A history of Ireland in 100 objects


Waterford Charter Roll, 1215-1373

In the 100 years after the Anglo-Norman invasion, more new towns were established in Ireland than at any other period before or since. Many, such as Athlone, Kilkenny and Kildare, developed round castles. The existing Hiberno-Norse cities of Cork, Wexford and Limerick were rejuvenated, while Henry II declared Waterford and Dublin royal ports, personal possessions of the monarch. The balance between urban and rural Ireland shifted, with the towns becoming centres of an increasingly efficient governing bureaucracy of mayors, judges and tax collectors.

These urban centres were also rivals, however. Waterford, where both Strongbow and Henry had landed, initially enjoyed the biggest boost, becoming the main link between Ireland and the royal house of Anjou’s rich possessions in France. In the early 13th century, however, this pre-eminence was threatened by the rise of William Marshall (Guillaume le Maréchal), husband of Strongbow’s daughter. Marshall, who developed his own port at New Ross, became immensely powerful, effectively ruling England as regent for three years after the death of King John, in 1216. With the accession of Henry III, Waterford again pressed its claims to a monopoly on shipping. The result was a compromise: all ships would have to land at Waterford except those connected to Marshall’s English or Irish possessions.

The compromise was unenforceable, and there were several pitched battles as Waterford men tried to prevent ships landing at New Ross. Eventually, suffering from the general decline in trade in the 14th century, Waterford’s authorities took their claim for a renewed monopoly to King Edward III. To present their case, they created the four-metre long charter roll, containing documents or transcripts going back to 1215, with 17 remarkable illustrations. Among them are portraits of five kings of England, including the earliest contemporary portrait of a medieval English monarch, Edward III; the earliest portrait of a judge in either Britain or Ireland; the earliest images of justiciars (governors of Ireland); the earliest image (right) of the medieval mayors of Dublin, Waterford, Cork and Limerick; and the earliest view of an Irish city, Waterford itself.

Eamonn McEneaney of Waterford City Museum calls the charter roll “the mediaeval equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation”, designed to “flatter the king, add weight to the legal arguments and keep those listening to the mayor’s presentation focused on the facts being elaborated”. As an exercise in verbal and visual persuasion, the roll is a brilliant early example of targeted advertising. It did the trick: the king restored Waterford’s shipping monopoly.

The bitterness of the fight over commercial privileges between Waterford and New Ross shows that, even in the crisis-ridden 14th century, there was much to fight over. The Anglo-Norman colony’s variety of trade can be judged from the range of goods on which tolls were levied in the towns: wine, salt, foodstuffs, horses, cattle, hides, wool, cloth, iron, lead, tin, dyes, timber, millstones, nails, wax and so on. Town life was abuzz with small industry. An early roll of citizens of Anglo-Norman Dublin lists goldsmiths, tailors, shoemakers, weavers, mercers, cordwainers, tanners, saddlers, smiths, carpenters, masons, fishermen, vintners, butchers, bakers and millers. Most, to judge from their surnames, came from southwest England. Their descendants became a permanent part of Irish life.

Thanks to Eamonn McEneaney

Where to see itOn display from June in the new medieval museum at Choristers’ Hall, Waterford