The Hundred Rolls

The corpus of documents known as the Hundred Rolls, SC5 in the PRO, is an essentially artificial class. Although the inquisitions that make it up were collected together and catalogued by Bishop Stapledon in the early fourteenth century, there is nothing to suggest that the documents that now make up the collection were accorded any discrete identity at that time. They were only brought together as a separate class by the Record Commission between 1806 and 1818 by a Mr Richards under the supervision of William Illingworth, the first editor of the corpus. At that time the nature of the rolls and their content were not fully understood and material was wrongly identified and extraneous matter was occasionally intruded. Until even now there has been confusion over the contents. Although documents have been jettisoned and others added, the PRO list tends to imply that six inquests are represented. Having recatalogued the collection, we can now establish that there were in fact only five, dating from 1255, January 1274, October 1274, 1279, and 1284, the phantom inquest being in fact eyre presentments and plea rolls.

Although the Hundred Rolls represent the bulk of the material surviving from thirteenth-century inquests, they do not include equally significant material of a similar kind: the surviving rolls from the numerous suveys of Henry III's reign or the majority of the returns from Kirby's Quest, for example. However, they do represent the largest collection of, and I hesitate to use the term, 'original returns' for any national inquests in the Middle Ages. It is this characteristic that justifies the study of an otherwise disparate collection as a whole. As an assemblage of rolls that were produced in the course of the inquests, they provide an unparalleled opportunity to explore the mechanisms of the inquest and by extension its nature and purposes.

In the first, and still the only general study of the Hundred Rolls, Helen Cam saw the process of compilation of the Ragman records as an essentially simple one. With her interest in the development of local government and its continuities, she tended to see the processes of administration as essentially an expression of royal power. It was the, albeit somewhat squeaky, wheels of a tried and tested machine that were set in motion in October 1274 at the behest of the king, and on his behalf, and the Ragman rolls that resulted were of much the same order as the day-to-day records of administration. The Ragman rolls were, in short, the simple presentments that the hundred jurors made in court on the day of the inquest. In The Hundred and the Hundred Rolls Cam paints an appealingly vivid picture of the process. The numerous juries jostle and crowd each other outside the hall of pleas, while the representatives of the vill and individuals attempt to catch their eye in order to ensure that their complaints are duly and correctly noted. At the appointed hour each jury is called before the justices, and the foreman, quaking with fear, gives its replies to the articles put to it. The scribe notes everything down, and when the justices are satisfied, the jurors attest the truth of their verdict by appending their seals to the roll.

Since Cam wrote in the 1920s and 30s, and here in a somewhat more popular vein, studies of inquests generally have been largely confined to Domesday Book and two themes have dominated interpretation; first, the complexity of the Domesday process, and, second, the single-mindedness of purpose behind it emanating from strong central government. Both perceptions have, in sometimes contradictory ways, influenced the understanding of the Hundred Rolls. The complexity of the inquests is slowly being appreciated. The writs for the 1279 inquest show that government perceived of a thorough investigation drawing on the evidence of all levels of free and unfree society. Studies by, among others, Dr Raban and Dr Greenway has demonstrated that 'the books' that the king saw as the product of the inquiry were to be compiled through an exhaustive process of checking, synthesis, and editing. Likewise, it is now clear that the 1255 inquiry drew upon multiple sources of information.

More than ever we are left with the impression of a relentless bureaucracy in operation. The surviving Ragman rolls do indeed bear witness to the seemingly smooth running of an administrative machine. But an examination of the procedure of the inquest reveals a previously unsuspected degree of communal participation in the process.

To all appearances most Ragman Rolls conform to the Cam model. They are ostensibly the verdicts of hundred jurors delivered and sealed on the day indicated before the commissioners. There are, however, a number of anomalous rolls that do not conform to this pattern, notably from the East Anglian circuit, comprising the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, and Hertfordshire, which was entrusted to Robert de Ufford and Ralph de Sandwich. In the Norfolk series of twelve rolls official returns survive for the hundreds of North Erpingham, Mitford, Henstead, and Diss; they were sealed by the jurors of the hundred who are named at the head of each roll and, duly marked up for abbreviation, were the source of the account of each in the Norfolk sections of Extract Rolls 1 and 4. There are, however, a further four verdicts for the same hundreds. All are replies by the same jurors to the articles of the inquiry, but the content is less extensive and often different in detail. In particular, there is less information on the nature of liberties - as opposed to infringements thereon - and of the intricacies of land tenure. The eight remaining Norfolk rolls, containing accounts of twenty-six hundreds, appear to emanate from the same stage, for they too were not the source of the relevant sections of the Extract Rolls which were drawn from the returns. Although none of these anomalous rolls is dated, judging from the correction of detail interlined into the returns, they would appear to predate the rolls which were sealed by the hundred jurors or the exemplars of the records which were derived from them.

Similar records from a comparable stage survive for Essex, Herefordshire, Suffolk, and possibly Devon. All can be interpreted as the records of preliminary sessions in which evidence was collected. Scattered here and there in the Ragman rolls are indeed references to such previously unrecognized sessions. In the Yorkshire section of Extract Roll 3, for example, a Reginald Blanchard is said to have brought a plaint against Gilbert de Clifton, the bailiff of Staincliffe Wapentake, not before the commissioners but coram duodecim juratis istius wapentacii, 'before the jurors of the wapentake'. Personal plaints of that kind were evidently widely solicited at these meetings. We have another example endorsed in the same hand as the verdict of the hundred in the sole surviving Herefordshire roll. But we have evidence that more formal presentments were also made at the same time. In addition to verdicts of hundreds in response to the articles, the three surviving Essex rolls also contain presentments made by four free men and the reeve of each vill. They are generally written in French, indicating that they were current court records, and they usually outline details of tenure and the plaints that the community wished to record. The account of the hundred of Dengie in roll 1 is typical. It starts with presentments of the vills of the hundred, here in Latin, and then proceeds without indication to the verdict of the whole hundred, whilst a querela of Petronilla de Asheldham against Richard le Brun and Richard le Bel is entered on the dorse of the membrane.

The information that the vills provided seems to have been in response to the articles of the inquiry; although they are rarely cited, many entries conclude with the statement that 'of the remaining articles they know nothing in the said vill.' Typically, those articles which related to local abuses of power, extortions, and purprestures drew the fullest response, but information was also volunteered on the withdrawal of suits into private courts.

The forum in which these sessions were held was apparently the hundred court; the Barstaple verdict in the Essex series was delivered at Horndon on the Hill, the hundred meeting place, while the Norfolk rolls are said to have been produced 'in hundredo'. As we know, the commissioners did not attend hundred courts; their sessions were conducted at the customary meeting place of the eyre or, occasionally, other convenient centres. Rather, the process here under discussion seems to have been under the supervision of knights of the shire. In Norfolk and Essex they are explicitly referred to as milites inquisitores. In the former county twenty-four had been appointed or elected (there is, unfortunately, no evidence to indicate which). You will find their circuits on Table 1. They divided up the hundreds into six geographically-discrete circuits, each bench conducting the business in its own way and producing distinctive records; some drew up separate accounts for each hundred assigned to them, while others compiled a composite record. In Essex only twelve knights acted, but again they worked in circuits with probably two knights assigned to each - our evidence here is incomplete. In both counties it was the knights rather than hundred jurors who sealed the rolls. No seals remain, but the number of slits correspond to the number of knights in each case.

Table 1: Norfolk knights' circuits









S. Greenhoe



Robert de Holm, Robert de Caston, Robert de Saham












William de Gyney, Richard de Bellehus, William de Merkeshal














Wiliaml de Calcethorpe, Walter de Denver, William de Terrington, Roger de Toftys














Robert de Bosco, William de Blumville, Ralph de Chanuz, Robert de Morley






North Greenhoe


William Burgeham, Simon Nuwerys, Roger de Wiverton














North Erpingham



East Flegg

West Flegg


South Erpingham

East Flegg (cont. on dorse of 12e)

William de Mauteby, Robert de Castre, Hugh de Caly, William de Flegg, Hervey de Vallibus, William de Redham


Elsewhere, the only explicit reference to knights of the shire is a single Hertfordshire roll in which twelve knights made a presentment of their own relating to the whole of the shire. Nevertheless, it is occasionally made clear that the commissioners did not act alone. In Overs Hundred in Shropshire, for example, it is said that the inquest was held before the commissioners Osbert de Bereford and Richard de Fukeram and 'before other faithful men of the king'. Moreover, distinctive language and procedures in some returns suggest that knights of the shire may have performed a supervisory function in the early stages of the inquest other shires. In the Lincolnshire series, for example, three distinct circuits can be identified. The returns for Lindsey were sealed before the commissioners at Lincoln but too few survive for meaningful comparison. By contrast, those for Kesteven and Holland, presented at Stamford, almost all extant and display marked differences. The Holland presentments were uniquely made through twenty-four jurors; distinctive language is employed, notably communitas for villa; and two of the three rolls note in identical language the threats that the jurors had suffered from the bailiffs of the wapentakes in the course of their investigations (the third roll is incomplete and it is therefore impossible to say whether it too recorded the same). Here, then, is one circuit. Most of the Kesteven jurors consistently answered article 14 (mortmain fees) under article 3 (capital fees), indicating a second circuit, while the borough of Stamford and the wapentake of Ness in which it was situated exhibit none of these characteristics and would appear to constitute a third.

The forty or so Wiltshire returns provide comparable evidence of similar sessions. In other parts of the country there rarely survives sufficient material for such analysis, but the evidence here cited is enough to demonstrate the significant contribution made by inquisitors other than the commissioners. Occasionally the records that the knights of the shire produced were subsequently sealed by the hundred jurors before the commissioners. The Whittlesford roll in the Cambridgeshire series, organized by vill and originally accompanied by a hundredal verdict, was the official return for the hundred, - the date of sealing is postscriptal- and several Devon rolls from the early stage of the inquest were pressed into service as such. They are, however, the exception. Most rolls are fair copies, and, judging from the East Anglian records, they were carefully compiled from the rolls of the initial sessions in the hundred court. Sometimes the process was less than seamless; schedules of various matters are occasionally appended to rolls. The three Lincoln rolls, for example, incorporate four schedules, of which at least one is in a different hand from the returns themselves. Mostly, however, the various sources are brought together in a coherent account. Those accounts were not mere summaries of the verdicts. Not all of the evidence that the hundred produced was retained and much of the presentment of the vill was ignored. Even individual complaints may have been vetted. In Webbtree Hundred in Herefordshire Alice de Moniton lodged seven plaints against local officials for false imprisonment and the like, but some process of verification seems to have taken place for each is marked, postscriptally, with the comment 'a matter of certainty'. In Essex some plaints apparently failed the test, for they seem to have been omitted from what can be reconstructed of the returns.

There is little evidence to indicate whether compilation of returns was undertaken locally or by the commissioners' scribes, but on balance central supervision seems more likely. The four Norfolk returns are apparently written by four different scribes but none can be identified with those who drew up the hundred verdicts before the milites inquisitores. Further, they contain information which is not found in the earlier rolls, thereby suggesting reference to the primary presentments of hundred and vill by a different party. On the other hand, in the Wiltshire series one hand recurs at a number of centres among a great variety of hands, and there we might suspect that a royal scribe had supervised local production.

The role of the commissioners in all of this seems to have been largely formal. They could of course hear further evidence in the sessions which they oversaw. Despite the fact that querele had been received by the knights of the shire, further plaints could apparently be accepted. The return of Chilford Hundred in Cambridgeshire comprises the hundred's verdict in response to articles 1-28 (the end is missing), but entered on the dorse of membrane 2 in the same hand as the main roll is a record of three complaints. The first was made by Isabel Pauncefot against Robert de Ver, earl of Oxford, and his bailiffs, claiming that they and a veritable army of thirty knights and over a hundred armed men forced the gate of her house in Hildersham, broke into her cellar and drank her wine and beer, and beat her servants who were unwilling to reveal the whereabouts of their mistress. The plaint ends with the comment 'this complaint was received by order of the commissioners (ista querela receptus [sic] per preceptum justiciarorum)'. The remaining two are apparently counter claims, relating to different matters, by Robert, who complained that on two separate occasions his servants had been beaten by Isabel's bailiffs, but there is no indication of whether they were approved. Again, there would seem to have been some degree of verification and possibly pleading.

Such major additions to the returns, however, were the exception. There were of course many minor corrections, emendations, and glosses. Some of these can undoubtedly be explained as the work of the drafting scribe. Others, however, may have been made in response to the commissioners' interrogation. Appended to the roll relating to the hundred of Eggardon in Dorset a note is found ordering the interlineation of two glosses and indeed they are duly found: the manor of Porstoke is said to have been taken into the king's hands by the subescheator 'because of the death of Ralph de Gorges' but had since 'been granted to Maud de Walerand' where originally the circumstances were not recorded. The matters are mostly small items of information of this kind and all were details which would clarify the record and facilitate the smooth running of subsequent actions.

The procedure, then, can be reconstructed as follows. After the sheriff received the writ to organize the inquisition, he informed the hundreds of the forthcoming inquest and caused twelve or twenty-four knights of the shire to be elected (if not nominated by the crown) to supervise the collection of data. The initial forum was probably the shire court and the knights may have been required to make their own presentment there. The Hertfordshire roll may be an example, and, if so, it suggests that much of the information about tenure and liberties came from them. Groups of knights then went out to hundred courts to hear the verdicts of the hundred juries in response to the articles, the presentments of the representatives of the vill, and the plaints of individuals. After due weighing of evidence a return was drawn up and it was this which was presented to the commissioners for perusal and comment. After appropriate revision, the roll was sealed by the hundred, and the commissioners moved on post haste to the next verdict.

This scenario is impressionistic. Inevitably, there were local variations. No explanation presents itself for the anomalous Whittlesford roll from Cambridgeshire; the failure to complete the process could be purely fortuitous. The cursory Devon verdicts, however, may reflect the realities of the local administrative landscape. The hundreds of the county were small and mostly in private hands, and it might therefore be suspected that the usual procedure was inappropriate. Again, in boroughs with extensive liberties there may have been constraints on full investigation. The multiple presentments made by the citizens and burgesses of Lincoln, Stamford, and Northampton have every appearance of being an idiosyncratic initiative by the commissioners William de St Omer and Warin de Chalcumbe to cast the net as wide as possible. Nevertheless, it seems likely that the suggested procedure was more or less followed throughout most of the country. With the vast majority of returns being fair copies, it is difficult to understand how the commissioners could have otherwise kept to what was a formidable timetable without previous investigation and drafting of evidence.

The immediate source of the procedure is not hard to find. Consequent to the Provisions of Oxford in 1258 knights were sent out in each shire to collect complaints against local officials; information seems to have been drawn from the free men of the hundred and their evidence was to be presented under the seal of the knights. As in much else, Edward I put on the clothes of the Reformers in 1274. But the innovations should not be over-emphasized. It was subject matter rather than method that was novel, if not unprecedented, in 1258. The production of a measured account from the presentments of the community is, of course, first attested in the Domesday Inquest. The contribution of knights and king's thegns in that survey is invisible, and probably irrecoverable, but it must have been considerable. Milites inquisitores cannot be positively identified until the compilation of the surveys capital fees of 1212. The Lancashire account, for example, was returned by seventeen knights of the shire but they derived their evidence from the presentments of local juries. Thereafter, local knights were regularly associated with commissioners in all manner of inquisitions.

The Ragman Rolls can, then, be placed in a long tradition. But it was not the tradition of day to day administration as it had developed by the late thirteenth century. The simple verdicts of the tourn and eyre were appropriate to the normal processes of local administration where other records were available and the prime concern of the crown was the raising of revenue. The inquest was a special procedure when such sources of information were not available or the machinery of local government could not be relied upon to provide it. It was a truly investigative procedure, and, as such, it seems to me to have affinities with the Grand Assize. The ultimate value of the Ragman rolls is to show how much the process depended on local communities. The inquest was not just a simple stock taking by a powerful centralized bureaucracy, but a potent alliance between the crown and the community against particular interests. As Dr Maddicott has shown, for the king in 1274 it provided an audit of his regalia and a check on his ministers, but it also offered the communities of the realm the definition of rights and the hope of the redress of wrongs. The inquest did not always live up to its promise. But to a greater or lesser extent, this meeting of government and governed lies at the heart of all inquests and therein, I suggest, lay its potency as an instrument of government and its raison d'etre.

© David Roffe, November, 2000.