The Master of the Rolls is, in the British pantomime tradition, the palace cook. In the British legal system, he (no female has held the appointment so far) is slightly more important than that. The first record of a Master of the Rolls is from 1286, when he seems to have been a clerk whose job it was to look after the rolls of parchment which recorded the decisions of the Royal Court of Chancery. Various evolutions which increased his legal role and influence over the centuries have led to the title now being that of the second most senior judge of England and Wales.
Until 1958, there was still a link to the medieval clerical function, in that the Master of the Rolls was also (nominally at any rate) the head of the Public Record Office, and it is with that role that we are concerned today. Sir John Romilly (1802–74) was the son of Sir Samuel Romilly (1757–1818), who was in turn the son of Peter (1712–84), the son of Etienne, a Huguenot refugee. Speaking as a descendant of the fall-out of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes myself, I’m always pleased to see such a family make good, and in this case they really did: Etienne had been a minor landowner and merchant near Montpellier: in exile he was (according to the ODNB) an unsuccessful wax-bleacher(?) in Hoxton (somewhat before it became a fashionable area). Peter became a successful jeweller. His son Samuel went to school until he was fourteen, and subsequently educated himself while working in the family business, to such effect that he was articled to one of the Six Clerks of the Chancery and later read for the Bar. A radical in politics, he rejected the usual path to advancement – the patronage of an aristocrat with a few boroughs in his pocket – and maintained an independent stance which probably held him back from the highest office. He died tragically in 1818, committing suicide four days after the death of his beloved wife.
His second son, John, was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, just days before the deaths of his parents. He followed his father into the legal/political world, working at the chancery bar, becoming an M.P., involving himself in the plans for the reform of the court, and being appointed Master of the Rolls in 1851. The delays and inefficiency of the court of chancery were legendary, and it was at precisely this time that Dickens was writing Bleak House, his excoriating description of the devastation wrought by the incompetence and indifference of the administrators of the law, which began to appear in serial form in March 1852. Romilly was famous for the speed and dispatch with which he treated cases, but he was also deeply interested in the part of his job which involved the archival legacy. He enlarged the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, incorporated the State Papers Office into it (thus making this material freely available to scholars) and proposed the programme of publication which is now known as the Rolls Series.
‘The Rolls Series’ is the short title: the long one is ‘The Chronicles and Memorials of Great Britain and Ireland during the Middle Ages’. What Romilly planned was the systematic publication of scholarly editions of the most important medieval manuscripts relating to the history of Great Britain and Ireland. The first volumes were published in 1858, and the series was completed in 1896, finally consisting of 106 titles in 253 volumes. The editors included some of the most distinguished historians of the period, including William Stubbs, the great medievalist and bishop of Oxford, H.R. Luard of Cambridge, J.E.B. Mayor, equally well known as a classical scholar, and J.S. Brewer, who also edited at Romilly’s behest the Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII (coming soon!).
The criteria for inclusion were very wide. As well as famous histories such as those of Matthew Paris and Gerald of Wales, the series includes an Icelandic life of Thomas Becket (which includes the fascinating detail that he stammered), edited by Eiríkr Magnússon, the friend and collaborator of William Morris, Old Irish documents including a life of St Patrick, and Old French chronicles. (As was normal at the period, the French and Irish texts are translated, but it is assumed that the reader will be OK with Latin.)
There is a three-volume compilation of Anglo-Saxon medical and astrological advice, Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England, Being a Collection of Documents Illustrating the History of Science in this Country before the Norman Conquest. There are multi-volume yearbooks of Edward I and Edward III, verse histories, and chronicles of individual abbeys, as well as the lives of saints, and collections of charters, and of political poems and songs. Each title has a historical and contextual introductory essay, and sidenotes summarise the content, though there are very few explanatory notes: this is serious material for serious scholars. Most of it has stood the test of time: with a few exceptions, these are still the editions of record. And since 15 November, you can buy all of them as Cambridge Library Collection reissues. For the complete listing, see www.cambridge.org/clcrolls, and salute both the historical-mindedness of Sir John Romilly and the public-spiritedness of a Treasury and government which agreed, with remarkable speed and enthusiasm, to fund a purely scholarly enterprise which was not going to make any obvious ‘impact’ or ‘major contribution to economic prosperity’.