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The overall system

The pipe rolls did not stand alone, but were part of a system for recording and checking income and expenditure, which became increasingly elaborate. Little survives from the twelfth century, apart from the pipe rolls themselves, but from the reign of Henry III onwards we have a mass of documents concerning finance produced by the Exchequer and by other arms of government. Many of these documents can be seen as preliminary records, feeding into the production of the pipe rolls.

It may therefore be helpful to provide a quick description of the major flows of written information to and from the Exchequer, beginning with the collection of cash. The Chancery was the office dealing with royal correspondence, among other things. It accompanied the king on his travels (unlike the Exchequer, which nearly always remained at its base in Westminster). The Chancery recorded offers of cash, in the form of fines, in its fine rolls; these fines were copied onto the originalia rolls, together with other useful information such as notes of the appointment of officials; the originalia rolls were then sent to the Exchequer. Similarly, the various law courts recorded their decisions in plea rolls, and notes of the amercements imposed were then made in the estreat rolls, also sent to the Exchequer. The Exchequer sorted this information by county, and copied lists of debts to be collected into summonses, sent to the appropriate sheriffs. The debts were also copied into the pipe roll for the year, at the end of each county's account in the section headed Nova oblata. The sheriffs collected the debts in the counties, issuing wooden tally sticks as receipts. The sheriffs delivered the cash to the Treasury, and these payments, and other amounts of cash delivered, were recorded on the receipt rolls. After the audit procedure, full or partial payment of outstanding debts was duly recorded in the pipe roll.

The sheriffs were expected to come to the Exchequer at the beginning of the Michaelmas and Easter terms, an event known as the adventus. The payments they made at the adventus were noted in the memoranda roll. The memoranda roll also recorded the dates set for auditing sheriffs' accounts and listed the actions to be taken on debts in each county.

Further rolls were needed to cover the expenditure of cash. The Chancery sent writs to the Exchequer, instructing it to make payments. These were recorded in two sets of liberate rolls, in the Chancery when they were sent and in the Exchequer when they were received. When a cash payment was made from the Treasury, it was noted in the issue roll. Local officials, such as sheriffs, could also be instructed to pay out cash, for example to buy supplies or to make religious or charitable donations. The Exchequer was again informed of these instructions, noted in the liberate roll, so that it could make the appropriate allowance to the local official when he came to account. The official had to produce evidence that the payment had actually been made: tally sticks; the evidence of expert witnesses, particularly for building works; or written itemized accounts of expenditure. Such payments then appeared in the pipe roll, set against the debt which the official was required to deliver.

Several series of records produced by the Exchequer were written in duplicate, or even triplicate. This may have been for security, or because different departments each required their own copies, or simply as job creation for clerks. At the time of the Dialogue, there were said to be three clerks simultaneously recording the audit of accounts. Later, each year's pipe roll was duplicated by the Chancellor's roll (now in The National Archives series E 352). There are slight differences in the order and contents of the two rolls, but their relationship has not yet been studied.