Tag Archives: plea rolls

The Art of Law: update

An area in which many legal historians have become increasingly interested in recent years is the visual composition of legal records. I gave a paper on this at the British Legal History Conference in 2013 (http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_282282_en.pdf ), highlighting the need to integrate the images from the Common Pleas rolls into the King’s Bench-dominated view acquired from Erna Auerbach’s work, and have also made some comments on visual material in this blog (http://vifgage.blogs.ilrt.org/2013/04/07/p-is-for-profile-henry-viii-in-the-rolls-of-the-common-pleas/ ). In a 2015 blog post, I noted the appearance of a thought-provoking study of the visual material in the CP rolls in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: Elizabeth A Danbury and Kathleen L Scott, ‘The Plea Rolls of the Court of Common Pleas: an unused source for the art and history of later medieval England. 1422-1509’. The Antiquaries Journal, 95  (2015), 157-210. This looks at the rise of decoration and illustration in the CP rolls in this period, and explores the iconography of the images and the meanings of words and mottoes associated with them. There is much of interest in the identification of particular kings and other characters, and the discussion of the way in which particular images fit in with contemporary political events. I am also intrigued by the mysterious popularity of dragons in these records. Helpfully, there are several good-quality photographs of key images.

Medieval historians are naturally drawn to the political ramifications of the images. I think that legal historians can and should also consider the implications of the illustration and decoration which relates to the image or self-image of particular courts. Auerbach’s work saw the inclusion of loyal, royal pictures in the KB rolls as something which flowed from the particular connection of the monarch with that court. Noting that the CP also included such images makes that conclusion less secure. There is also the issue of the inclusion of decoration and mottoes associated with the names of judges, which deserves some consideration in connection with the image they were trying to project. Finally, there is the intriguing issue of the expected ‘consumers’ of these images: who would have seen them? Did our ‘clerk-illustrators’ imagine that they were drawing only for their immediate colleagues and contemporaries, or for posterity?



Going back to all this for another project, it seems to me that there is still a lot to explore here. In particular, I was intrigued at the illustrations at the foot of one late 15th C roll, associated with the name Forster. A couple of the illustrations have come up in recent tweets and on the cover of a recent book, but there is room for a study on ‘the Forster hand’ and its illustrations – ranging from a female tavern worker, to a woman clubbing a man, to a self-harming chimera, a rosary, a heron/crane gobbling a snake/eel, and fish (with nostrils) – all in CP 40/840 – Common Pleas roll for Michaelmas 1471. definitely going to pursue this character through some other rolls.

Gwen Seabourne


Mary I Biography, iconography

Just finished reading Anna Whitelock’s Mary Tudor: England’s first queen. A very well written book, walking the very difficult tightrope between academia and popularity. Still find it very hard to get to grips with Mary I as a person, but this probably does as much as can be done in the way of humanising her. A couple of points to think about in terms of legal history, in terms of constitutional law in the (novel) situation of a queen regnant, and then the ramifications of a the doctrine of unity of persons in the context of a married queen.

Recently, I have been studying plea rolls for illustrations (serious and humorous). My ‘patch’ is the medieval rolls, but I have enjoyed having a look at some of the depictions of Mary (alone and with Philip) on the first membrane of legal rolls. These range from the cartoonish (CP 40/1170 m.1 – cartoonish profile) to the lavish, coloured and gold-blinged (see, e.g. KB 27/1172 – also featuring Philip with a rather phallic symbolish sword). Most of the KB 27 images are standardised, those at the beginning of the reign bearing close resemblance to those of Edward VI. Like her brother, who, until  his very last roll, (KB 27/1167 m.1) was not depicted with a state sword, Mary generally holds the less masculine orb and sceptre.Her first roll, KB 27/1168 (1553), however, shows her with a sword. Perhaps this appeared fitting, given her then-recent heroic efforts to gain her crown. She also has a sword in KB 27/1188 – her very last roll, in 1558, in which, intriguingly, Philip is not depicted.  On all other occasions after their marriage, Philip has the sword.

One can imagine that a lot of thought went into just how to portray Mary and her husband without giving offence to either in terms of precedence. At first, Philip is on the right, the dominant side, as on the coins which were circulated,  though positions are switched from KB 27/1180 m.1 (Michaelmas 1556) onwards – an interesting change which it is tempting to tie to an abandonment of hope for an heir and Philip’s absence from his wife (note though that his reappearance in 1557 did not change the positions).  The spouses are usually shown looking at each other, though never very happily. Mary, in fact, comes closest to looking happy in the triumphant first membrane of KB 27/1168 (1553) – which has a beautiful colour picture of her with angels and a dove.

Those responsible for decorating the Marian KB 27 rolls show none of the medieval humour – we look in vain for grotesques and chimeras. There is a touch of subversive fun on some Common Pleas rolls – e.g. CP 40/1170 m.1 has a cartoon profile of the queen, and there is a splendid demonic creature on CP 40/1174 m.1, but, generally, it looks as if the mood of the times was not conducive to visual wit and humour.