This 4 metre long charter roll was made in Waterford in 1373. It is now regarded as one of the great treasures of medieval Ireland because of the number and quality of the illustrations.
It includes portraits of the kings of England from Henry II (the first English king to come to Ireland) to King Edward III who was on the throne when the roll was made.
The Great Charter Roll of Waterford was designed as part of a presentation by Waterford City Council to King Edward III illustrating the legal documents contained in the roll that supported their case.
The Great Charter Roll of Waterford was viewed by Queen Elizabeth II during her state visit to Ireland in 2011.
Throughout the Middle Ages Waterford was a royal city and the control of the wine trade was critical to its economic success. Waterford claimed a monopoly on the import of wine in south-east Ireland. However this monopoly was challenged by the nearby port of New Ross following its foundation in 1207 and this resulted in the longest trade dispute in Irish history. The dispute between the two ports at times degenerated into open warfare and did not finally end until 1518 when a force of Waterford merchants accompanied by foreign mercenaries attacked New Ross that year, sacked the town and confiscated their civic mace. This mace is still in Waterford and is displayed alongside the charter roll.
This dispute became particularly intense in the 14th century, especially in the bleak years of economic depression following the arrival of the Black Death in Ireland in 1349. The Black Death devastated all of Europe and in cities like Waterford up to a third of the population was wiped out leading to a huge decline in trade.
It was in this climate of severe economic depression that Waterford City Council appealed directly to King Edward III in order to secure its position as the premier port in the region and thus guarantee its wine monopoly. This charter roll was central to this appeal to the king.
The city officials searched the archive for all the documents relating to the dispute with New Ross. 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 magistrate 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 king who could come and go as he pleased.
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.
Finally seven images of kings of England were originally included on the roll namely Henry II, John, Henry III, Edward I, Edward II and two images of Edward III. The portraits of King Edward III are the only ones in existence which were done while he was alive. These images highlight the fact that Waterford was not only loyal to King Edward III but to all his ancestors right back to King Henry II who visited Waterford in 1171 and made it a royal port.
There are also 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.
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 was very unpopular because of his close relationship with his male advisers. He was deposed in 1327 by his French wife and her lover.
The Great Charter Roll of Waterford 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 Irish Times History of Ireland in 100 Objects by Fintan O'Toole.