The control of the wine trade was critical to Waterford’s economic success in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. Only designated royal ports like Waterford could import wine and collect the royal tax on imported wine on behalf of the king. Waterford’s monopoly on trade in the harbour came to an end in about 1210 when William Marshall and his wife Isabel (the daughter of Strongbow and Aoife) built the new port of New Ross to export the agricultural produce of their Leinster lordship through their own port and not through the king’s ports of Dublin and Waterford.
Waterford’s protestations to this challenge to its control of the harbour went un-headed while King John of England ruled because he depended on Marshall’s support in his war with the rebel barons in England. To compound the issue the fledgling town of New Ross was even further strengthened when King John died in 1216 and Marshall was made ruler of England and the Irish lordship until the young King Henry III came of age.
With Marshall in control ships bringing wine to Ireland bypassed Waterford and unloaded their cargo tax free in New Ross with the consequent loss of revenue to the king. When King Henry III eventually took control he ordered his agents here prevent wine ships going to New Ross.
However this was not enough. Patterns had been established and so the king needed to make smuggling wine to New Ross a less attractive proposition. Therefore in 1232 he gave Waterford a charter that allowed it charge only half the tax paid on imported wine than in the other wine importing ports. So important was this charter to the city that it was included on the Charter Roll when it was being compiled 141 years later in 1373.
The tax concession helped Waterford. However the records show that there was constant evasion by the men of New Ross with the loss of revenue to the king and the loss of trade to Waterford. Sometimes battles broke out on the river between New Ross and Waterford and in 1266 two people lost their lives in one of these river battles. This was indeed a serious business.
The king demanded an enquiry into the cause of the 1266 river battle and sent a judge to head up an enquiry. His name was Alexander of Nottingham. Both the details of the tribunal of inquiry and an image of the judge himself are preserved on the roll even though the enquiry took place a century before the roll was compiled. The enquiry showed that the men of New Ross were illegally using force to direct ships to their port and away from Waterford.
For both ports the stakes were high. The ships coming laden with wine returned with cargo’s of cattle, hides for leather making and raw wool for spinning and weaving. This was why it was so important to control the wine trade. It not only guaranteed your success in the distribution of wine in the region but also in the export of the rich agricultural produce.
The dispute between Waterford and New Ross continued into the 14th century and the Lords of New Ross fully conscious of the importance of the wine trade continued to petition the king to be allowed to legally import wine even agreeing to collect the tax on wine for the king. The kings of England always refused such generous offers knowing that their royal port of Waterford would be severely disadvantaged and while the king might be guaranteed the wine tax from New Ross he would loose other taxes owed to him by Waterford slipping into economic decline.
The arrival of the plague known as the Black Death in the late 1340s saw a huge decline in population and in trade; there simply were not enough customers. This crisis only intensified the rivalry between the two ports. In an attempt to bring some clarity to matters King Edward III ordered an enquiry and in preparation for it Waterford City Council commissioned the Great Charter Roll in 1372.
The officials searched the city archive for all the documents relating to the dispute. While charters and legal documents might impress the lawyers at the royal court they might not impress the king whose memory was beginning to fade. What was needed was a way to engage the king and keep him focused on Waterford his royal city, its steadfast loyalty in the past and its future prosperity.
Working on the premise that a picture speaks a thousand words today we would use a power point presentation to get across the message. However in the 1370s this technology was not available so they commissioned no less than eighteen paintings to get their point across and keep the king engaged.
The opening image on the top of the roll shows the walled city of Waterford. Today it is the oldest image of an Irish city in existence. Above the fortified wall city is an image of the king giving the mayor a sword. On one level this represented the sword of justice as the mayor was the chief justice in the city administering justice on behalf of the king.
The sword also represented the fact that the mayor was responsible for defending the city from the king’s enemies. The king is also shown accepting from the mayor a large gold key. This was the symbolic key to the gates of the walled city underlining Waterford’s loyalty to the kings who could come and go as they pleased. The contrast with New Ross whose loyalty was to its local lord and not the king was obvious.
The image of the four mayors of the royal cities of Dublin, Waterford, Cork and Limerick was another very obvious message that any reduction in Waterford’s rights and privileges would undermine the rights and privileges of the other royal cities and by implication of the king himself. These are the earliest images of medieval mayors in either Britain or Ireland.
There are images of eight different royal governors of Ireland spanning a period from 1221 to 1372 on the roll. All of them can be connected with specifically enforcing the prohibition on foreign ships landing in New Ross and thereby bypassing Waterford. As in most legal cases it was all about precedent and the compilers of the roll were determined to show the king that precedent was on their side and that New Ross had been breaking the law for over 150 years .
Finally the seven images of kings of England were originally include on the roll namely Henry II, John, Henry III, Edward I, Edward II and two images of Edward III. It was to the latter king that the roll was presented. The images highlight that Waterford’s relationship with the monarch and his fore bearers goes right back to King Henry II who landed in the city in 1171 to put his seal on the Anglo- Norman invasion that was happening almost despite him. It also emphasises that all Edward III progenitors supported Waterford.
Curiously only a small portion of what was originally the image of King Edward II remains on the roll today. We are not certain when it was removed but it was not there in the mid 19th century. It is very possible that it was removed when it was brought to England in 1373 because Edward II had been very much out of favour having been deposed in 1327 by his French wife and her lover.
The roll eventually did its job and Waterford maintained its monopoly as the only port in the harbour entailed to import wine and collect the tax for the king.
The roll is a truly remarkable treasure. It is unique in Europe and is regarded as one of the great treasures of late-medieval Ireland and is featured in the History of Ireland in 100 Objects by Fintan O’ Toole.
The Great Charter Roll gives an insight into how in the Middle Ages the people of Waterford were very vigilant about protecting their status, their rights and privileges to ensure its prosperity and future.
Queen Elizabeth II on her state visit to Ireland, requested a viewing of the Great Charter Roll, so if it’s good enough for the Queen, we think you should come and visit and see it for yourself.
The Medieval Museum will re-open on with online booking and social distancing in place at the entry and throughout the museum.