Ghost Records: A 19th-century manuscript copy of lost chancery rolls

Many may wonder why the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project at Trinity features a 19th-century manuscript of reports relating to the Court of the Exchequer (TCD MS 1747), yet this work provides a fascinating insight into Ireland’s medieval history and contains unique copies of medieval records that no longer survive today in their original form, making these copies in effect ‘ghost records’. This post explores the creation of the report, how the medieval texts were destroyed and what work is being done to resurrect them.

Title page of the Irish Record Commission’s Report of Searches, dated 1816 (TCD MS 1747)

The medieval Irish Chancery was the secretariat of the kings and queens of England, responsible for issuing royal letters under the Great Seal of Ireland. The lord chancellor of Ireland was the keeper of this Great Seal, which authenticated documents on behalf of the crown. The chancery issued legal documents relating primarily to property rights, grants of land, appointments to office, pardons, and fines. Outgoing letters were also recorded by chancery clerks, who copied the text onto long rolls of parchment known as the chancery rolls. The chancery rolls suffered loss, damage, and neglect over time through multiple fires and poor storage conditions in Dublin Castle. In 1810, the Irish Records Commission was established to survey the surviving rolls and produce a calendar of the medieval records up to the year 1600. By 1816, the rolls were moved to the Record Tower of Dublin Castle and the IRC had produced this remarkable report on the chancery rolls.  

(Left) Introduction to the Irish Record Commission’s Report of Searches signed by Secretary William Shaw Mason on 27 April 1816 in the Record Tower of Dublin Castle (TCD MS 1747, p. 3), and (right) a present-day view of the Record Tower (image via Wikipedia)

The Secretary to the IRC, William Shaw Mason (1774-1853), and a team of sub-commissioners undertook the challenging task of searching the chancery rolls and other documents to identify and transcribe records relating to the Clerk of Common Pleas in the Court of the Exchequer, Ireland. Mason presents the findings of their searches, with listings of the Clerks of Common Pleas and Chancellors of the Exchequer, followed by the record extracts in chronological order from the reign of King Edward III of England (1327-1377) to 1805, the 45th year of the reign of King George III (1760-1820).

Rolls extract in Latin (left) and English translation (right) relating to a petition of John Penkeston, Clerk of the Common Pleas, dated 6 June 1377 (TCD MS 1747, pp. 56-7)

In 1867, the Public Record Office of Ireland was established under the Public Records (Ireland) Act and over a period of several years the documents held in the Records Tower of Dublin Castle, including the chancery rolls, were moved to the new building located in the Four Courts. However, these records were largely lost in the fire of the Public Records Office of 30 June 1922 in the opening engagement of the Civil War. Ranging in date from the 13th to the 19th centuries, only a handful of these historic documents survive today in their original form with many more known through copies, transcripts, and other records like the 1816 IRC report. The report itself was deposited in Trinity Library in November 1920, thus avoiding the fire.

(Left) Detail of the front cover of the Report featuring the stamp of the Public Records Office of Ireland (TCD MS 1747), and (right) Model of the interior of the Virtual Record Treasury, from the Beyond 2022 project

The Irish Record Commission’s Report of 1816 is now fully digitised and available to view here on the Digital Collections website. The manuscript will feature in Beyond 2022: Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury, the all-island and international collaborative research project to create a virtual reconstruction of the Public Records Office of Ireland. The project is being led by Programme Director Dr Peter Crooks (Department of History, Trinity College Dublin) and will launch on the centenary of the Four Courts blaze in 2022.

Dr Alison Ray

Follow us on Twitter @TCDResearchColl

The work of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project has been made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Further reading:

Beyond 2022: Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury project website: https://beyond2022.ie/

CIRCLE: A Calendar of Irish Chancery Letters c. 1244-1509 project website: https://chancery.tcd.ie/content/irish-chancery-rolls

P. Connolly, Medieval Record Sources (Dublin, 2002)

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