email gec3@st- Ref: Ancient rolls 190705.doc View the latest University press releases at

Category Research

Related topics

Share this story