1. The Nature of the fine rolls

The fine rolls were the earliest surviving rolls compiled by the English royal chancery. Surviving in almost continuous sequence from 1199, they are preserved in The National Archives at Kew, one for each regnal year. For Henry III’s reign (1216–1272), there are fifty-six rolls, written in Latin on parchment, with each roll being composed of separate membranes sewn together, the membranes measuring roughly 50 cm in length and 35 cm in width. Since Henry’s regnal year began on 28 October, each roll runs from 28 October in one calendar year to 27 October in the next. Over the course of the reign the rolls expanded greatly in length, many having a dozen or more membranes and containing over 30,000 words. They are a vital resource for the history of England in the period between the establishment of Magna Carta early in Henry’s reign and the parliamentary state which was emerging at its end.

A fine was essentially a promise of money to the king in return for a concession or favour, and the first purpose of the fine rolls was to record the money so offered. 1 They are essential for the study of royal patronage, the relations between the monarch and his subjects, and structures of families and their histories. Barons and knights gave money to succeed to their inheritances on the death of their immediate ancestors. Money was offered by magnates and ministers for the right to marry heiresses and widows, and, conversely, by widows to control the lands and marriages of their children, and to be allowed themselves to stay single or marry whom they wished. 2 The rolls are equally significant in other areas. They record the purchase of an ever growing number of writs, from wide sections of society, to initiate and prosecute law cases, and are thus central to the study of the early common law. They have numerous fines for permission to set up new markets and fairs, thus revealing the rapid commercialization of England. And, resonating from top to bottom of society, they throw light on the rising standard of living of the nobility, the changing structure of the gentry and the growing aspirations of peasant communities, for they contain fines from nobles to be allowed to construct private parks for hunting, from members of the gentry to be exempted from knighthood, and from peasant communities to secure protection from their lords. 3 During the course of the reign, the rolls came to include a large amount of new material unrelated to fines, including rates of debt repayment (by which the king could either punish or placate), and the seizure of lands into the king’s hands in times of political crisis, so making the rolls are a key source for the 1258-1267 Montfortian period of reform and rebellion. The rolls have likewise information about taxation levied on towns and royal manors (hence their value for local historians) and also taxation levied on the Jews, taxation which destroyed their wealth and prepared the way for their expulsion from England in 1290. The changing nature of royal revenue revealed by the fine rolls is absolutely key to understanding the impact of Magna Carta and the development of the parliamentary state.

2. The Aims of the project

Until the advent of the Project, the value of the fine rolls to the historian was gravely impaired by the lack of any proper edition. Whereas the fine rolls of John’s reign, together with all the other chancery rolls down to 1272, had been published, the fine rolls of Henry III were available only in two volumes of Latin excerpts which appeared in the 1830s: Excerpta e Rotulis Finium 1216-1272, ed. C. Roberts (London, Record Commission, 1835-6). These contain only 10% of the total material, selected exclusively for its genealogical interest, and have totally inadequate indexes.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and commenced in 2005, the Project aimed to transform this situation, bringing the fine rolls from the darkness in which they were accessible only to a few scholars to the light in which they are now intelligible and freely available to everyone. The Project has achieved this in the following ways:

  1. i. TRANSLATIONS: The Project has made freely available to all on its website translations of the rolls for Henry’s reign between 1216 and 1272. In these translations modern forms, where identifiable, have been given for all place names and toponymic surnames. The translations have also been collated with the Originalia rolls, the copies of the fine rolls sent to the Exchequer, since these often contain significant information not found on the fine rolls.
  2. ii. INDEXES AND SEARCH FACILITY: Between 1216 and 1248 these translations have been linked to a full online people, places and subjects index. They have also been linked to a search facility which enables people, places and subjects to be searched for singly, or in combination, thus providing a gigantic saving in research time. Between 1248 and 1272 it is possible to use a web browser edit-find facility to search the rolls.
  3. iii. IMAGES: For researchers wishing to see the full Latin and paleography of the original rolls, high quality images of all the rolls between 1216 and 1272 have been placed on the website. It is possible to move backwards and forwards between each of the membranes in which the rolls are divided and their translation.
  4. iv. BOOK PUBLICATION: The translations of the rolls between 1216 and 1242, with their indexes, have been published in three volumes by Boydell and Brewer. A fourth volume for the rolls between 1242 and 1248 is still in production. If further funding allows the indexes and search facility to be advanced to 1272 (see ii above), that will also make possible the publication of the corresponding books, the two processes being interlinked. 4
  5. v. IMPACT: THE FINE OF THE MONTH: The Project has placed great emphasis on addressing research questions and achieving a wide impact for its work. It has done this in a variety of ways, the most conspicuous being the Fine of the Month feature. Under this, for each month on the website between December 2005 and December 2012 a member of the Project team or outside historian, has commented on the interest and value of material in the rolls. An annual prize was awarded for the best Fine of the Month contributed by someone outside the team. The website also has a detailed historical introduction to both the fine rolls and the originalia rolls, which casts entirely new light on their form, development, function and importance. Throughout the life-time of the Project, members of the team have published papers about the historical and technical sides of their work, and have given talks about it to a wide variety of audiences. The Project held a final Conference in June 2011 about the importance of the rolls, the proceedings of which are being published.

3. The Conception, structure and progress of the project

The Project has been funded in two phases by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The first phase was from April 2005 to March 2008. The second was from April 2008 to December 2011. The project combines the History Department of King’s College London, KCL’s Department of Digital Humanities (DDH) (formerly the Centre for Computing in the Humanities), the History Department of Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU) and The National Archives (TNA) where the rolls are kept. The project was conceived by Louise Wilkinson (CCCU). The Principal Investigator was David Carpenter (KCL). The Co-investigators were David Crook (TNA), Louise Wilkinson (CCCU), and Harold Short, Director of CCH, who headed the team doing the technical research. The research fellows were Paul Dryburgh and Beth Hartland. The technical team included Paul Spence, Paul Caton, Arianna Ciula, Tamara Lopez and José Miguel Vieria. The National Archives Team included Sean Cunningham, Adrian Jobson, Aidan Lawes and Jess Nelson. The Project was supported by two Advisory Groups: an International Advisory Group and a Knowledge Transfer Advisory Group.


The meaning of ‘fine’ and the nature of the fine rolls is discussed in more detail in Paul Dryburgh’s Fine of the Month for June 2007. Back to context...
Cf. Michael Ray’s Fine of the Month for December 2006, David Carpenter’s Fine of the Month for March 2008, Susanna Annesley’s Fine of the Month for July 2008 and Carl Steward’s Fine of the Month for May 2009. Back to context...
See David Carpenter’s Fines of the Month for December 2008 and March 2009 on Brampton and April 2009 on Rothley and the Online Gazeeter of Markets and Fairs in England and Wales to 1516. Back to context...
Cf. The Technical Introduction. Back to context...