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The Great Parchment Book of Waterford

Liber Antiquissimus Civitatis Waterfordiae

Contents of the Great Parchment Book of Waterford as described in Dr. Niall J. Byrne (ed.), The Great Parchment Book of Waterford, Liber Antiquissimus Civitatis Waterfordiae, (IMC, Dublin 2007).

The 'Liber Antiquissimus Civitatis Waterfordiae' is a unique record of medieval history, which is particular to one of Ireland's oldest cities. Displayed under glass at Waterford's Museum of Treasures, this veritable treasure trove of local history is opened at its most ornate page for public viewing.

The book contains some 233 folios of vellum, 229 of which contain scripted records, each being fifteen and a half inches in length and eleven inches in breadth. Handwriting, which is typical of the various hands and scripts practised in the late fifteenth to mid seventeenth centuries, covers both the recto and verso surfaces of most folios, although occasional leaves are blank. The folios of parchment present a faint golden hue, while the medieval ink has faded somewhat to a slightly brown pigmentation. The only ornamentation in the early section of the manuscript consists in the rubrication of some capital letters. Later sections of the manuscript are endowed with ornate capital letters, particularly on those folios which record the names of the mayor and sheriffs annually elected to office. The folios are paginated on their recto surfaces only, the page number being encased in square brackets and located on the left hand side of the foot of each folio.

The volume is bound between oaken boards, which are surfaced in dark coloured leather. The title of the manuscript is stamped in gold leaf onto the spine of the book, but the name of the city is entered in English, which is at variance with other words, which are written in Latin, the inscribed title being 'Liber Antiquissimus Civitatis Waterford'. Although containing references to events of the early thirteenth century, in essence the 'Liber Antiquissimus' spans three centuries, from the mid fourteenth century to its final entry of the mayoralty of John Livet, who governed the city during the successful resistance to the besieging forces of Oliver Cromwell in 1649.

Early acts of parliament, municipal ordinances and other records were written in French in the period from 1310 to 1472, with Latin gradually coming to prominence. French and Latin were then used concurrently until English became popular, causing concurrent Latin and English to replace Norman French. The use of Latin declined from 1450, so that English had become the language of official records by 1500.1 The English dialect spoken in the later years of the Plantagenet dynasty survived to a much later date in Ireland than in England, and is now classified as Hiberno-English. Hiberno-English was replaced by the standard official English from the mid sixteenth century.

This is where the 'Liber Antiquissimus' is unique, since it contains not only several Norman French entries in addition to copious Latin records, but its remaining contents are the earliest Irish municipal archives which are written in Hiberno-English.2 Municipal ordinances of Waterford city, extending from 1356, are registered in Hiberno-English, while other 'laudable ordinances' commence in 1407. It is known that these were copied at the end of the first quarter of the sixteenth century, and hitherto it has been suggested that it was possible, but hardly probable, that the original records may have been written in Latin or French, which were then translated into English in 1525.3 Entries in the 'Liber Antiquissimus', where French and Latin are to be found in the same paragraph, confirm that, in fact, a process of translation was almost continuous, deteriorating records being re-recorded in the language of the day, Latin replacing French, which in turn was replaced by English.4


The contents of the 'Liber Antiquissimus' derive from a number of previously written records of the city of Waterford. The first mention of a prior source comes early in the manuscript when the Commons Papers are alluded to in 1552.5 Reference was made in 1568 to a written source known as the Common Register 6 while in 1599 'the old Redd Register booke of the Citie of Waterford' is named.7 Other known sources include the 'Liber Primus'8 and the 'Liber Secundus'.9 An entry on folio 30r, 'Customs of the Cittie of Waterford employed from anncient times, as contained in the olde rolles of the said Cittie newly written in the tyme of James Rice Maior' indicates that these and perhaps other unknown municipal records were stored as pipe rolls, and were transcribed when the original records were deteriorating in quality.


From such details of provenance it is possible to glean the information that the records of Waterford City derive from at least five sources. As older records deteriorated in quality they were copied onto fresh parchment folios, which were retained in loose-leaf format until much later date, again probably as pipe rolls. When the copying from the original sources had been completed, successive entries, which became increasingly more ornate, were added to the manuscript. Such entries generally recorded the names of the mayor and sheriffs who were elected annually, each year being dated by relating the year of the election of the civic dignitaries to the regnal year of the current monarch of England. It also became customary to register the names of the citizens who had been admitted to the freedom of the city at the time of the mayoral election in a list following the recording of the mayoral election, and also noting the entrance fee paid for this privilege. The first list of freemen of Waterford is recorded in 34 Henry VIII.10

At a much later but unknown date, certainly later than 1647 and probably later than the date of the last entry in 1649, the loose folios were bound into book form. The tops of these folios, which apparently were of varying lengths, were cut in order to standardise the folio size. Evidence of this trimming is to be found in several places in the manuscript, for example, the upper portion of the ornate capital letter 'A' on folio 9v has been removed.

It is almost certain that the pagination was added at the time of the binding since all the folio numbers in the manuscript are written in the same hand, in the same format, and in identical square brackets, from the beginning to the end of the book.

A hiatus, covering the span of years from 1615 to 1626, occurs in the 'Liber Antiquissimus'. It is quite possible that numerous folios which detailed these events have been lost, or equally feasibly that some folios were removed from the records in a selective editing by either central or local government officials, perhaps in 1618 when the Dublin government forcibly disbanded Waterford Corporation and seized all Waterford’s records and transported them to Dublin.


Early decoration of the texts is extremely rudimentary, being confined initially to an enlarged capital letter on the opening word of each entry. While some of these early capital letters were simply of a slightly larger size than the accompanying writing, they increased in size and in elaboration as the volume progressed. By the time of the recording of 'the ordre and manere of the Election' of various municipal officers,11 the majuscules opening each paragraph were assuming an increasingly ornate form.

The recording of the mayoralty of Peter Aylward in 1566, the outstanding example of decoration in the entire 'Liber Antiquissimus',12 was of such elaboration as to cause the first reviewer of the volume, John T. Gilbert, to have it reproduced by a draughtsman for inclusion in the Facsimiles of the national manuscripts of Ireland published in 188413. Similarly, because of its ornamentation, this is the folio at which the book lies open for public scrutiny in its glass case in Waterford Museum of Treasures. Bordered on the head, outside margin and foot by decoration which surrounds the text recording the mayor, sheriffs, and freemen of Waterford in that year, this folio is a starting mixture of royal heraldic symbolism, of scriptural iconography relating principally to the day of judgement, of an affirmation of the doctrine of Purgatory, and of a representation of the pre-Christian druidic ideology echoed by the depiction of the green man - an early medieval remnant of pagan superstition.

Freemen of Waterford

The freedom of the city was a coveted honour sought by citizens, denizens and suitably qualified merchant strangers alike since, in addition to conferring enviable status on the recipient, it provided very advantageous and preferential trading concessions for those admitted to the liberty and franchises of Waterford. Not alone were these privileges, which were mainly exemptions from tolls, taxes and customs dues, of very considerable benefit within the city, suburbs and port, they also extended to the other towns of Ireland, so that freemen of Waterford could trade, free of most taxation, throughout the entire country.


Letters patent from Queen Elizabeth,14 dated 8 February 11 Elizabeth I and written in Latin, changed the date of the election of the mayor to the first Monday following the feastday of the Visitation of Blessed Mary the Virgin. It confirmed that Waterford had total jurisdiction over the haven, which lay between Rodyback and Ryndovan, and extended as far as 'Innystiogue & Saynt Molyng' on the rivers Nore and Barrow respectively, and to 'le Carrygg' on the river Suire. These locations signified the tidal and navigable boundaries of each river, the shallows at both Inistioge and St Mullins and the rock in the river at Carrick limiting further easy access to the upper reaches of the three rivers, portage being necessary to circumvent these natural obstacles. This extent is so precise as to suggest that it was originally drawn up to deter New Ross officials from interfering with Waterford merchants travelling past their town. The full texts of two charters granted to Waterford City by Queen Elizabeth I are recorded in the 'Liber Antiquissimus'. Both are written in Latin. The first charter, which is dated 16 July 16 Elizabeth I,15 granted that Waterford City 'shall be a County in itself,' with the exception of the lands and buildings of the 'Church and chancel of the Black Friars & the location in the same place lately called our lady Chapel.' The second charter was dated 12 March 25 Elizabeth I. It stipulated that the villages and hamlets of Killotheran, Ballinekill and Kilbarrie, with all their hereditaments and appurtenances extending from the river Suire as far as the limits of Killure should become part and parcel of the County of the City of Waterford.

There are many references to other charters granted by various English monarchs to Waterford city, often having excerpts from these charters or from letters patent quoted throughout the text.

It is well established that Waterford was a royal city, the sole property of the English monarch since it had been ceded to King Henry II by Strongbow, Earl of Striguil, in October 1171. Henry II had granted privileges to Waterford, which had been ratified and extended by King John's charter of 1215, and by other charters of subsequent kings of England. The town of Ross had been endowed by Earl William Marshal, and it also had been granted chartered privileges.

While there is no obvious or intended division of the 'Liber Antiquissimus' into sections, nonetheless the context and extent of related entries causes such a separation. Following what are very obviously a series of files compiled to present a certain focus, such as the trade war with New Ross, or the disciplining of the hospitallers, or the dissolution of St John's Priory, the 'Liber Antiquissimus' records 'the Ordre and Manere of the Election of the Maior', the bailiffs and the other officials who controlled the city of Waterford. In addition to mentioning how these officers were to be appointed, the appointee being required to swear on oath his commitment to the full and proper performance of his stipulated duties, this section gives a fascinating insight into the running of an important, medieval, Irish portal city. 16

The 'Liber Antiquissimus' is replete with hitherto unknown details of the involvement of Waterford City in the wars of the 1590s.

Elsewhere, a description of plague in Waterford City, which killed 2256 people in the year ended 28 September 1604, with a figure of 116 deaths weekly during the previous August,17 provides unaccustomed detail on the ravages of plague in an Irish city. The realisation of corporation officals that the plague was being spread by soldiers of the garrison, who, under cover of darkness were raiding the houses of the dead to steal their clothes and their goods, and the successful measures to stop this pilfering, makes fascinating reading.18

Apparently mundane records such as the 1599 rent roll of Waterford Corporation,19 or the list of the 'feffmentes and fermes' granted by the various mayors from 1366 to 1550, 20 give details of forgotten locations in medieval Waterford. Here, in a myriad of detail, are listed 12 castles, 20 towers, 17 gates, 5 walls, 6 ditches, and 8 quays, all components of the defences of Waterford. The names of 10 streets, 6 highways, 15 lanes, and 80 almost forgotten locations within the city are all mentioned, and these figures relate only to a perfunctory counting. Details of mills, of lime kilns, of weirs, of churches, of chapels, and a host of other place-names are readily available to anyone interested enough to peruse the records, even the repair of a public clock, mounted on the municipal clock tower over 400 years ago, being mentioned.


42 , the first folio of the 'Liber Primus'.

91 , a recording the mayoralty of Peter Aylward in 1566. The ornamentation, and the implication of the iconography, comprises two distinct sections separated by a transverse division across the outer margin of the page. Three images are portrayed in the lower section, each symbolising a facet of a current ideology. In the left-hand area of the foot of the page is depicted a gargoyle of the Green Man, from whose mouth issue tendrils of intertwined branches, which, through their leaves and flowers (including Tudor roses), conjoin the early medieval fertility figure with the Christian symbolism adorning the right hand margin and ultimately with the Scriptural representations at the top of the folio.

The lower, bare-breasted figure in the right-hand margin is identified by her halo as the Blessed Virgin, nursing the Holy Infant. Known on the continent as 'Maria lactans' or 'La vierge nourricière', this image of the barebreasted nursing Madonna in the 'Liber Antiquissimus' is unique in Irish manuscript iconography. (See Catríona MacLeod, in Etienne Rynne (ed.), Figures from the past (Dublin, 1987), p. 251). It may have been based on the fourteeth century statue of the Madonna and child now in the Waterford Museum of Treasures.

The upper figure, devoid of a halo and surrounded by buildings, represents Queen Elizabeth I, the head on earth of the church, ruling her kingdom under the aegis of the Virgin and infant. Such positioning, which consigns the pre-Christian effigy to the base of the page, might be assumed to indicate the subjugation of idolatry by Christianity under the leadership of the monarch, through the ministrations of the Blessed Virgin.

On the far left hand side of the head of the folio the capital letter T of the word 'Tempore' is replete with the royal heraldic shield surmounted by a temporal crown, all superimposed over a stylised drawing of Waterford city, which is identified by the Gaelic word 'Portlárge', the only Irish word to occur throughout the manuscript. The city is represented by the outlines of closely packed houses, which sit atop a quay wall constructed from large dressed stones. In the river are depicted a succession of barges and galleys, and a number of moored ships, the latter dividing the text.

Drawing of souls in purgatory are below the figures of archangels Michael and Gabriel. The inscription of 'momento mori' enjoins the observer to pray for the souls of the faithful departed. The motto 'juste judicat' (judge justly), which encircles Christ's right hand and separates it from the sword of justice, identifies this vignette as the last judgement.

105 , ornamentation recording the mayoralty of James Walsh in 1575. This year, 1575, was the first occasion on which the bailiffs were called sheriffs.

116 v , ornamentation recording the mayoralty of Peter Aylward in 1577.

121 , ornamentation recording the mayoralty of Richard Strange in 1581.

169 , recording the mayoralty of Stephen Leonard and Nicholas Wyse in 1606.

226 v , recording the mayoralty of John Blueth in 1647. 'Vive Le Roy' may have been added to indicate support for Charles I who was executed in 1649. An additional note has been deleted at a later stage.

229 , recording the mayoralty of John Livet in 1649. The coat of arms are those of the mayor and sheriffs serving in 1649.

  1. Alan Bliss and Joseph Long, 'Literature in Norman French and English to 1534,' in Art Cosgrove (ed.), A new history of Ireland, Part II, medieval Ireland 1169-1534 (Oxford, 1987), p. 714. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. 'Liber Antiquissimus', f. 12v, translation, N. J. Byrne (ed.), 'The great parchment book of Waterford – Liber antiquissimus civitatis Waterfordiae', (IMC, Dublin 2007), p.23. 

  5. Ibid., f. 6v, translation p.10. 

  6. Ibid., f.98v, translation p.152. 

  7. Ibid., f. 148v, translation p. 190. 

  8. Ibid., f. 42r, translation p. 72 ff. 

  9. Ibid., f. 107r, translation p. 159 ff. 

  10. 1542 

  11. 'Liber Antiquissimus', ff 21r-27v, translation, N. J. Byrne (ed.), 'The great parchment book of Waterford – Liber antiquissimus civitatis Waterfordiae', (IMC, Dublin 2007), pp 43-52. 

  12. Ibid., f. 91r, translation, p. 144. 

  13. J.T. Gilbert, Facsimiles of the national manuscripts of Ireland, (Historical Manuscripts Commission, London, 1884), Part iv, 2, appendiix, plate xxvi. 

  14. 'Liber Antiquissimus', ff 95r-96v, translation, N. J. Byrne (ed.), 'The great parchment book of Waterford – Liber antiquissimus civitatis Waterfordiae', (IMC, Dublin 2007), pp 149-51. 

  15. Ibid., ff 113v-115v, translation pp 166-9. 

  16. Ibid., ff 21r-27v, translation pp 43-52. 

  17. Ibid., f. 164r, translation p. 211. 

  18. Ibid., f. 165v, translation p. 212. 

  19. Ibid., ff 149r-158r, translation pp 191-208. 

  20. Ibid., ff 195v-210v, translation pp 230-261.