1. The Fine Rolls and The National Archives

Sean Cunningham is a Medieval Records Specialist at The National Archives, Kew, and a member of the FRH3 project management team. In a speech made at the project launch on 24 November 2010 he outlines the partnership between archivists and reprographics experts at TNA and historians and digitial humanities specialists at KCL.

The goal of making the public records available to all is something that has exercised my predecessors and former colleagues for more than two centuries.

Even before this building [the Rolls Chapel of the former Public Record Office, Chancery Lane] was created in the 1830s to house the archives of crown and government, archivists and historians had cooperated using the latest technology to ensure that the nation’s written heritage was presented in an accessible form.

We might look to the 1863 zincograph edition of Domesday Book, photographed by the Ordnance Survey, as one of the best examples of how technical ingenuity served the need of researchers. The Fine Rolls of Henry III project has inherited this pioneering spirit as it matches the very latest technology for the presentation of digital document images, with a comprehensive search engine, backed up by the expertise of leading historians and archivists.

The National Archives was delighted to have the opportunity to work with King’s College and the Centre for Computing in the Humanities to present the fine rolls in an innovative way. The Archives had already made some strides in presenting early records, such as wills and ancient petitions, digitally on our Documents Online website. However, the project proposed by King’s took this to another level.

Crystal clear images allowed greater scrutiny of the parchment membranes than was the case with the original documents; direct translations overcame difficulties interpreting handwriting and language; and the index and search facilities allowed the contents of the rolls to be cross-referenced and interrogated in a way that is far more difficult using a printed resource.

David Crook and Aidan Lawes made our earliest contribution to the establishment of the project, but it was the provision of document scans by the late Christian Potter of the Reprographics department that set the benchmark for the images – something now adopted by other partnership projects.

The National Archives continues to be involved in the project coordination team, in the International Advisory Committee, and in the Knowledge Transfer Advisory Group. This last group is exploring ways in which the full potential of fine rolls can be developed to serve all kinds of academic, local and family research. It is trying to tap into the level of engagement and interest in early records and early history that was apparent in Michael Wood’s current programme The Story of England. As you will hear shortly from my colleagues on the project, the fine rolls of Henry III are now perhaps the most useable of all medieval government records. We hope that the innovations in access developed by this project will lead to other fruitful partnerships between The National Archives and academic community in future.