Swereford, Alexander de (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 55
Swereford, Alexander de

by Hubert Hall
Alexander of Swerford in the ODNB.

SWEREFORD, ALEXANDER de (1176?–1246), baron of the exchequer and the reputed compiler of the ‘Red Book of the Exchequer,’ was probably born and bred in the west of England, perhaps at Swereford in Oxfordshire, the parish from which his surname is derived, and of which he was himself successively vicar and rector on the presentation of the monastery of Oseney. In this case it is likely that he was educated at the abbey with which his name is otherwise connected. On the other hand he was in equally close relationship with the monastery of St. Peter of Gloucester, one of the benefactors of which was an Emma de Swereford, while he had a nephew Simon of Gloucester. His west-country extraction apparently accounts for his archidiaconate of Shropshire and his diplomatic missions in the Welsh marches. The greater part of his life was passed in residence at Westminster and St. Paul's, in the performance of his laborious duties as clerk and baron of the exchequer, and canon and treasurer of the church. Like so many other clerical officials of the period, Swereford acquired a considerable property in land, but this seems to have been situated chiefly in the eastern counties.

When Alexander de Swereford entered upon his long period of service at the exchequer he was perhaps engaged in the service of one of the chamberlains under William of Ely, the king's treasurer (1199–1222), and he may probably be identified during this period with the ‘Alexander Clericus Thesaurarii Londoniæ’ who was employed on various missions in connection with the conveyance of treasure.

In 1216 he was acting as chaplain to the bishop of Coventry, with whom he went abroad. It was in the same connection probably that he held a prebend in the church of Lichfield.

In the fifth year of Henry III (1220–1) he was sent on a diplomatic mission to Llewelyn, prince of North Wales, and about the same time he is described as archdeacon of Salop. In 1227 he was present at an important council held at Westminster, and in a report of the proceedings hereat entered by himself in the ‘red book of the exchequer’ he is styled ‘the king's clerk.’ In the twelfth year of the same reign he was sent on another diplomatic mission to the court of Rome. At this time he was a canon of St. Paul's, holding the notorious prebend of ‘Consumpta per Mare’ in Walton, and on 15 Jan. 1232 he was appointed treasurer of St. Paul's, an office which he retained until his death, and not, as generally stated, until 1240 only. The famous ‘Liber Pilosus,’ one of the registers of St. Paul's, contains several interesting notices of his administration as treasurer, and his name frequently occurs as an official witness in the deeds executed by the church during the period of his office. At the same time there are numerous indications of the archdeacon-treasurer's continued favour at court and of his preferment in the exchequer.

In the twelfth year (1227–8) he received a grant of twelve marks annually as a provisional maintenance in the king's service, together with several grants in subsequent years of oaks from the king's forests for fuel, of wine, and of the tower in the city wall nearest to Ludgate, together with license to erect a building there.

In the sixteenth year (1231–2) he received the custody of the county of Berkshire during pleasure, and he was employed in the same year in another diplomatic mission to the Welsh marches. In the eighteenth year (1233–4) he sat as one of the king's commissioners to hold an inquiry respecting the chamberlainship of London. On 6 July 1234 he received another provisional maintenance—namely, forty marks yearly—and on 21 Nov. following he was appointed baron of the exchequer. The rolls of the court during the next twelve years bear ample witness to his legal industry, and among the cases heard before the barons are several that concerned his own interest as a landed proprietor. In this connection he seems to have held lands in Tewin, Hertfordshire, in Fobbing, Essex, in Talworth, Surrey, as well as in Bedfordshire and Oxfordshire. In 1243 the archdeacon received a grant of the reversion of any living in the king's gift that should be worth a hundred marks. He was still occasionally employed by the crown in affairs of state. He was one of the commissioners appointed in 1245 to investigate a case concerning the liberties of the London Mint, and he took part in supervising the returns made to the great feudal inquests of the middle of the thirteenth century known as the ‘Testa de Nevill’ [see Neville, Jollan de].

Swereford died in harness. He sat as baron throughout Trinity term 1246, but his death is recorded during the Michaelmas sittings, probably on St. Frideswide's day, 19 Oct. He was buried in front of the altar of St. Chad in the church of St. Paul's, which he had endowed with a chantry of one priest.

Like his great predecessors, whose ‘science’ he is so fond of recalling, Swereford was not only learned in exchequer lore, but a collector of historical precedents and state papers. He has been generally regarded, on the strength of an autograph dedication and other personal allusions, as the compiler of the ‘Red Book of the Exchequer,’ a miscellaneous collection of official precedents, statutes, charters, and accounts which ranks next to Domesday Book among our books of remembrance in age and historical importance. The manuscript, which is preserved in the Public Record Office, was first published in the Rolls Series in 1896 (3 vols.), and was edited by the present writer. The ‘Red Book’ contains possibly only a portion of the ‘Parvi Rotuli’ collected by Swereford. These were placed at the service of Matthew Paris, who has referred to their historical value in several passages, and has given us the following obituary notice of their author: ‘In elegance of figure, in beauty of features, and a mind endowed with many forms of learning, he has not left his like in England.’

[Several essays have been written upon Swereford's life and work, and the scattered notices contained in Madox's History of the Exchequer, Le Neve's Fasti, and Newcourt's Repertorium have been brought together in Hardy's Catalogue, iii. 107, with some additional information. These accounts are, however, not only exceedingly imperfect, but also frequently erroneous. The truth is that the facts of Swereford's life, like those of most of the great mediæval clerks, must be laboriously gleaned from manuscript records. These facts are given in the edition of the Red Book of the Exchequer in the Rolls Series (pt. i. pp. xxxv–xlix) from the Patent and Close Rolls, the Memoranda Rolls, ancient deeds and other records of the Chancery and Exchequer, from monastic cartularies and contemporary chronicles, and from the Liber Pilosus of St. Paul's. An extremely unfavourable estimate of Swereford's work and historical authority, by Mr. J. H. Round, appeared in the English Historical Review for July and October 1891. Reference should also be made to the Hist. MSS. Comm. ix. App., Archæologia, xxviii. 261, lii. 169, to Prof. F. Liebermann's Einleitung in den Dialogus, and to the edition of Matthew Paris in Mon. Germ. xxviii.]

H. H.