The Gascon rolls and the administration of the Plantagenet Empire


A discussion between: Anne Curry (AC), Simon Harris (SH), Philip Morgan (PM), and Guilhem Pépin (GP), August 2015

PM: I think one of the things that has struck me about working with the Gascon Rolls is the challenge that it makes to certain of one’s general assumptions about the nature of administrative records. Both Simon and Guilhem who have spent their time with the detail of the contents. For me it’s the notion that these are essentially enrolments of the English chancery, produced in London, never leaving London, so they’re the records of a remote administration. And they are to that degree English records.

That has created all sorts of problems in terms of their use. They escaped the 19th century passion for calendaring administrative records as part of the view that it was national administration that marked out England as top nation. And they were left to the end, and latterly of course they’ve almost been ignored somewhat by French historians on the grounds, one suspects, that better no records than English records. That’s probably unfair, but I think there’s a certain cruel truth to it.

What’s extraordinary about the rolls is the degree to which they’re concerns are about the enrolment of records produced in Gascony, which come to Westminster. And what’s remarkable is how much of a different view they’ve put on certain well known events. A good example of this is when one looks at the enforcement of the Treaty of Bretigny as it appears on the Gascon Rolls.

When it appears in the roll for 1361-2, its presented almost entirely through the lens of the recently captured port of La Rochelle, so the letters which are enrolled, the concerns which matter, work on the one side to represent the concerns that the town of La Rochelle has, the nature of its previous jurisdiction, and on the English side, a concern not to tread on local loyalties and sympathies. So that the quotation or the citation of the peace at Bretigny is written almost entirely from perspective of those members of La Rochelle who were present at the negotiations, and who came back with a text in which they particularly emphasised the issues which seem to them to threaten their traditional liberties and status.

That’s one example and that sort of thing continues throughout the rolls. One is extraordinarily impressed by the degree to which privy seal or chancery clerks, depending on who is receiving these things, have skills, not merely in what we expected at the beginning of the project, Latin and French, but those occasions when we’ve thought ‘gosh this is not French either, this much be Gascon’. But certainly these documents were enrolled by clerks, who would have had no facility in the Gascon language and who were in that sense just working as very good copyists. It’s extraordinary how accurate their transcriptions of these documents seem to be. It occurred to me, listening to Anne talk about the last phases of the Gascon Rolls where documents from Calais and Normandy are accidentally enrolled on the Gascon Rolls. It’s the loss of this trained administration at Westminster who became accustomed to dealing with a different part of the dominions of the king of England, as duke of Aquitaine.

Are these French archives, are they English archives, are they simply, in one sense therefore local archives that happen to find their way to one jurisdiction or another?


AC: Philip, what do you think? Are they records of Gascony, or are they records of English crown?


PM: I think, the obvious dodge for this is to say they’re both. It is true to a degree that there is what might be called the very predictable routine administrative record of the English crown - the appointment of officers, the transmission of letters of protection. official instruments that deal usually with the patronage also that is being directed to English servants going to Gascony, very many of whom receive the grant of estates, and lands and revenues and rents in Gascony - many of which they’d never see personally, so you must have this whole industry of proctors who are collecting, or attempting to collect revenues in Gascony on behalf of people who will not physically be there.

But on the other hand what is also significant is the enrolment, rather in the way that medieval peasants begin to control manorial courts in their own interest, to have their interests represented in a manorial court. You get the impression in the Gascon Rolls that Gascon communities, or some Gascon communities at least, are able not to manipulate the record but to direct the attention of the king-duke towards their own affairs. I am thinking particularly of the way in which the affairs of Bayonne are constantly reported. If we think about which parts of Gascony are more represented than others in the coverage of the rolls, it’s a predictable and not complete range of the parts of Gascony. Some places seem to have a greater input than do others, and again Bayonne is the case, that comes most to mind. Rather more in some ways than Bordeaux. Bordeaux is the venue where things happen, but it’s less dominant in the record than one might expect from the head lordship of the Duchy.


AC: So essentially the towns and the lords of Gascony are wanting their transactions registered, so to speak?

That’s what we’re seeing. It strikes me that there is a large number of entries for towns in general, like Saint-Emilion for instance. Towns are very keen to have their privileges recorded.

What do you think about this, Guilhem, that there are certain groups, as Philip is suggesting, who are keen to have their business recorded on the Gascon Rolls?


GP: Maybe not recorded on the Gascon Rolls, but recorded by the king’s administration so they didn’t care so much if it was on the Gascon Rolls, or another document. The Gascon Rolls were a record for internal purposes and were useful to check if a grant had been made. But most of the Gascons didn’t have a clue about where the Gascon rolls were kept and were not even aware of their existence. For them the idea was to have a decision analysed by the king and by his court, by the English central administration in order to reinforce the decision or the grant, the grant of an office or the grant of revenues. Westminster probably had in their eyes more power and more prestige than things just confirmed by the seneschal of Aquitaine, or the constable of Bordeaux, or even the lieutenant of the king, because the king was the sovereign. An act confirmed by the king, or the decision of the king was not easily challengeable even if it was wrong sometimes. As you know sometimes we have several grants of the same thing, to two different persons and they are conflicting.


PM: But it’s not just like pushing a note up the chimney for Father Christmas, because we do know that lots of Gascons on occasion are prepared to go to England in order to make those representations! I agree with you that they don’t know where the record ends up, but it’s the act of going to the centre as they see it - the highest power, where the king is. It’s a metropolitan thing so lots of the entries on the Gascon Rolls start with what’s clearly in response to a petition, and it’s a petition in person.


GP: Not all of the petitions to the king were presented in person. There were proctors of course. But sometimes they Gascon plaintiffs came in person at Westminster. In fact, I found, particularly in the rolls from 1380s up to the end that there was a greater integration of western Gascony, I mean from Bordeaux to Bayonne, to the crown of England. In the sense you have more travels, regular travels of Gascons to Westminster and London, and more generally to England. Also, more Englishmen obtained grants of lands and proprieties and revenues in Aquitaine, even if they didn’t live there. And also you have expression of this integration in the vocabulary of the Gascons, for example, we have late entry concerning the community of the town of Saint-Sever (in the Landes) and obviously the vocabulary is coming from a petition of this community. They called themselves true English: ‘We are true English from time immemorial.’ (from Gascon Roll C 61/130, m. 7, entry no. 74).


AC: So essentially what we’re saying here has been said by other historians before, that Gascony is like a county in England, like one of the shires where people might come from, say Derbyshire, with a petition to the chancery in Westminster? Is there really any difference?


SH: Well except that you have a completely different legal and administrative basis.


AC: That seems a big exception.


SH: Well, yes. I’ve come more to think that what we see in the Gascon Rolls is actually more a direction of what the king wants to happen, and that what is really important is how the ministers actually act there. Because we get all these enrolments from actions of the lieutenant and the seneschal, we get a glimpse of what actually was really governing the duchy. It gives us an idea of what we have lost, of all the local documents that these officials would have been creating, which were the real driving force in Aquitaine.


GP: Definitely. With the surviving records, both in the Gascon Rolls and in the other documents including documents kept by chance in French archives, or copies, we discover things we cannot notice in the Gascon Rolls. Just an example I came across, with my own research, with an 18th century copy of a mandate, an order by Henry of Lancaster, earl of Derby before his expedition of 1346 in Poitou. Lancaster sent an order from the town of la Réole to the prévot of Saint-Émilion asking the four nobles of the prevoté of Saint-Émilion to come on a certain day with all their men to La Réole, in order to join the army for the next expedition against the French. Such a military order never appears in the Gascon Rolls or, as far as we know, even in another Anglo-Gascon source in TNA.

This kind of document was not copied normally into the Gascon Rolls because it was just useful at the moment and there was no need at all for it to be sent to Westminster


SH: But it’s curious there are a lot of documents to do with the lieutenancy of Henry of Grossmont, and also of the lieutenant under the last years of Edward III, which all get confirmed in Richard II’s reign. So it seems to be particular lieutenants and at particular times. The other lieutenants are very anonymous


GP: But you have more confirmations of act made by lieutenants than by seneschals. Because lieutenants where like viceroys, with large powers and higher prestige, and so the people tended to ask them things they would normally ask a king.


AC: That would be a good research topic in the future for someone to look in more detail at seneschals and lieutenants and also to compare the powers given to those people. I was fascinated by them in the 15th century, because some of them seem to be the model for the lieutenants appointed in Normandy when Henry V conquered that area. Maybe we should also link to the powers of the lieutenant in Ireland. I think there that would be a good way of looking at how Gascony is integrated by seeing the sort of interplay with other powers for other lieutenancies elsewhere in the Plantagenet dominions. After all before the Treaty of Troyes and the conquest of Normandy by Henry V, Aquitaine was the main position of the king of England on the continent.

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