Anglo-Saxon Charters

Anglo-Saxon Charters

Anglo-Saxon Charters are documents from the early medieval period in Britain which typically make a grant of land or record a privilege. They are usually written on parchment, in Latin but often with sections in the vernacular, describing the bounds of estates, which often correspond closely to modern parish boundaries. The earliest surviving charters were drawn up in the 670s; the oldest surviving charters granted land to the Church, but from the eighth century surviving charters were increasingly used to grant land to lay people.

The term charter covers a range of written legal documentation including diplomas, writs and wills [P.H. Sawyer, "Anglo-Saxon Charters: an Annotated List and Bibliography", (London, 1968)] . A diploma is a royal charter—that is a grant of rights over land or other privileges by the king—whereas a writ is an instruction (or prohibition) by the king which may contain evidence of rights or privileges. The writ was authenticated by a seal and gradually replaced the diploma as evidence of land tenure during the late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman periods. Land held by virtue of a charter was known as bookland.

Charters provide fundamental source material for understanding Anglo-Saxon England, complementing the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and other literary sources. They are catalogued in Peter Sawyer's 'Annotated List', and are usually referred to by their Sawyer number (e.g. S407).

urvival and authenticity

The Anglo-Saxon charter can take many forms: it can be a lease (often presented as a chirograph), a will, an agreement, a writ, and, most commonly, a grant of land. Our picture is skewed towards those that regard land, particularly in the earlier period (though it must also be admitted that the emergence of wills and cyrographs also owed much to later development). Land charters can further be subdivided into royal charters, or diplomas, and private charters (donations by figures other than the king). Over 1000 Anglo-Saxon charters are extant today, for which we rely entirely on those maintained in the archives of religious houses. These houses preserved charters to record their right to the land. Some surviving charters are later copies, sometimes with interpolations. Anglo-Saxon charters were sometimes used in legal disputes, and the recording of their contents in the process is another reason for survival of text where the original documents have been lost. Unfortunately, this practice gave rise to a rather more unhappy one of charter forgery, more often than not by those same monastic houses. Overall, some 200 charters exist in the original form, the remainder as post-Conquest copies, often made by the compilers of cartularies (collections of title-deeds) or by early modern antiquaries.

As charters are records of land tenure, there were numerous forgeries. It is therefore important when studying charters to establish their authenticity. The primary motivation for forging charters was to provide evidence of rights to land. Often forging was focussed on providing written evidence for the holdings recorded as belonging to a religious house in the Domesday Book.


The largest number of surviving charters are diplomas, or royal charters granting rights over land. The typical diploma has three sections [FW Maitland, "Domesday Book & Beyond" (CUP, first published 1897, reprinted 1996),] . The first section is usually in Latin and records the transaction as well as invoking the wrath of God on anyone who fails to observe it - the anathema. The second section which is often in Old English, describes the boundaries of the land. The third section is a list of witnesses - usually powerful lay and ecclesiastical members of the Kings court.

Much of the language of the diploma was explicitly religious [Frank Stenton, "Anglo-Saxon England" (OUP, reissued 2001)] - that a grant was made for the benefit of the grantor's soul or that anyone breaking the charter would be excommunicated. Many early charters were indeed granted in anticipation of the founding of a monastery. However, the document served a largely secular purpose - to document the legal possession of land and to free that land from certain duties that would otherwise attach to it.

Historical significance

Charters are often used by historians as sources for the history of Anglo-Saxon England. It is frequently kings who give land in charters. By seeing what land is given it is possible to see the extent of a king's control, and how he was exercising power in that region. For instance, King Aethelwulf of Wessex granted land in Devon by charter in 846, perhaps dividing the spoils from this recently conquered territory among his men.

Charters give lists of persons attesting the document, and so it is possible to see who was present at the king's court. For instance, we can see that several Welsh kings, including Hywel Dda, were attending Athelstan of Wessex's court in the early tenth century. A person's absence from court can be equally revealing; Wulfstan I, Archbishop of York from 931 to 956 failed to attest any royal charters between 936 and 941, during which time the Battle of Brunanburh was fought between Athelstan and an alliance of the Hiberno-Norse king of Dublin, Óláfr Guðrøðsson and the Scottish king, Causantín. Wulfstan was rather independently-minded, and we may link his absence from the West Saxon court with possible participation at Brunanburh and his later activity as a kind of kingmaker in York. It is also possible to trace a person's career at court through his position in the witness list, as for instance in the case of Eadric Streona at the court of Æthelred 'the Unready' in the early 11th century.

"Burderns" that were due by land owners to the king, such as providing soldiers, resources and man-power, were sometimes relieved in charters. This gives us the chance to examine social structures in Anglo-Saxon times.

A joint committee of the British Academy and Royal Historical Society was set up in 1966 to oversee a definitive edition of the entire corpus of Anglo-Saxon charters, eventually in approximately 30 volumes. Professor Nicholas Brooks is the chairman of the committee in charge and Professor Simon Keynes is the secretary. Eleven volumes had appeared by 2005.


Further reading

*N. Brooks, 'Anglo-Saxon Charters: the Work of the Last Twenty Years', "Anglo-Saxon England", 3, (1974)
*S.E. Kelly, 'Anglo-Saxon Lay Society and the Written Word', "The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe". ed. R. McKitterick, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)
*Simon Keynes, 'Charters and Writs' in "The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England", (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999)
*Simon Keynes, secretary, [ "Anglo-Saxon Charters"] series (British Academy) [ British Academy Review, 1998]
* [ Joint Committee on Anglo-Saxon Charters website]

External links

* [| Charters] Searchable database of Anglo-Saxon Charters
* [ Electronic Sawyer] The revised catalogue of Anglo-Saxon Charters, based on and extending Sawyer's 1968 printed catalogue

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