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Kings' Briefs: Their Purposes and History

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 February 2009

Cornelius Walford
Read before the Royal Historical Society


Kings' Briefs, under a variety of designations—as Kings' Letters, Orders in Council, Patents of Alms, Letters Patent, Fire Briefs, Church Briefs, Charity Briefs, Commissions, Royal Letters, &c, &c.—have played an important part in the social history of this country, and yet our national historians have been remarkably silent concerning them; as indeed they have been upon many other matters of great social interest. It seems hardly necessary to say that the term “Brief” has several significations. In its more common acceptation it is a short writing or epitome, as an abridgment of a law case, made out for instruction to counsel, or indeed any short statement of facts. But there are “Apostolical Briefs,” being letters or written messages of the Pope, addressed to princes or magistrates, respecting matters of public concern.* It is not to these exclusively that we must look for light in the present instance. The word was, in early times, written “Breve,” and Cowell, in his Law Dictionary, says, “Any writ or precept from the King was called Breve; which we still retain in the name of Brief, the King's Letters Patent to poor sufferers, for Collection.” The general title of “King's Briefs” used in England, is traceable to the fact that these documents, under whatever designation adopted, or for whatever purpose designed, were in later times issued under the direct authority of the sovereign; at first under his personal authority, but later under the authority of the Council, through the Lord Chancellor. But it will be made clear that the Church exercised the right of issuing them, not only prior to, but apparently coeval with the sovereign at one period.

Research Article
Copyright © Royal Historical Society 1882

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page 2 note * Those Papal briefs are written short without preface or preamble, and on paper, which distinguishes them from “Bulls,” which are written on parchment. Again, “Briefs” are sealed with red wax and the seal of the fisherman, or St. Peter in a boat and always in the presence of the Pope.—Vincent.

page 9 note * From whose article in vol. iii. of the Antiquary I quote mainly in this section of my paper.