Catalogue description Records of the Master of the Rolls and the Rolls (Chapel) Office

Details of Division within C
Reference: Division within C
Title: Records of the Master of the Rolls and the Rolls (Chapel) Office

Records of the master of the rolls and the Rolls (Chapel) Office.

Although all Chancery records, from the earliest periods, have been in the nominal or actual custody of the master of the rolls, these records derive more particularly from specific functions of the Rolls Office.

Specifications of inventions and surrenders of office, enrolled in the Rolls Office, are in C 73

Miscellaneous rolls prepared or acquired by the Rolls Office are in C 80

Date: 1392-1848
Held by: The National Archives, Kew
Legal status: Public Record(s)
Language: English

Chancery, Rolls Chapel Office, 1848

Physical description: 2 series
Administrative / biographical background:

The Dialogus de Scaccario, describing Exchequer administration in the 1170s, mentions a clerk who was deputy to the chancellor and had responsibility for the preparation and custody of formal Chancery enrolments. Thereafter the chancellor's principal clerk was invariably associated with these duties, although progressively more and more remote from their direct execution; by 1388, and probably long before, a staff of subordinate clerks carried out the actual enrolments. From the mid-thirteenth century this officer was generally known as the 'keeper of the rolls', and, as the first rank of Chancery clerks gradually came to be known as 'masters', the title 'master of the rolls' had become the standard designation by the fifteenth century.

With the massive growth of Chancery's legal and administrative business in the thirteenth century, this principal clerkship became a position of enormous importance and status; in the late fourteenth century, the master of the rolls took official custody of the great seal, and used it, in the absence of the chancellor abroad.

In 1290, with the expulsion of the Jews from England, the keepership of the House of Converts (Domus Conversorum) became a substantial sinecure in the royal gift, and it soon became a formal perquisite of the keeper of the rolls and his successors. By far the most significant aspect of the custody of the Domus Conversorum was its premises, providing a large estate between Westminster and the city of London, and this estate, known variously as the Rolls Office or Rolls Chapel, became the official residence of the master of the rolls and his staff.

A considerable amount of administrative business was conducted at the Rolls Office, and this doubtless contributed to the gradual re-location in this quarter not only of Chancery's satellite departments (the principal thoroughfare was soon known as Chancery Lane) but also of the legal profession. The first known inn of court was established in the nearby premises of the Knights Templar, expelled in 1307. The Rolls Estate, indeed, was often regarded as virtually an inn of court itself ('the college of Chancery men'), and smaller Chancery inns grew up around it.

As well as being an active bureaucratic institution, the Rolls Office became a significant Chancery archive. From an early date, Chancery records no longer needed for current business were housed elsewhere, most notably at the Tower of London. However, the immense business of the Rolls Office generated new quantities of records which began to be housed in the Rolls Chapel itself, even though that building continued in liturgical use until its demolition in 1895. This record-keeping function was extended, under the Public Record Office Act of 1838, from Chancery to the whole of central government, by which the master of the rolls became, ex officio, the keeper of public records, and the first Public Record Office was built on the Rolls Estate. The responsibilities were subsequently transferred to the lord chancellor under the Public Records Act of 1958.

In addition to his responsibilities for administration and record-keeping, the master of the rolls acquired a judicial role in the court of Chancery which soon dominated, and still dominates, his tenure of the post. The origins of this judicial role are unclear; it is not mentioned in the Chancery ordinances of 1388, but there is some evidence that John Waltham, who was master of the rolls from 1381 to 1386 (and subsequently chancellor), may have played a part in developing the work of Chancery as a court of equity, and certainly by 1433 the master of the rolls was considered competent to take over the chancellor's judicial duties during the latter's absence.

In the fifteenth century there are numerous references to the judicial activities of the master of the rolls, although he was not necessarily then acting fully as a Chancery judge in his own right. Certainly from the 1520s, the master of the rolls was given occasional, and increasingly frequent, powers under special commission to act as a judge, but it was by no means automatic. There is no evidence that Cromwell, for example, ever acted in this way during his tenure from 1534 to 1540, and occasionally the post was treated as a virtual sinecure not requiring legal knowledge of Chancery procedure or substantive law.

From the early seventeenth century, however, the judicial role was commissioned more frequently, for more general purposes, and from 1623 the master of the rolls was treated as the chancellor's regular deputy, hearing and determining cases in any absence of the chancellor. The precise nature of his authority nevertheless remained unclear until 1729, when the master of the rolls was constituted a judge in Chancery. Still the position was regarded as subordinate to that of the chancellor (the master of the rolls only sat when the chancellor was absent) until 1833, when the master of the rolls was explicitly empowered to sit concurrently with the chancellor, and since the mid-nineteenth century he has been effectively the senior Chancery judge.

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