The Roman Numerals Scribe

Between 1433 and 1463, a series of additions were made to the numerals that appear in the original version of the Canterbury Roll. These were made by an otherwise unknown – and until 2016 unnoticed – scribe.

The Roll’s genealogical tree is made up of a number of roundels, each of which contains the name of a noble or royal family member. If the individual in question was a British or English ruler, their roundel typically included the length of their reign. The original Lancastrian Scribe wrote these regnal years in Indo-Arabic notation. This notation, both in the roundels and frequently in the accompanying commentary, was translated into Roman numerals by a second hand, dubbed here the Roman Numerals Scribe.

Identifying a New Scribe

The Roman Numerals Scribe was identified through a careful examination of letter formation. The majority of the Roll was written by the Lancastrian Scribe in a script closely resembling 14th-century "English Cursiva Documentary". A dramatic shift of script to something closely resembling "Secretary Cursive Media" marks the entrance of the Yorkist Scribe who transformed the manuscript into a piece of Yorkist propaganda. Both scribes were first identified by Arnold Wall.

Sample of the Lancastrian Scribe’s hand

Sample of the Yorkist Scribe’s hand

Neither the original Lancastrian Scribe nor his Yorkist successor formed their "x" the way it appears in the regnal years as written by the Roman Numerals Scribe.

Yorkist Scribe's "x"
Lancastrian Scribe's "x"

Roman Numerals Scribe's "x"

Dating the Roman Numerals Scribe

It is probable the original Lancastrian version of the Canterbury Roll was produced in a workshop, much as Alison Allan suggested was the case with later Yorkist genealogies. This is made more probable by the fact the content of the Canterbury Roll closely resembles that of other rolls in the "Noah" group.

Roman numerals do not appear in the manuscript that most closely resembles the Canterbury Roll: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Marshall 135 (R). This suggests the Roman Numerals Scribe worked after the Lancastrian Scribe, possibly outside the original workshop that produced the Roll. The Roman Numerals Scribe is not, however, responsible for the Roman numerals that appear in the amendments made by the Yorkist Scribe. This suggests a date range of between 1433 and 1463 for his activities.

The Yorkist Scribe's Roman numerals
(CRN568: King Henry VI’s roundel)

The Roman Numerals Scribe’s Roman numerals
(CRN392: King Egbert’s roundel)

Re-Editing the Roll

The Roman Numerals Scribe's work was likely commissioned in order to guide a new audience’s understanding of the Roll. The use of Indo-Arabic notation in England only became common-place during the course of the 15th century. It can be presumed that the use of Indo-Arabic notation was more common in urban areas as a result of trade and, potentially, academic interest. As Roman numerals were still favoured in rural locations and religious institutions, it might be suggested that the Roll was moved to one or other.

Sinful Rulers

The Roman Numerals Scribe did not translate all of the roundels that contained Indo-Arabic notation. Many of those that were left untranslated belong to kings who rebelled against the Church’s teachings. Given his apparent bias against rulers who acted against the Church, it is possible that the Roman Numerals Scribe was himself a churchman.

  • The Roll's commentary notes King Edwyn (r. 955–959) “stripped the sacred church of its liberties and possessions” (CRC099); his regnal years remained untranslated.
  • William II (r. 1087–1100) was noted as being “hateful to God” (CRC112); his roundel was also left untranslated.

The scribe also lengthened Edward III’s reign. Edward, who reigned from 1327–1377, is correctly noted as having ruled for 50 years by the Lancastrian Scribe in Indo-Arabic notation. However, his reign was marked as being 52 years by the Roman Numerals Scribe. Extending Edward’s reign by 2 years at its start would have encompassed the period in which the future king fled with his mother, Isabella, to France. Rumours of Edward's father's homosexuality and his eventual deposition, an event which may have resonated with supporters of the Lancastrian dynasty who had come to power as the result of a similar deposition, may have influenced the Roman Numerals Scribe to begin the son's reign early.


Edward III's reign given as 50 in Indo-Arabic notation by the Lancastrian Scribe and as 52 (LII) by the Roman Numerals Scribe
(CRN499: King Edward III's roundel)

Women & Rulership

The Roman Numerals Scribe exhibited a notable bias against women who ruled. He added regnal years to only 1 out of the 3 roundels that belong to female rulers. Such an approach would have been in keeping with contemporary Church teachings, which held that women should be subordinate to men.

The daughters of King Lear – Regan, Gonorilla, and Cordelia – were all recorded as rulers by the Lancastrian Scribe and accorded regnal numbers. However, the Roman Numerals Scribe only added Roman numerals to Regan’s roundel. The scribe seems to have highlighted Regan only because of her position on the central line of the Roll and because she was the mother of the future king, Cunedag. Regan's sisters were ignored despite the fact that Cordelia ruled the longest.


While the Lancastrian Scribe accorded regnal years to all 3 of King Lear's daughters the Roman Numerals Scribe assigns them only to Regan
(CRN194;197;196: King Lear's daughters)


Scribal Hands in the Digital Edition

The Roman Numerals Scribe: Identified in the Digital Edition by an Ionic column (this is simply for its classical associations; any form of numeral might lead to confusion). This is the second hand to appear on the Canterbury Roll. The scribe's contribution is limited to the translation of the Lancastrian Scribe’s Indo-Arabic notation into Roman numerals.

The Roman Numerals Scribe's work was first identified by Thandi Parker in 2016. As no amendments were made to the work of later scribes he is presumed to have completed his work between 1433 and 1463.