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MS 183: Royal Letter Book, late 14th-early 15th century, c 1335-c 1417 (dates of the original letters)

Identifier: MS 183

Scope and Contents

MS 183, the Royal Letter Book, is an English late medieval manuscript containing contemporary copies of 374 letters, most of which belong to the reigns of Edward III (1327-1377) and Richard II (1377-1397). The manuscript further contains a few copies of letters from the reign of Henry IV (1399-1413) and the copy of a single letter from the reign of Henry V (1413-1422), as well as several letters between other correspondents. The overall date range of the original letters appears to be between ca.1340 and ca.1412.

The copies themselves would have been created over a period of several years in the late 14th and early 15th centuries.

The manuscript consists of 128 vellum folios, almost all of which are closely written on both sides. The 128 folios are arranged in nineteen quires collated a6, b12, c6, d2 (wants 2), e8, f8, g6, h8, i8, j8, k8, k8, m8, n7 (wants 6), o5, p4, q6, r10, s2. The binding is early-twentieth-century, cardboard with a leather covering, and the overall measurements are 28 x 19 x 4.5 cms.

The manuscript is made up of three clearly distinct sections, with the first section (ff.27-80) and the final section (ff.121-154) being similar to each other in appearance. Both these sections consist of quires of widely varying size (anything between 2 and 12 folios), and they seem to share the same dominant hand; however, both these sections also contain a considerable number of letter copies written in a variety of other hands, probably over a period of several years.

In contrast to the first and final sections of the manuscript, the middle section (ff.81-120) is quite distinct in appearance and seems to form a self-contained collection of its own. It consists of forty folios, which are arranged in five quires of eight folios each, with catch words linking the individual quires to each other, and the term ‘explicit’ having been inserted at the end of the final quire. This section of the manuscript has the appearance of having been written in one hand only, and this particular hand does not appear anywhere else within the manuscript.

As for the contents of the letters, this covers a very wide range of domestic and international affairs of state, and most of the original letters would have emanated from either the privy seal office or the signet office of either Edward III or Richard II, or they are addressed to one of these two kings. However, the collection also includes letters between other individuals.

Many of the copies do not expressly state the names of the correspondents, nor, in many cases, the place or date of writing, although a considerable number of letters show the day and month of the composition of the original, while omitting the year. In such cases, the missing information therefore has to be deduced from the contents of the letter concerned, and it would appear that the majority of the originals date from the late 1380s and the 1390s.

There is then the further question of when the copies of those originals might have been made. Except for the occasional short sequence, the copy letters are not arranged to represent the originals in their strict chronological order. This might indicate that the copies were not written at the same time as the originals. Instead, they appear to represent a subsequent selection.

In the case of the middle section, which contains copies of original letters of up to about 1391, the copying process may have started at around that time, or slightly earlier. These copies are written in a late medieval secretary hand. However, there is so far no evidence as to the exact nature or dating of this hand.

On the other hand, there is good evidence to suggest that the dominant hand of the first and final sections of the Royal Letter Book may be that of the royal scribe Robert Frye. Frye’s career in royal service is well-documented, spanning almost forty years, from about 1387 until his retirement in about 1425. It is likely that he not only copied many of the letters, but he may also have added most of the rubrics which appear in the margins of a substantial number of the copy letters throughout the manuscript, including those in the middle section, which are otherwise not in Frye’s hand.

NB: when a piece of information (such as a name, a date, etc.) is given in square brackets '[ ]', it means it has been deduced from the context.


  • Creation: late 14th-early 15th century
  • Creation: c 1335-c 1417 (dates of the original letters)

Language of Materials

Latin and French

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open to all. The manuscripts can be consulted in the Centre for Research Collections, Edinburgh University Main Library.


1 volume

Custodial History

For much of its existence, MS 183 was bound together with another manuscript, now EUL MS 182, which contains a variety of material, but no letters (see the separate description under MS 182), and it is highly likely that the original owner of the combined manuscript was Robert Frye, the royal clerk who was probably instrumental in the creation of MS 183.

Another early owner appears to have been a man by the name of Thomas Nicholls, as we learn from an entry on the verso side of the final folio of MS 183 (f. 154v). Judging by the hand-writing and by the rather elaborate sign added to the name itself, Thomas Nicholls may well have been a late medieval notary.

At a later stage, the combined manuscript was foliated, probably at some time during the 16th or 17th century, with the current MS 182 being given the folio numbers 1-26, and the current MS 183 being given the folio numbers 27-154.

The next indication of ownership of the combined manuscript is an inscription in the top right-hand corner of MS 182, f.1r, reading ‘Arthr Taylor 1818’. This is likely to have been the antiquarian Arthur Taylor F.S.A. (1790-1870) who may have acquired the MS in that year.

According to a small hand-written note which is still kept inside the front cover of MS 182, the combined MS was offered for sale at an auction at Sotheby Wilkinson & Hodge in November 1871 as part of ‘a portion of the Library of the late Arthur Taylor Esq. F.S.A.’ where it appears to have been acquired by the Edinburgh antiquarian David Laing (1793-1878) who, upon his own death in 1878, left his entire very considerable manuscript collection to the University of Edinburgh - where his collection is still known as ‘the Laing Collection’.

Previous reference

Laing 351 a


Bennett, Philip E., Carpenter, Sarah, and Gardiner, Louise, ‘Chivalric Games at the Court of Edward III: The Jousting Letters of EUL MS 183’ in Medium Aevum LXXXVII (2018), No. 2, pp. 304-342.
Borland, Catherine, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Western Mediaeval Manuscripts in Edinburgh University Library (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1916), pp. 269-70.
Brown, A. L., ‘The Privy Seal Clerks in the Early Fifteenth Century’ in The Study of Medieval Records: Essays in Honour of Kathleen Major, eds. D. A. Bullough and R. L. Storey (Oxford, 1971), pp. 260-81.
Dodd, Gwilym, ‘Henry IV’s Council, 1399-1405’, in Henry IV: The Establishment of the Regime, 1399-1406, eds. Gwilym Dodd and Douglas Biggs (York, 2003) pp. 95-115.
Historical Manuscripts Commission, Report on the Laing Manuscripts preserved in the University of Edinburgh, presented to Parliament by Command of His Majesty, vol. I (London, 1914), p. 1.
Perroy, Edouard (ed.), The Diplomatic Correspondence of Richard II, Camden Third Series, 48 (London: Royal Historical Society, 1933), pp. xxi-xxvii et al.
Sobecki, Sebastian, "The Handwriting of Fifteenth-century Privy Seal and Council Clerks" in The Review of English Studiesemph>, 2021-04, Vol. 72 (304), pp. 253-279.

Physical Facet

Material: Vellum.

Binding: early-twentieth-century, cardboard with a leather covering.

Collation: a6, b12, c6, d2 (wants 2), e8, f8, g6, h8, i8, j8, k8, k8, m8, n7 (wants 6), o5, p4, q6, r10, s2 = 128.

Secundo folio: text tantummodo.

Foliation: ff. 128.


28 cm x 19 cm

Digital material

The following descriptions include embedded images: MS 183/f. 32v[2]; MS 183/f. 39r; MS 183/f. 42v; MS 183/f. 45v[1]; MS 183/f. 49r[1]; MS 183/f. 50r[1]; MS 183/f. 52r; MS 183/f. 56r; MS 183/f. 59r[1]; MS 183/f. 67r[1]; MS 183/f. 78r[1]; MS 183/f. 79r; MS 183/f. 80v[1]; MS 183/f. 83r[1]; MS 183/f. 88v[1]; MS 183/f. 89r[1]; MS 183/f. 91r[1]; MS 183/f. 94r-v; MS 183/f. 95v–96r; MS 183/f. 96r; MS 183/f. 100v–101r; MS 183/f. 101r-v; MS 183/f. 116v[2]-117r; MS 183/f. 117r-v; MS 183/f. 126v[1]; MS 183/f. 126v[3]-127r; MS 183/f. 134v[2]; MS 183/f. 136r[1]; MS 183/f. 136v; MS 183/f. 143r[1]; MS 183/f. 146r-v; MS 183/f. 146v[1]; MS 183/f. 153r[2]; MS 183/f. 153v[1].

Processing Information

Contents of top-level and item-level descriptions created by Louise Gardiner. ArchivesSpace resource created by Aline Brodin in 2019.

Archivist's note: when a piece of information (such as a name, a date, etc.) is given in square brackets '[ ]', it means it has been deduced from the context.

Repository Details

Part of the University of Edinburgh Library Heritage Collections Repository

Centre for Research Collections
University of Edinburgh Main Library
George Square
Edinburgh EH8 9LJ Scotland
+44(0)131 650 8379