Exchequer pipe rolls contain accounts of the royal income, arranged by county, for each financial year. They are the written record of the audit process of the king's accounts for one financial year, which ran from Michaelmas (29 September) to Michaelmas.
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.
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. The Pipe Roll Society editions are of the Latin text, in "record type" to reproduce the highly abbreviated style of the originals until 1175 (21 Henry II), and with abbreviations extended thereafter. The rolls themselves were written in what was originally a clear Exchequer hand. In the period before 1300, and for some time afterwards, they are quite easy to read.
The sheriffs' accounts form the core of the early pipe rolls. As the king's representative in the county, the sheriff 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.
Each pipe roll was made up from a number of rotuli. A rotulus, the Latin word for ‘roll’, was composed of two membranes of parchment, stitched together in the middle, and with both sides used for writing: the front was known as the 'face', and the back as the 'dorse'. The rotuli were sewn head to head 'Exchequer style'
Arrangement: by county
Pipe rolls each include a number of county accounts, with an increasing number of miscellaneous accounts being added at the end.
Arrangement: within each county
Within each county account are a number of sections, some with headings, beginning with the county farm, presented by the sheriff. This was a fixed sum due annually (hence 'farm', from the Latin 'firma' for 'fixed'), based largely around lands retained as 'demesne' by the crown. Over the years, royal land grants, recorded in the pipe roll as terre date entries, reduced the base from which sheriffs could draw revenue. As well as terre date deductions from the county farm, standard grants such as alms to religious houses and statutory payments to individuals were also recorded in this first section. Local expenditure (e.g. on royal castles and houses, such as building works and repairs, or supply of munitions), was authorised by writ to be paid from local funds, and the sum deducted from the county farm payment. Accordingly, this section of the pipe roll can provide information on local government, especially before the Chancery rolls begin.
After the farm, the county account continues with debts carried over from previous years, some under old, often abbreviated, headings. For example, De Oblatis signifies old offerings and fines made by individuals to the crown before the current year repeated annually, with new payments against them being recorded as they were made. Common law eyres and forest eyres, visits by royal justices to dispense justice in the shires, are under headings beginning De Amerciamentis, and which often also give the names of the leading justices. They provide an important source of information for legal historians where specifically legal sources are lacking. The earlier rolls give lists of names of those on whom financial penalties were imposed in the eyres.
Records of taxation in the form of scutage, a commutation of military service, and tallage, a tax on boroughs, towns and royal manors, are also given separate sections. Scutage accounts often list those exempted, and the number of knight's fees for which they were liable, which can provide information on land-holding in the counties. Tallage accounts give the names of the more important inhabitants of towns liable for the tax.
New financial offerings to the crown for favours are also recorded, under the heading Nova Oblata (‘new offerings’), usually at the end of each county account, and are the most recent entries on the roll, often being added after the financial year under review had ended.
Miscellaneous ‘foreign’ accounts, so-called because they were outside the county accounts, were commonly enrolled in the main body of the pipe roll from the early thirteenth century onwards, after the county accounts. They covered lands temporarily in the custody of the crown, vacancies in bishoprics (including the archbishopric of Canterbury), wardrobe accounts and the accounts of royal building projects. They can provide information about a variety of subjects, including prices, estate management and building works.
[Information extracted primarily from The National Archives’ Research Guide: Early Pipe Rolls, 1130-c.1300, Domestic Records Information 31]