Completing the Calendar of Patent Rolls, Elizabeth


The Patent Rolls (National Archives, C 66) are one of the most important and valuable sources for the administrative, political and social history of the British Isles. From the thirteenth century down to the present day, these documents have recorded the issue of royal letters open or 'patent', whereby the sovereign has conferred a privilege or communicated his or her will. Their contents provide key information about government action, intention and patronage, and they embrace a wide and varying range of business. The enrolments, usually in Latin in the late medieval and early modern period, include, for example, charters of incorporation of towns, schools and almshouses; grants of lands, leases and annuities; charters for markets and fairs, monopolies, trading licences, wardships and offices, as well as denizations, appointments to royal offices, appointments to commissions, presentations to ecclesiastical benefices, licences for episcopal elections; and general and special pardons for felonies. They contain a wealth of material that is of interest for students, professional and amateur historians, and genealogists.

The patent rolls for Elizabeth I's reign offer a colourful insight into the workings of the Elizabethan church and state, and into Elizabethan political culture in general. Although some of the letters patent are formal and highly stylised in nature, notably presentations to livings and pardons of outlawry, there are also many that are miscellaneous and unexpected. The rolls for the 1580s and 1590s provide a unique impression of events both at home and abroad, and of their influence on local and national politics. Some of the most detailed entries relate to the granting and leasing of Crown lands, including those from the estates of former religious houses, colleges and chantries. These present an intriguing impression of local landholding, naming past and present tenants, sometimes incorporating a brief physical description of the premises in question, and often listing the rents due from each parcel of land. A fascinating picture of local society and family connections is provided by the details of family settlements, governing the descent of lordships, manors and smaller properties, that are often included in licences and pardons of alienation.

The patent rolls for the last twenty years of Elizabeth's reign also reveal a great deal about Elizabethan foreign policy and diplomacy. For those interested in Anglo-Irish affairs, there are grants of lands, confiscated from the hands of Irish rebels, enrolled alongside proclamations and commissions, outlining the programme for the settlement and repopulation of the province of Munster in Ireland. Details of English military intervention in the Netherlands, at the invitation of the States General, are outlined in commissions relating to the deployment and garrisoning of queen's forces there. Something of the personal cost to individuals of the troubled Anglo-Hispanic relations during these two decades is conveyed by the letters of protection that were issued to English merchants who had suffered losses due to the seizure of English ships and goods in Spanish ports. Indeed, the threat of war with Spain, and concern with English national defence, influenced the introduction of a permanent lieutenancy system in the counties in 1585, whereby lords lieutenant were appointed to oversee the defence of the localities; commissions of lieutenancy are recorded on the patent rolls.

We have outlined the wealth of material contained in the Elizabethan Patent Rolls in an article by Dr Louise Wilkinson, 'Completing the Calendar of Patent Rolls, Elizabeth I' Local Historian 35 (2005) pp. 30-43.

It might be added that the number of enrolled patents per annum grows strongly over the late sixteenth century. The years at the end of the reign may be exceptional, in part because of the large numbers of grants of crown land being made, in part because Sir Thomas Egerton seems to have tightened up on record keeping when he became Lord Keeper in 1595, but the general trend is unmistakable. Research is underway on the changing character of the material enrolled on the Patent Rolls and its implications for our understanding of the operation of Elizabethan government and patronage.

Access to this class of record has been facilitated by the publication of an English calendar of patent rolls from 1232 onwards, the Calendar of Patent Rolls (HMSO, 1906 - 86); those for Henry VIII's reign are calendared to a lower standard in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the reign of Henry VIII (HMSO, 1864-1932). Between 1939 and 1986, the Public Record Office published the Calendar of Patent Rolls for the first twenty four years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-82). Unfortunately, lack of funding meant that the decision was then taken to abandon their further publication in the mid-1980s.

The completion of the Calendar was plainly a considerable desiderata for not only political, institutional and administrative historians working on the later part of Elizabeth's reign, but also economic and local historians. The rolls also contain a mass of largely unexploited genealogical information. With these needs in mind, Professor Richard Hoyle applied to the newly-established Arts and Humanities Research Board in 1999 for funding to complete the calendar for Elizabeth's reign. This application was successful and three editorial staff were appointed: Mrs Christine Leighton, Simon Neal and Dr Louise Wilkinson (who moved to a post at Christ Church Canterbury in 2004).

Work on the Elizabethan Patent Rolls was made much easier by the existence of a modern (twentieth-century) draft calendar in longhand, made by the staff of the PRO as the basis of the Calendars. This, collated with the original Mss, has formed the basis of the Calendars prepared and published since 2000. Nonetheless, progress in the preparation of a new calendar was slower than had been envisaged, and in 2005 we were fortunate in securing a further award from the AHRC (as it had become) to continue this work. Editorial work on the Patent Rolls re-commenced in the autumn of 2005, with Mrs Christine Leighton and Mr Simon Neal returning to the project. They were joined by Dr Carrie Smith, formerly of the Victoria County History.

The first phase of the project achieved the publication of the Patent Rolls for 25-36 Elizabeth. In the second phase of the project, the funded phase of which ended in February 2010, the team of Leighton, Neal and Smith - prepared calendars of the Patent Rolls for the nine years 37 Elizabeth to 45 Elizabeth together with those Elizabethan rolls contai9ning licences and faculties for clergy which have been detached from C 66 and added to the series of Dispensation Rolls (C 59). The Calendars for 37 Elizabeth to 41 Elizabeth have already been published by the List and Index Society. The Calendar for 42 Elizabeth will appear in two volumes later in 2010 and the others will follow over the next two or three years. In addition the Calendars for 34 and 35 Elizabeth, which had previously been published by the List and Index Society, have been re-edited and will be republished in new editions in the future.

In this second and final phase of the project to publish the Elizabethan Patent Rolls, we have calendared 227 rolls which contain a little over 14,000 entries. This boils down to 2,500 pages of text and when indexes are added, the entire project fills 4,300 pages in (probably) 20 volumes.

It is intended that ultimately the text of these rolls, and those published earlier by the List and Index Society as the result of the first tranche of funding we had from the AHRB, will be added to British History Online as part of a larger project to publish there all the Patent Rolls from 1547. For the meantime, access to this material is through the volumes published by the List and Index Society. If your library has the Patent Rolls issued by HMSO through to the volume for 24 Elizabeth (published in 1986), then it should acquire the volumes published by the Society. Details of how to purchase may be found via the Society's website,

The project has been made possible by the financial support of the Arts and Humanities Research Council to whom the thanks of all early modernists is due. It is also made possible by the support of the National Archives, the co-operation and assistance of whose staff we keenly appreciate, and by the List and Index Society.

Enquiries about the work of the project or requests for pre-publication access to the Calendars should directed to Professor Richard Hoyle,

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