Thousands of Irish Medieval Documents now available online

Moleiro banner

Trinity College Dublin historians have reconstructed invaluable medieval documents destroyed during the bombardment of the Four Courts in 1922. The Four Courts was the home of the Public Record Office, which was catastrophically destroyed when it was bombed in the conflict between pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty forces at the start of the Irish Civil War. It was previously thought that the entire medieval archive had been destroyed, but forty years’ work by a team of researchers at Trinity has led to the reconstruction of more than 20,000 hugely important government documents produced by the medieval chancery of Ireland. From today, the Irish chancery letters are available again in a new publicly accessible and free internet resource known as CIRCLE: A Calendar of Irish Chancery Letters, c.1244–1509.

Commenting on the significance of the project, TCD Provost, Dr Patrick Prendergast, said:“This digitisation resource involving four decades of research by Trinity historians is a triumph of historical detective work that will revolutionise our understanding of Irish medieval history. The CIRCLE resource will stimulate important new research on late medieval Irish politics, society and the economy. The material will also prove invaluable for Irish families nationally and internationally interested in tracing their roots back to the Middle Ages.”

When the Four Courts was bombed on June 30th,, 1922, it was a tragedy for Ireland because it began the country’s slide into bloody Civil War. But it was also a tragedy for the wider world because the explosion totally destroyed the Public Record Office. Among the most important records destroyed in the explosion at the Four Courts were the rolls of the medieval Irish chancery. This was the secretariat of the government of Ireland, established shortly after the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169. The chancery was responsible for issuing letters in the king’s name under the great seal of Ireland. Copies of many of these outgoing letters were transcribed by the medieval chancery clerks on to long rolls of parchment known as ‘chancery rolls’. All the original Irish chancery rolls were destroyed in the Four Courts blaze.

Forty years ago, a team of historians based in Trinity College began a massive project to try and reconstruct this historical treasure-trove which many feared had been lost forever. Their research has led to the creation of CIRCLE. “It is by far the largest collection of new records to do with medieval Ireland to be made available in a generation,” said Professor of Medieval Irish History, Seán Duffy, at Trinity’s Department of History.

CIRCLE: A Calendar of Irish Chancery Letters, c.1244–1509 is a reconstruction of these lost chancery rolls based on substitute sources located in various repositories in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, England and the USA.

Many of these substitute sources are found in England because the Dublin administration in the late middle Ages was closely supervised by its ‘mother’ administration at Westminster. Documents constantly criss-crossed the Irish Sea as the king issued instructions to his ministers at Dublin, who in turn transmitted reports to Westminster for the king’s inspection, or presented copies of chancery letters to back up the audit of the accounts of the Irish treasurer. As a result of this bureaucratic to-ing and fro-ing, copies of Irish chancery letters survive in abundance in the National Archives of the United Kingdom (Kew). Equally important are transcripts and calendars made by Irish antiquarians such as Sir James Ware (d. 1666) or his continuator Sir Walter Harris (d.1761), who were indefatigable in their pursuit of record sources for medieval Irish history. The CIRCLE website translates all these sources into English from their originals in Latin.

“The letters are extraordinarily rich and varied in their contents”, said Dr Peter Crooks, Principal Editor of CIRCLE: “These letters should become a staple for historical researchers of all kinds: political historians, historians of society, economy, settlement and gender, as well as genealogists, historical geographers and archaeologists.”

The CIRCLE website includes appointments to high office, grants of lands and charters to towns. The letters enable us to trace the descent of landed estates and the lineages of families. They document armies on the march, prisoners being ransomed, castles being razed. They reveal the interactions between the Dublin government and Gaelic chiefs—including an order to the treasurer to pay £100 to the lord of Tethmoy as a reward for presenting the government with the severed heads of over 16 Gaelic lords from the O’Conor Faly dynasty. Merchants seek licences to trade with Prussia, Portugal, Brittany, Gascony and Spain. Men and women of Gaelic origin—normally excluded from the benefits of English law—purchase letters granting them liberty from their ‘Irish servitude’. Individual letters offer micro-histories in themselves. We find the countess of Kildare complaining to the king that reports of her death are greatly exaggerated. Even the great seal of Ireland has its adventures: after it went missing in 1442 it turned up in the possession of a friar who claimed it had been handed in during confession.

The CIRCLE website also provides access to an unparalleled collection of digital images of original Irish chancery letters. The image collection is made of original letters—that is, the actual letters that were issued by the chancery as opposed to the ‘enrolment’ which is the copy of the same letter on the chancery roll. These originals were not destroyed in 1922 because they were held in other archives, for instance in the collection of Ormond deeds now housed in the National Library of Ireland, the Pembroke Estate Papers held by the National Archives of Ireland, and the charter collection of the city of Dublin held by Dublin City Archives.

This digital collection of manuscript sources is intended to become a standard teaching aid for students of palaeography (old handwriting) and sigillography (the study of the wax seals used to authenticate documents), and this in turn should stimulate further archival work on late medieval Irish sources.

CIRCLE represents the culmination of nearly four decades of work at TCD on reconstructing what was lost in the 1922 disaster. The Irish Chancery Project was originally founded in the mid-1970s by the late Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven, Lecky professor of History at Trinity (1951–1980). The current phase of the project began in 2008 with funding of €285,000 from the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences when Dr Peter Crooks and Dr Katharine Simms of Trinity’s Department of History collaborated to produce this newly launched internet-based resource CIRCLE: A Calendar of Irish Chancery Letters, c.1244–1509.

The CIRCLE database of chancery letters was designed by Eneclann Ltd, and the final website was built by Annertech Ltd and the Trinity College Research Computing unit, led by Senior Computer Scientist Dr Darach Golden.

In addition to the online CIRCLE resource, a three-volume print edition will be published by the Irish Manuscripts Commission.

Click here to visit the CIRCLE: A Calendar of Irish Chancery Letters, c.1244–1509

Source: Trinity College Dublin

Sharan Newman