Fiants and the ‘Surrender and Regrant’ policy

The term Fiant derives from the first word of the usual form of Fiant literae patentes, meaning 'Let letters patent be made'. The Fiants were warrants to the Court of Chancery for the issue of Letters Patent under the Great Seal. Letters Patent were formal royal letters by which all manner of administration was conducted, from grants of land, the making of official appointments, to the granting of pardons, and so forth. Although in theory the Fiants were simply the command to draw up the Letters Patent, during the Tudor period the drawing up of the actual letters was often neglected and so the Fiants sufficed in their stead. The Fiants, unlike the Letters Patent, were rarely issued directly by the reining Monarch.

The original Fiants were destroyed in a fire in 1922, but fortunately the material had been calendared and published attached to the reports of the Deputy Keeper of Public Records of Ireland between 1875 to 1890. This was indeed fortunate, because even where a Letter Patent was issued in London the preliminary Fiant usually contained more information about individuals than the formal document. This is of particular importance in relation to the ‘Surrender and Regrant’ policy which was designed to bring the Irish chiefs within the usual feudal–based land ownership and allegiance structure of the English Crown.

The process of Surrender and Regrant could be protracted. It required the incumbent owner, usually Irish, to surrender his lands to the Crown so that they could then be regrant to him with a formal Crown title. Problems could arise due to there being more than one claimant for the land. At times the concept of territories effectively being in common ownership by the ‘clan’ was in conflict with ‘chiefs’ seizing the opportunity to convert them to personal fiefdoms. Thus when a ‘pardon’ or regrant was issued, the Fiant often mentioned not just the chiefs but also the members of their extended families as well as other tenants, and even their gallowglasses (mercenary Scottish West Highland soldiers).

This list of family and tenants would of course also include any poets or harpers employed by that chief, so their presence in the Fiant did not imply that they themselves were being specifically pardoned due to having committed an offence. Unfortunately the practice of extracting the names of these people from the Fiants without any context has misleadingly merged all of them into one common group, so that those who under the ‘regrant’ policy were effectively bystanders became combined in popular thought along with those people whose ‘pardons’ were actually for having broken the law.