Public records: Pipe rolls

The pipe rolls of the Exchequer contain accounts of the royal income, arranged by county, for each financial year. They represent the earliest surviving series of public records, and are essentially continuous from 1155 onwards until the 19th century; one roll from 1129-30 also survives. A copy of each pipe roll - known as the Chancellor's Roll - was also sent to the Chancery. (The unusual name - officially it started out as the 'Great Roll of the Exchequer' - comes from the distinctive way in which the membranes were sewn together, which made them look like pieces of piping when rolled up.)

The sheriffs' accounts form the core of the early pipe rolls. The sheriff was the king's representative in the county, and was responsible for collecting revenues from the royal estates and other sources. The rolls also record some items of expenditure by the sheriffs, and include lists of lands formerly part of the royal estates, which had been given to private individuals. In addition, there are payments of feudal dues and taxes, 'offerings' to the king in connection with legal disputes, records of penalties (amercements) imposed by the itinerant justices, and miscellaneous items such as enrolled charters. As time went on and the volume of administration increased, some of these categories were removed into separate series of records (including, in the 14th century, the accounts of the royal estates).

The early pipe rolls provide a useful source of information from a period when few other records are available. Those from the late 12th and early 13th century have been published with indexes, mainly by the Pipe Roll Society. It is therefore fairly straightforward to search the early pipe rolls for entries relating to particular names (although see the note on surnames in early records). However, interpreting the entries may be less straightforward. Nearly all the printed texts are in Latin, and many of the earlier volumes use 'record type' to reproduce the highly abbreviated style of the originals. Beyond this, while the significance of many entries may be fairly clear, interpreting others may require some knowledge of the administrative procedures. (Useful information is available on the P.R.O. web pages, and in the published Introduction to the Study of the Pipe Rolls, both referred to below.) One other point to bear in mind is that many of the entries record outstanding debts, which were presumably copied from roll to roll until they were paid - and, of course, information copied from year to year may easily become anachronistic.

Links and bibliography for pipe rolls

For source material on the internet, click here

Available online:

An image of a pipe roll from 1194 is also available:


National editions

The early pipe rolls are included in the Continental Origins of English Landholders, 1066-1166 (COEL) database.

The Pipe Roll Society editions are of the Latin text, in record type until 1175 (21 Henry II), and with abbreviations extended thereafter.

Surviving Pipe Rolls for Normandy, before its loss to France, have also been printed:

Local editions