THE MANUSCRIPTS OF THE CORPORATION OF COVENTRY (Second Report).
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
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
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.