The pre-Conquest charters of Christ Church, Canterbury

The pre-Conquest charters of Christ Church, Canterbury

The pre-Conquest charters of Christ Church, Canterbury

By N.P. Brooks

DPhil. University of Oxford, 1969

Introduction: This thesis comprises a study of all the records of the archbishop and chapter of Canterbury that purport to belong to the period before the Norman Conquest. The original plan had been to include a full diplomatic analysis of each document; but partly for reasons of space and partly because such a register makes heavy reading, it was decided that it could more usefully accompany the critical edition of the texts to which I hope to turn next. Instead the thesis is an attempt to throw light both on the charters and on the history of the church of Canterbury by studying them together. For in a period when our knowledge is severely restricted by lack of evidence, the study of diplomatic and of wider historical issues should not be divorced. Whilst it is true that diplomatic, like any academic discipline, can be self-defeating if its range of vision is too narrow, there is also a need if we are to understand our earliest English historical records for basic studies of Anglo-Saxon diplomatic using the principles and methods that have long been practised on the Continent.

The pioneering, if all too brief, work of Sir Frank Stenton on The Early History of the Abbey of Abingdon showed how fruitful the study of the charters of a single beneficiary could be, even though it did not claim to be a work on diplomatic. But until very recently his example has not been followed. Canterbury posed notable challenges and problems. It has preserved more charters than any other English house, and their study could be expected to elucidate the whole field of Anglo-Saxon diplomatic, all the more because a high proportion of the Christ Church charters have survived in contemporary form; by contrast the Canterbury cartularies have preserved abbreviated and distorted versions of pre-Conquest documents whose purpose has never been adequately explained; the charters are also the chief material for understanding the policies and interests of the archbishops in their relations with kings and lay nobles, and for establishing the much controverted history of the cathedral community; above all they are evidence for the endowment of the archiepiscopal church in the first five centuries of its history.

Fundamental to the whole work has been the belief that a document may be used as evidence in the first instance only for the period when it was written, and not for the period to which it purports to belong. For this reason the thesis begins by examining why and how purportedly pre-Conquest charters from Christ Church have been preserved down to the present day, by tracing their fortunes first in the cathedral archives and treasury, then in the hands of post-Reformation antiquaries, and finally in the collections of the British Museum. The whole range of originals, copies, cartulary versions, and modern transcripts are surveyed in their historical context. It is shown that the earliest grants to the archbishops and community, those up to the year 798, have all been lost or destroyed; but that from 798 the Christ Church archives preserved the bulk of the pre-Conquest charters intact until the Reformation, despite Viking raids, accidental fires, mediaeval reorganisations of the archives, and long periods of neglect.

Remarkably a high proportion of the authentic charters are not grants to the church of Canterbury, but to laymen or to other ecclesiastical beneficiaries. indeed the peculiarities of English book-right meant that until the 11th century the church of Canterbury kept no record of how it acquired its estates. Then political upheavals exposed the inadequacies of the archives and led the community to adopt new methods of record-keeping, by recording grants and bequests in their gospel-books, and by compiling a cartulary. It is not easy to distinguish among the gospel-entries the contemporary records from subsequent copies and outright forgeries; but the whole series of texts inserted into the sacred books of the church illuminates the fears, vested interests, and disputes in law of the community in the 11th and early 12th centuries. Similarly the main Christ Church cartulary of pre-Conquest texts is seen as the product of the particular political situation when the see of Canterbury was vacant after Lanfranc’s death. The king and his officials were concerned to exploit the regalian right on an unprecedented scale, and it is therefore no surprise to find the monks documenting in the cartulary their claims to their lands and rights with greater precision than the original charters justify. Subsequent additions to the cartulary reflect the interests of the community in the late 11th and early 12th century. Only with great caution can texts from the cartulary be used as evidence for the Anglo-Saxon period. Their formulae are shown to be largely the invention of the compiler of the cartulary, and there are frequent errors in the dates and in the names of the benefactors.

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