John Smith Roskell Papers

Scope and Content

Papers of Professor John Smith Roskell, which relate mainly to his research work on medieval English history

Most of the archive comprises Roskell's working notes, which were used for his major publications. There is comparatively little correspondence and teaching-related material. The former category includes his notes for the Parliament of 1422, Commons and their speakers, Gesta Henrici Quinti, Michael de la Pole and the History of Parliament volumes. In addition there are miscellaneous notes entitled "Parliamentary history since 1939", "The medieval Parliament" "Medieval Commons", "Parliamentary attendance" (1956), "Proxys", "Modus Tenendi Parliamentorum", "Knights of the Chamber", the Parliament of 1398-9, "Diplomatic history, 1386-1403", "Community of the Realm", "Anglo-Welsh relations" and "the Exchequer of Receipt".

Also present are a set of index cards, which contain Roskell's research on fellows of All Souls College. There are also a series of Roskell's Manchester and Oxford student notebooks, including the Manchester special subject on Henry V. There are also manuscript/typescript lectures, some of which may not have been published.

Some is correspondence with his friend Professor C R Cheyney, 1935-36, and obituaries of Cheyney c.1987, and similar for Sir Goronwy Edwards, which include reminiscences of Roskell's time at Oxford and Roskell's notes for an obituary of Edwards.

Administrative / Biographical History

John Roskell was a historian of the medieval English parliaments, and one of the last representatives of the “Manchester School of History”, founded by T F Tout and James Tait in the 1890s.

Roskell was born in Norton, near Rochdale in 1913 and attended local schools, before entering the University of Manchester in 1930. He graduated with a first class degree in history in 1933, and proceeded to take a MA in 1934. Roskell had already decided to focus on medieval constitutional history, and wrote his masters dissertation on “The Knights of the Shire for the County Palatine of Lancashire”; this was published by the Chetham Society in 1937.

Between 1935-8, Roskell was a research student at Balliol College, Oxford, supported by a Langton fellowship. At Oxford, he was much influenced by V H Galbraith and J G Edwards, and wrote his doctoral thesis on “The Commons in the Parliament of 1422” (awarded 1940). In 1938 he was appointed assistant lecturer in history at Manchester, and he remained there until he joined the Royal Navy in 1940. After seeing service in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic, Roskell returned to Manchester in 1945. He was appointed professor of medieval history at Nottingham in 1952, where he remained for a decade until returning to Manchester as professor of medieval history in 1962. He retired in 1979.

Roskell’s area of expertise was the workings and personnel of the English parliaments in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The history of parliament, rather than the central departments of government, was an emerging area of research in the middle decades of the twentieth century, exemplified by the History of Parliament project (to which, Roskell later became a distinguished contributor). An aspect of this research programme was detailed micro-studies of individual MPs, and Roskell became the acknowledged expert for pre-16th century parliaments. In doing, he developed an unparalleled knowledge of the functioning of medieval parliaments and he argued that parliament was a vital political institution, and within it, the House of Commons played an important representative role, a view which ran contrary to the influential arguments of Richardson and Sayles that the Commons was essentially an adjunct of the House of Lords.

Roskell put forward these views in the published version of his thesis "The commons in the parliament of 1422”, The Commons and their Speakers in English Parliaments 1376-1523(1965) and a series of other articles, which were collected in three volumes as Parliaments and Politics in late medieval England (1981-3). Roskell's views were summarised in an important article of 1964, "Perspectives in English parliamentary history". He also undertook an important study of the Gesta Henrici Quinti with Frank Taylor which was published as an fully annotated edition in 1975. Roskell argued that this document was produced as propaganda for the English party at the Council of Constance in 1417. After retirement, Roskell wrote a detailed account of the impeachment of the Chancellor Michael de la Pole by the parliament of 1386, which was published in 1984. Roskell's final work, the History of Parliament’s volumes for 1386-1421, built on his unrivalled knowledge of medieval parliaments, which was displayed in his detailed introductory essay; this was published in four volumes in 1992.

Roskell was elected FBA in 1968; he was an active figure in learned societies of the North West, being president of the Lancashire Parish Register Society and the Chetham Society; he was also a feoffee of Chetham's Library. Roskell married Evelyn Liddle in 1942 and they had a son and a daughter. He died on 1 May 1998.


The archive has not yet been arranged in archival order.

Access Information

The collection is open to any accredited reader unless otherwise stated.

If collection is subject to the Data Protection Act 1998 please use following text as basis for description - it will need to be modified according to circumstances:

The collection includes material which is subject to the Data Protection Act 1998. Under Section 33 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), The University of Manchester Library (UML) holds the right to process personal data for research purposes. The Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) Order 2000 enables the UML to process sensitive personal data for research purposes. In accordance with the DPA, UML has made every attempt to ensure that all personal and sensitive personal data has been processed fairly, lawfully and accurately. Users of the archive are expected to comply with the Data Protection Act 1998, and will be required to sign a form acknowledging that they will abide by the requirements of the Act in any further processing of the material by themselves.

Open parts of this collection, and the catalogue descriptions, may contain personal data about living individuals.

Acquisition Information

Donated to the Library by the Roskell family in 1999.

Archivist's Note

The archive has not yet been arranged into archival order, and individual item have not been allocated reference numbers.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

A number of items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, John Rylands Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.


None expected.

Related Material

The Library has custody of the personal papers of several University of Manchester historians, including T. F. Tout, (TFT); James Tait (TAI), Maurice Powicke (FMP), Mark Hovell (HOV), George Unwin (UNW, Lewis Namier (NAM), Thomas Willan (WIL) and Eric John (EJP).

Roskell deposited an unpublished memoir at the British Academy Library, London.


Gerald Harriss, "John Smith Roskell 1913-1998" Proceedings of the British Academy 130, 2005, 157-174. This memoir has been used to compile the biographical note for this catalogue.

Geographical Names