Notaries around the world have a long, interesting history and a common background. They first became respected for their knowledge of technical matters as public officials in Ancient Rome, where they were often attached to the court.
These Notaries prepared and drew up fair copies of deeds and other legal documents, which were endorsed using the seal of the court and thus rendered ‘public acts’. Eventually, Notaries were granted the right to use their own official seals to give their acts public status.
The Middle Ages
After the fall of Rome, Notaries were appointed throughout Europe, principally by the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. The first Notaries appeared in England in the 11th and 12th centuries. They were Italians appointed either by the Holy Roman Emperor or the Pope. The earliest documented reference to a Notary in England is to Swardius, a Notary involved in the grant of land by Edward the Confessor.
The development of an independent English Notarial profession began in 1279. Pope Nicholas III granted the Archbishop of Canterbury the power or ‘faculty’ to appoint three notaries within a year. A number of Papal Notaries were subsequently appointed.
The role of the Notary in England and Wales became increasingly important around this time, due to the recognition that deeds needed greater authentication. English Notaries also grew in stature due to their involvement in certifying acts of a constitutional nature, such as the deposing of a King.
The Archbishop of Canterbury
As a consequence of the Reformation and the break with Rome, the appointment of Notaries was governed since 1533 by the reigning monarch as head of the Church of England. The monarch has continued Papal tradition by delegating that power to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop is now responsible, through the Court of Faculties, for appointing and regulating Notaries in England and Wales.
The Modern Era
During the 17th century the work of Notaries in England and Wales became increasingly concerned with preparing and authenticating documents connected with international commerce.
Today the Notary’s role in England and Wales is as a public certifying officer appointed by Royal authority to deal with transactions relating to matters overseas. They do this by providing independent proof of documents, transactions and facts to satisfy the requirements of overseas authorities.
In 1884 there were only 48 Notaries in England and Wales, but even now there are under 900. This is a tiny figure when compared to the existence of about 120,000 solicitors and 15,000 barristers in England and Wales.