The Pipe rolls, sometimes called the Great rolls, or the Great Rolls of the Pipe, are a collection of financial records maintained by the English Exchequer, or Treasury, and its successors. The earliest date from the 12th century, and the series extends, mostly complete, from then until 1833. They form the oldest continuous series of records concerning English governance kept by the English, British and United Kingdom governments, covering a span of about 700 years. The early medieval ones are especially useful for historical study, as they are some of the earliest financial records available from the Middle Ages. A similar set of records was developed for Normandy, which was ruled by the English kings from 1066 to 1205, but the Norman Pipe rolls have not survived in a continuous series like the English.
They were the records of the yearly audits performed by the Exchequer of the accounts and payments presented to the Treasury by the sheriffs and other royal officials; and owed their name to the shape they took, as the various sheets were affixed to each other and then rolled into a tight roll, resembling a pipe, for storage. They record not only payments made to the government, but debts owed to the crown and disbursements made by royal officials. Although they recorded much of the royal income, they did not record all types of income, nor did they record all expenditures, so they are not strictly speaking a budget. The Pipe Roll Society, formed in 1883, has published the Pipe rolls up until 1224.
The Pipe rolls are named after the "pipe" shape formed by the rolled up parchments on which the records were originally written. There is no evidence to support the theory that they were named pipes for the fact that they "piped" the money into the Treasury, nor for the claim that they got their name from resembling a wine cask, or pipe of wine. They were occasionally referred to as the roll of the treasury, or the great roll of accounts, and the great roll of the pipe.
The Pipe rolls are the records of the audits of the sheriffs' accounts, usually conducted at Michaelmas by the Exchequer, or English treasury. Until the chancery records began in the reign of King John of England, they were the only continuous set of records kept by the English government. They are not a complete record of government and royal finances, however, as they do not record all sources of income, only the accounts of the sheriffs and a few other sources of income. Some of the payments that did not regularly fall under the Exchequer were occasionally recorded in a Pipe roll. Neither do the Pipe rolls record all payments made by the exchequer. They were not created as a budget, nor were they strictly speaking records of receipts, but rather they are records of the audit of the accounts rendered. Although the rolls use an accounting system, it is not one that would be familiar to modern accountants; for instance until the end of the 12th century, no record was made of the total amount taken in by the sheriff of each shire. In their early form, they record all debts owed to the Crown, whether from feudal dues or from other sources. Because many debts to the king were allowed to be paid off in installments, it is necessary to search more than one set of rolls for a complete history of a debt. If a debt was not paid off completely in one year, the remainder of the amount owed was transferred to the next year. They did not record the full amount of debts incurred in previous years, only what was paid that year and what was still owed. Besides the sheriffs, others who submitted accounts for the audit included some bailiffs of various honours, town officials, and the custodians of ecclesiastical and feudal estates.
Combined with the Domesday Survey, the Pipe rolls contributed to the centralisation of financial records by the Norman kings (reigned 1066–1154) of England that was ahead of contemporary Western European monarchies; the French, for instance, did not have an equivalent system of accounting until the 1190s. The exact form of the records, kept in a roll instead of a book, was also unique to England, although why England kept some of its administrative records in this form is unclear. A set of Norman rolls, drafted differently, are extant in a few years for the reigns of Kings Henry II (reigned 1154–1189) and Richard I (reigned 1189–1199), who also ruled the Duchy of Normandy in France. It is believed that the Norman rolls were started about the same time as the English, but due to lack of survival of the earlier Norman rolls, it is unclear exactly when they did start. An Irish Exchequer produced Irish Pipe rolls, and much like the English Pipe rolls, the earliest surviving Irish Pipe roll, that of 1212, does not appear to be the first produced.
The Dialogus de Scaccario or Dialogue concerning the Exchequer, written in about 1178, details the workings of the Exchequer and gives an early account of how the Pipe rolls were created. The Dialogue was written by Richard FitzNeal, the son of Nigel of Ely, who was Treasurer for both Henry I and Henry II of England. According to the Dialogue, the Pipe rolls were the responsibility of the clerk of the Treasurer, who was called the Clerk of the Pipe and later the clerk of the pells. FitzNeal wrote his work to explain the inner workings of the Exchequer, and in it he lists a number of different types of rolls used by the Treasury. He also describes the creation of the Pipe rolls and how they are used. The Dialogue also states that the Pipe rolls, along with Domesday Book and other records, were kept in the treasury, because they were required for daily use by the Exchequer clerks.