This article was first published in the March 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine


What are fines, what are fine rolls and who indeed was Henry III? Good questions, one may think, especially when the Arts and Humanities Research Council is generously funding a project to put the rolls into the public domain.

Henry III was the son of King John and reigned between 1216 and 1272. His reign saw the establishment of Magna Carta and the beginnings of the parliamentary state, as well as a transformation in the wider religious, social and economic life of the country.

Fines themselves were offers of money to the king for concessions and favours, and were made by all sections of society. The rolls on which they were recorded, which also feature an array of other governmental business, were made on membranes of parchment sewn together. They are now preserved in the National Archives at Kew where there is a roll for every year of the reign. In total they contain two million words.

The aim of the project – combining the history department and Centre for Computing in the Humanities at King’s College London, Christ Church Canterbury University and the National Archives – is to unlock the riches of the rolls and make them available to the wider public.

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Accordingly, the Latin rolls have now been translated into English, linked to a search facility, and made freely available to everyone on the project's website here. The site also contains images of the original rolls and a 'Fine of the Month' feature, in which we analyse fines of particular interest in the rolls. There are over 60 of these now on the site – and an annual prize for the best 'fine of the month' contributed by someone outside the project.

Here are just some of the areas on which the rolls shed light:


A new commercial network

The fine rolls contain numerous offers of money to the king for permission to set up new markets and fairs. Indeed, if you put the word ‘markets’ into the subject field of the search facility on the new Fine Rolls website, well over 100 such fines appear for the period 1216–42. A typical amount offered was £5, which translates into as much as £50,000 today.

You can also refine your search to a county or place – for example, you’ll find a number of fines for markets in Yorkshire between 1216 and 1242. You can also cross a person with a subject in the search facility. This will tell you that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, set up two markets, one at Reculver in Kent and the other at Uckfield in Sussex. With thousands of people, places and subjects in the rolls, the search facility is a rich resource for all kinds of investigations.


The peasants fight back

A striking feature of the fine rolls is the way they reveal peasant communities offering money to the king for help in struggles against their lords. For example, they tell us that in 1242 the men of Brampton in Huntingdonshire spent all of £40 (£400,000 today) purchasing a letter patent designed to prevent their lord, Henry de Hastings, increasing their customs and services.

When they heard that Henry was trying to ignore this concession, the villagers chased his bailiffs all the way back to Huntingdon with axes and staves, an event that is now known as ‘the battle of Brampton’. Later the peasants, under their leader John Kechel, continued the struggle, as the fine rolls show, by commencing a legal action against Hastings. Truly the 13th century was the training ground for the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt.


The Jews are converted

The most disturbing material on the fine rolls concerns the Jews, for it shows how Henry imposed eye-wateringly high taxes on them, and tried to convert them to Christianity. In 1232 Henry founded a house in Chancery Lane (now the site of King’s College’s library) for his Jewish converts. When it was full, Henry started sending the converts to monasteries around the country – the fine rolls have long lists of such converts and their destinations – only for many of them to be refused entry.

When he heard the news Henry was furious and promptly sent the converts back to the monasteries – this time equipped with plaintiff letters complaining about the monasteries’ conduct and giving them a second chance to prove their devotion to him. Henry’s treatment of the Jews prepared the way for their expulsion from England by his son, Edward I, in 1290.


Henry’s sense of humour

The fine rolls contain both official government business and material of much more personal interest to the monarch. King John’s rolls record the extraordinary offer of poultry made by the wife of one of his ministers, Hugh de Neville, so that she could lie one night with her husband. Almost certainly she was John’s mistress and the fine is her joking reply to the king’s question: “What is it worth to have one night back with Hugh?”. Her answer was an insulting 200 chickens!

Henry III also had a sense of humour – though one that was less salacious than his father’s. The fine rolls records him “playing a joke” on his clerk Peter the Poitevin in 1243. Henry enrolled on the fine rolls all kinds of ridiculous and fanciful debts that Peter had allegedly incurred while sailing home with the king from Gascony: 60 capons (castrated cocks) for an offence on the ship, £100 (a million in modern money) promised on the ship, and so on.

The idea, presumably, was for Peter to see the debts on the fine rolls and wonder “O my God, what is going on?”. Henry, however, was careful not to let the joke go too far, for when Peter was not looking, he had the debts crossed out so that they would not be exacted.


From Magna Carta to the parliamentary state

Research fellows on the fine rolls project, Dr Paul Dryburgh and Dr Beth Hartland, have added up the money offered to Henry on the rolls and compared it to the sums proffered to King John. The results are startling. Whereas the annual value of fines on John’s surviving rolls averages £25,000, only one of those in the first half of Henry’s reign (1216–42) achieves £10,000 – and many are of less than half that amount. This was not because the number of fines was diminishing. In fact, they markedly increased, but they were mostly for small sums – for example, in fines for writs to initiate law cases (testimony to the spreading tentacles of the common law). However, these offers could not compensate for the virtual disappearance of the huge fines that John extracted from his barons for ‘favours’ like succeeding to their inheritance.

It was Magna Carta that put an end to such arbitrary exactions, and, as a result, royal revenue plummeted. The only way to fill the gap was to secure taxation voted for by parliament – a major step along the road to the parliamentary state.


David Carpenter is professor of medieval history at King's College London, principal investigator of the Henry III Fine Rolls Project and author of The Struggle for Mastery: Britain 1066–1284 (Penguin, 2004).