In 1292 the English king’s justices at Shrewsbury in Shropshire heard the complaint of Thomas Colle of Shropshire against his brother who owed him money. He brought his legal action before the itinerant and omni-competent Justices of the General Eyre. Since the 12th century English kings had intermittently sent judges out on these visitations to the country, extending royal justice and power.
The usual procedure for a civil action such as Thomas Colle’s was to purchase a writ from Chancery. In this case the action was commenced by querela, a less costly and faster procedure based on an oral complaint. Over time the oral complaint was augmented by a written form, the bill. Bill procedure however played only a small part in the business of the eyre.
Except for a few instances, the bill was written out for the complainant by an experienced writer: perhaps a clerk of the local bailiff or sheriff, or a clerk of the justices. The bill’s 3rd person wording usually followed a typical form: an address to the king’s justices, the details of a grievance, and a prayer for remedy:
A les Justices nostre Seignour Le Roys se ple [sic] pleint Thomas Colle de Slobirs de Richard Colle de Slobirs de ceo ke memes cely Richard atort ly detent vj.li. e xv. souz lequeus il ly deit pur drap de la pris e en deners a ly aprestez par parceles dunt cely Thomas en ad taill encuntre li e rendre ne ly vost a gref damayges cely Thomas de Cent souz e de ceo prie remedie pur deu.
[Thomas Colle of Shrewsbury complaineth to the Justices of our Lord the King of Richard Colle of Shrewsbury that that same Richard wrongfully detaineth from him £6 15s. which he oweth to him for cloth bought all at one time and for money lent to him in sundry sums, in acknowledgement whereof the said Thomas hath a tally; which sum the said Richard will not pay him, to the grievous damage of this Thomas of a hundred shillings. And of this he prayeth remedy for God’s sake. (transcribed and translated by Bolland)]
Another writer, a clerk of the court, would use the bill to make annotations as the case progressed. Here the back of the bill has the names of two pledges for prosecution, Thomas and Alan:
The result was that brother Richard acknowledged to the judges his debt and promised to pay what he owed, in installments.
Thomas Colle’s bill begins the selections transcribed, translated into antiqued English, and published by William Bolland in 1914. See this link for a PDF of Select Bills in Eyre, A.D. 1292-1333. Those of 1292 and 1293 are probably the earliest extant.
This amazing preservation is due to luck and neglect as well as modern conservation. The bills were strung on thongs when finished with. These files were eventually submitted to the treasury along with files of writs and the justices’ rolls, but really of no use to anyone, and largely ignored by historians. Today the individual bills are preserved in volumes at the National Archives in the UK.
The stories related in the bills can be exciting, mystifying and commonplace. Not as typical as the familial complaint of Colle’s is the cry for mercy of bill 11, written by the complainant himself, appealing to the king’s desire to bring justice to rich and poor alike:
Cher sire joe vus cri merci issi com vus estis mis en lu nostur seinur le Roy pur dreit fere a poueris e a riches. Joe Johan Feyrewyn face pleint a deu e a vus Sire Justice ke Richard le Carpenter Clerk du bayli de Salopesburie ke le vaundist Richard me de teent .vj. mars le quenz joe li bayla par escrit ke il meme Richard moy Johan dute trouer me sustinaunce pur le deners le queus il resu de moy e ne fe mie cum couenaunt fu entre nous mes ausi tot com il auoit les deners il me desoula e me fit sere par le trunc e me dona vn leyke de pain ausi com ce fu vn pouere homme ke demaunde vn pain pur deu e me morit pres de feim. E pur ce Cher Sire joe vus cri merci pur deu ke vus me facers auer me deners auaunt ke vus partus ors de sete vile autrement ne recouerai jammes me deners ke sachers le riche gent tendrunt a semble ke le pouere gent nauerunt nul dreit en sete vile, ausi tot moun seynur ki joe ai me deners joe me vois en le tere seint e priera pur le Roy de Engletere e pur vus nomement Sire John de Berrewyke. Ke sachers ki joe nai dener ne mayl pur pleyter. E pur ce Cher Sire ei merci de mey ki joe ei me deners. [transcribed by Bolland from JUST 1/1552/11]
These and other photographs of the filed bills from which Bolland selected can be viewed at the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website.
The following table lists the earliest bills published by Bolland, with links to the AALT images that I have been able to identify:
Bills in the Eyre of Shropshire of 20 Edward I 
Bills in the Eyre of Staffordshire 21 Edward I 
Bills in the Eyre of Lincolnshire 14 Edward I 
Bolland has probably misidentified these three bills. David Crook points out there was no Eyre in Lincolnshire at this time, and the bills are not Eyre bills.
Baker, J.H. An Introduction to English Legal History 4th ed. Oxford 2007.
Bolland, William, ed. Select Bills in Eyre, A.D. 1292-1333 Seldon Society no. 30 (1914) link
Crook, David. Records of the General Eyre. London : H.M.S.O., 1982.
Harding, Alan. “Plaints and Bills in the History of English Law, Mainly in the Period 1250-1330” in Legal History Studies 1972. Cardiff : University of Wales Press, 1975.