The corporation of Coventry: Introduction

Pages 101-103

The Manuscripts of Shrewsbury and Coventry Corporations [Etc] Fourth Report, Appendix: Part X. Originally published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London, 1899.

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At the outset of their labours in 1869, Her Majesty's Commissioners on Historical Manuscripts directed the late Mr. Henry Thomas Riley to repair to Coventry, and inspect and report upon the ancient writings of the Corporation of that City,—an order that resulted in the brief account of the Coventry Records, which was offered to students in the Appendix to the Commissioners' First Report in February 1870. As this sketch of an exceptionally numerous collection of historical muniments occupies no more than three columns of the Appendix, it is not surprising that, after a lapse of more than a quarter of a century, it has seemed right to Her Majesty's present Commissioners on Historical MSS. to issue a second and more adequate account of the several thousands of writings which Mr. Riley dealt with in so cursory a manner.

It must not, however, be assumed that Mr. Riley, who did so much good work in the service of the Historical MSS. Commissioners, is in any degree blameworthy for the inadequacy of his account of the Coventry muniments. At a time when the operations of the Commissioners were necessarily experimental and tentative, and when it was thought desirable that no long time should elapse between the creation of the Commissioners' powers and the publication of their First Report, Mr. Riley was instructed to examine the muniments belonging to the Corporations of Abingdon, Bridgwater, Cambridge, Coventry, Glastonbury, Norwich, Nottingham, Wells, York, and Christ's Hospital at Abingdon, and to send in reports on all these ten collections of muniments in time for their publication in the Appendix to the Commissioners' First Report. He was at the same time required to inspect the muniments of Christ's College, King's, Pembroke, Queen's, St. John's, St. Peter's, and Trinity in the University of Cambridge, the Bishop's Registry at Norwich, the Bishop's Registry at Wells, the munimentroom of the Dean and Chapter of Norwich, the muniment-room of the Dean and Chapter of Wells, and the muniment-room of the Dean and Chapter of York, and to furnish a written account of each of these twelve bodies of muniments so that it should appear in the same Appendix. It may be observed that the Letters under Her Majesty's sign-manual, which created the first Historical MSS. Commission were dated on 2nd April 1869, and that the Commissioners' First Report was dated on the 26th February 1870. It was, therefore, of course, understood, alike by the Inspector and by the Commissioners who required him to examine and report upon twenty-two different collections of muniments in the course of a few months, that his examination of each collection should be superficial and that his report upon it should be brief. In fact, in this opening stage of the operations of the Commission, it was intended that, instead of being lengthy and particular summaries for the satisfaction of historical inquirers, the reports by the inspectors should be such mere memoirs as would afford a general view of the muniments lying in different parts of the country, and enable the Commissioners to see which of the many collections of ancient writings were most deserving of their consideration.

At the time of Mr. Riley's visit to Coventry, in 1869, something had been done for modifying the extreme confusion and disorder in which the multifarious archives of the Corporation were lying at the opening of the present century. Some thirty-six years had passed since Mr. Thomas Sharp and Mr. George Eld, two local antiquaries of more than ordinary intelligence and culture, had selected a considerable number of letters and other writings from an enormous and disorderly accumulation of archives (beginning with Queen Isabel's epistle to the Mayor and Bailiffs of Coventry temp. Edward III.), and had arranged them chronologically in two large folio volumes, which afforded to the Inspector the most important information in his report. Later antiquaries had gathered and bound into similar volumes a considerable proportion of the old Bills, Sacrament-Certificates, and miscellaneous papers, out of the piles of the less interesting writinga. But though something had been done, and much was being done under the supervision of Mr. William Browett the elder, the then Town Clerk of Coventry, to lessen the confusion of the records, the main body of them was still in such disorder that Mr. Riley was quick to see that to give eveu a general view of so vast a collection it would be needful to spend twice as many weeks as circumstances would permit to spend days in the munimentrooms of St. Mary's Hall. After giving a few particulars of the principal volumes he added at the conclusion of his report, "The Corporation is also in possession of charters and deeds, probably many hundreds in number, from the 12th century downwards." The "many hundreds" have, however, been found on recent and more deliberate examination to amount to no less than six thousand three hundred and forty-nine.

Like the muniments of Chester, Southampton, Ipswich, and King's Lynn, the Coventry muniments comprise writings that distinguish them from other collections of Corporation MSS. which the present reporter has examined in the service of Her Majesty's Commissioners. From the time of Edward III. to the period of the Reformation Coventry was remarkable for the wealth and importance of its Guilds and the number of its Chantries. By two grants made in the reigns of Henry VIII. and Edward VI., negotiated for the advantage of the municipality by Sir Thomas White, the greater part of the lands, rents, and other property of these Guilds and Chantries passed into the hands of the Corporation of the City, and together with the lands and rents there passed also a large proportion of the records that related to them. Moreover, on the suppression of the ancient Priory and the demolition of the superb Cathedral Church of St. Mary of Coventry, many of the writings belonging to them, of like character as evidences of more property, were transferred to the Mayor and Citizens of Coventry, instead of being carried away with the main body of the archives to the Court of Augmentations. Hence in these accumulated writings, the Corporation possesses much that distinguishes these civic muniments from most, if not all, other municipal archives.

For giving a view of their character it will be convenient to deal with them in the following groups:—

(a.) Books, to the number of 188 volumes.

(b.) Charters, Letters Patent under the Privy Seal or Signet, with or without the Sign Manual, and Indentures granted by Sovereigns, to the number of 89 writings.

(c.) Deeds, to wit, Grants in frankalmoigne, Quitclaims, Leases, Agreements, Awards of Arbitrators, Testaments, Bonds, Powers of Attorney, &c., &c., to the number of 6,265 writings.

(d.) Exemplifications of Curial Records, Writs of special interest, and Letters of Commission, not being Letters Patent, to the number of 10 writings.

(e.) Rolls and Files, to the number of 18 sets.

(f.) Miscellaneous papers, put away in 30 packets.

To afford an adequate notion of the total number comprised in these groups, it may be stated that a single file put together in the present century holds no less than 118 Statute Merchant Rolls, and that several of the packets of Miscellaneous Papers contain in each packet from 50 to 100 separate instruments. Account being taken of those that have been thus gathered together and bound into volumes, or made into rolls or files, or put away in packets, the separate documents may be computed as numbering altogether about eleven thousand.