Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland
Gold Seam

Delving Deeper

These pages provide detailed descriptions of the documents in the Gold Seam, together with historical background and archival context. The information here is aimed at all researchers who want to delve deeper into these fascinating collections.

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  • Historical Background
  • Browsing CIRCLE
  • Editorial Conventions
  • The Translation

Historical Background

Among the most important records destroyed in the explosion of the Public Record Office at the Four Courts were the rolls of the medieval Irish chancery, the secretariat of the kings of England, 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 onto long rolls of parchment known as ‘chancery rolls’. 

The Irish chancery was the office of the ‘great seal of the king used in Ireland’. In other words, it was the king’s writing office or ‘secretariat’. The business of chancery touched on every aspect of English power in medieval Ireland. The chancery rolls are, therefore, one of the most important record sources for understanding Ireland in the later Middle Ages. 

Four Courts

CIRCLE 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. The letters are extraordinarily rich and varied in their contents. 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.

Jump to section
  • Historical Background
  • Browsing CIRCLE
  • Editorial Conventions
  • The Translation

Browsing CIRCLE

CIRCLE is organised by the reigns of the English monarchs who ruled as ‘lords of Ireland’ in the later Middle Ages:

  • Henry III 
  • Edward I
  • Edward II
  • Edward III
  • Richard II
  • Henry IV
  • Henry V
  • Henry VI
  • Edward IV
  • Henry VII

When you browse CIRCLE, each reign is subdivided into ‘regnal years’ —  a method of dating documents in the Middle Ages. The ‘regnal year’ began on the day of the king’s accession to the throne. For instance, the first ‘regnal year’ of King Edward I began on 20 November 1272 and lasted until 19 November 1273: by convention the regnal year is given in the format ‘1 Edward I’ in the documents below. The second regnal year of this king (‘2 Edward I’) began on 20 November 1273. 

Within each regnal year you will see two series of letters called ‘Patent Letters’ and ‘Close Letters’. 

  • ‘Patent’ letters were literally open (or ‘patent’), announcing to all persons to whom the letters should come that the king had made a grant or appointment, or transacted some other business. 
  • ‘Close’ letters by contrast were literally closed. They were sealed with wax, which had to be broken to open the letter. Letters close were addressed to a specific individual or individuals, named in the first clause of the letter. 

Within each series, the letters are arranged in the same order in which they appeared on the original chancery rolls, whenever this information is available. When we are not certain of the order of the chancery rolls, the letters appear in chronological order. 

The sources used in CIRCLE vary greatly in quality and in the way they render the language of the original chancery letters. The few surviving original writs, facsimiles and antiquarian transcripts provide full and accurate samples of chancery practice and formulae. Other calendars and ‘notices’ of letters are extremely abbreviated and often in archaic English. RCH is relatively accurate but it typically renders the letters in the third person (sometimes in the perfect tense, sometimes the present) and the text is much abbreviated. 


Editorial Conventions

The language used by the Irish chancery was highly formulaic. Editorial Conventions available here (LINK) explain how these formulae and standard phrases are translated in CIRCLE. It begins with the opening and closing protocols (the diplomatic formulae used to open and close chancery letters), attestation and dating clauses, and other formulae. The next section (‘Standard Phrases’) lists a range of standard translations used for frequently-occurring phrases. The final section (‘Other conventions’) gives the conventions for translating for offices, titles, family names, place-names (especially larger settlements), dioceses and monastic houses. These names have been standardized in CIRCLE because they occur so frequently in the letters.


The Translation

The conventions outlined in this section are intended to ensure consistency during the translation and editing of the letters.


The original chancery letters were composed in the name of the king in the first person plural (the ‘royal we’). RCH normally renders these letters in the third person singular. CIRCLE likewise uses the third person, but where possible also employs a neutral CIRCLE register, placing the operative word in capital letters, as follows:

Assignavimus Rex assignavit APPOINTMENT of
Concessimus Rex concessit GRANT to 

The injunctive is often used in chancery letters. In CIRCLE, commands in the form capias, teneas, facias and so on are normally rendered in the third person as ‘he is to take’, ‘he is to hold’, or ‘he is to cause’, or often simply as ‘ORDER to take’, ‘ORDER to hold’, or ‘ORDER to cause’.

Extended constructions

Writs with preambles containing the details of petitions or recitals of previous chancery letters are often extremely cumbersome. In general, CIRCLE prefers a briefer construction. Such letters are restructured and, where appropriate, cut into shorter sentences (although no substantive information is omitted). 

To take a typical example from RCH: letters issued in response to petitions or inquisitions are rendered with an ‘accusative + infinitive’ construction. CIRCLE employs the indicative and often breaks the construction into two sentences, as follows: 

  • Rex (recitando se accepisse per inquisitionem …) mandavit vicecomiti Loethe = ‘The king has learned by inquisition that … ORDER to the sheriff of Louth …’

CIRCLE uses a number of other conventions to ensure concision. One of these is abbreviations (listed below). 

Dictus is omitted from the translation where the sense remains clear without it; predictus and prefatus are normally translated as ‘the said’, not ‘the aforesaid’.

The definite/indefinite article is omitted where possible, especially in reference to office-holders, administrative units and periods of time:

  • ‘the sheriff of co. Connacht’ not ‘the sheriff of the county of Connacht’
  •  ‘X, K.’s  pleader’ not ‘X, the king’s pleader’
  •  ‘his fee for a quarter year’ not ‘his fee for a quarter of a year’.

In dates reckoned by reference to an ecclesiastical feast, the phrase ad festum (or in festo) is normally omitted and CIRCLE seeks to render the formula as concisely as possible, as in the following examples:

  • die lune proxima post festum Cinerum proximo preteritum = ‘on the next Monday after Ash Wednesday’
  • die iovis proxima post festum Epiphanie Domini proximo preteritum 

= ‘on the Thursday after Epiphany’

Archaic language and technical terms

Archaic language is generally avoided if there is an acceptable modern alternative. Thus:

  • ‘widow’ not ‘relict’
  • ‘reason’ not ‘pretext’
  • ‘various’ not ‘diverse’
  • ‘crosslands’ not ‘county of the cross’
  • ‘All Saints’ not ‘All Hallows’ (e.g. the ‘priory of All Saints, near Dublin’)
  • ‘eve’ not ‘vigil’ (although ‘morrow’ is retained for in crastino)

Among those technical terms that are retained, the most common concern legal actions or tenure, e.g. ‘writ of liberate’, ‘writ of certiorari’, ‘writ of amoveas manum’, seisin, mainpernor, mainprise, recognizance, purparty.

Editorial Interventions

All editorial interventions are placed in square brackets. This includes ‘et cetera’, which frequently appears in RCH as ‘&c.’. This is shown in CIRCLE as [etc.]. 

Uncertain readings are preceded by a question mark in square brackets, without a space between the word and the opening bracket: ‘[?]sumpters’. 

Gaps in the text are indicated by ellipses within square brackets: ‘[…]’.

Special cases to note

When more than one letter in a sequence is issued on the same date, RCH often gives the date simply as ut supra. Although this may reflect chancery practice, CIRCLE replaces this with the modernized date to make each individual letter complete in itself.

Where RCH combines two related letters in a single entry but only dates the first, CIRCLE assumes that the second letter was issued on the same date. An example would be [Letter §1] an appointment to the constableship of a castle, followed by [Letter §2] a mandate ordering the previous incumbent to release all things pertaining to that office to the new constable. A footnote to Letter §2 in this case will record that the date has been assumed from its relationship to Letter §1. In cases of doubt, the second letter is marked ‘no date’, although the relationship to the foregoing letter is still recorded.


Numbers one to twelve are normally spelled out. Numbers 13 to 99 use numerals. However, lists should always use numerals, as with ‘1 mill, 1 carucate of land, 2 weirs, 8 acres of pasture, 8 acres of wood’ etc. All figures above one hundred use numerals, with a comma after four digits (e.g. 12,500). 

Sums of money are given in the form £4 13s 4d.  ‘Mark(s)’ is abbreviated to ‘m’ (e.g. 10m) and never converted to £ s d

Naming practices
The king

CIRCLE normally abbreviates the phrase ‘the lord king’ to ‘the K.’. References to former kings as ‘our [his] father’, ‘our [his] grandfather’ etc., are converted to (e.g.) ‘Edward I’, ‘Edward III’. Thus, in a letter of Richard II, the phrase ‘by letters patent of our grandfather’, becomes ‘by letters patent of Edward III’.


Standard Latin Christian names are extended and translated to the closest English equivalent:

  • Henricus = Henry [not ‘Harry’]
  • Matildis = Matilda [not ‘Maud’]
  • Petrus = Peter [not ‘Piers’, except for Piers Gaveston]
  • Radulphus = Ralph
  • Reginaldus = Reginald
  • Robertus = Robert [not ‘Robin’] etc. 
  • Jacobus = James. 

Unusual Christian names are given as they appear in the sources, although without the Latin case ending (e.g. Fromundus = ‘Fromund’; Almaricus = ‘Almaric’). However the ending is normally retained when the chancery gives a Latinate form of a Gaelic name, e.g. Arthurus = ‘Art’; Donaldus = ‘Domhnall’. In cases of doubt, the Gaelic forename is left in suspension, e.g. Comar’ McComarre.


In most of the period covered by CIRCLE, toponymics appear to be genuine surnames. Owing to the erratic way these names are rendered in RCH and other sources, CIRCLE drops ‘de’ in most instances, and never converts it to ‘of’’. A case such as Ricardus de Burgo de Conn’ is given as ‘Richard Burgh of Connacht’.

The toponymic are spelled as they appear in the original and not normally modernized to match the modern place-name.

  • Willielmus de Karlell = ‘William Karlell’ [not ‘William de Carlisle’ or ‘William of Carlisle’]. 
Occupational surnames

These are translated into English where they appear in Latin (e.g., Pistor = Baker). Where they appear in French or English they are left in this form:

  • Johannes le Carpenter = John le Carpenter
  • Rogerus Draper = Roger Draper. 

An exception is le Botiller, which is given as ‘Butler’.


Names in the form ‘X filius Y’ are always given in the form ‘X s. of Y’ [i.e. X son of Y], unless the source clearly endorses the use of ‘fitz’. So 

  • Johannes filius Willielmi = John son of William
  • Johannes fitz Nichol’, miles 1 = John fitz Nicholas kt.

In the latter case, no attempt is made to pre-empt the distinction between a genuine patronymic (‘fitz Gerald’) and surname (‘FitzGerald’) by spacing and capitalization. Rather the form closest to the original sources is retained.


Where lineages are referred to by a collective name (e.g., lez Burkeyns), the name is rendered as in the original but indexed by the modern standard (e.g., Burgh).

 Gaelic names

Gaelic names (e.g. Nell Onell) are rendered as they appear in the original but indexed under the standard Anglicized form of the name. RCH occasionally inserts an apostrophe (e.g. O’Nell, O’Railhan etc.): names in that form are rendered as O Nell, O Railhan etc. The final indexes will include cross-references from the Irish forms of the names.

Standard usage

In cases of doubt, the guiding principle is to render family names as they appear in the original. However, this rule is broken for the most common English names, which CIRCLE regularizes to match the form that has entered common usage. This is especially common with:

Aristocratic titles

  • in Ireland (e.g.), the earls of Desmond, Ormond, Carrick, March etc.
  • in England (e.g.), earl of Wiltshire, duke of Clarence, duke of Aumale, Lord Furnival etc.

Family names (especially in Latinate forms), e.g.

  • de Mortuo Mari = Mortimer 
  • de Bello Campo = Beauchamp
  • de Burgo = Burgh 

CIRCLE modernizes the names of large towns, counties, liberties, dioceses, and prominent manors and castles in Ireland. Cantreds (or baronies), parishes and townlands in Ireland are not normally modernized. This applies also to the bailiwicks (later ‘counties’) of the earldom of Ulster. CIRCLE modernizes other insular and continental place-names where the identification is certain. 

Jump to section
  • Historical Background
  • Browsing CIRCLE
  • Editorial Conventions
  • The Translation
  • 1

    RCH, 90, §132.