How our Saxon Charter was re-discovered

Report by Pat Wilson in Newsletters no. 6, May 1975 and no.7 September 1975

There is a description and, in the Appendix to The Settlement of Wheathamstead & Harpenden (Harpenden & St. Albans WEA 1973) a full translation of Edward the Confessor’s Charter of 1060. It is the deed by which Edward gave “a certain holy parcel of land, namely ten hides of common land situated in a place which the inhabitants of the district call in their own speech hwaethamstede (to) his servants in the convent which is called westmynstre.” The boundaries of this estate, which included herpedene, have been fully explained by Dr. I.P. Freeman in the booklet – and subsequently explored. How the original Charter itself survived and was re-discovered in 1966 is interesting.

From Westminster to Rothamsted

The original document, Westminster’s title to the parishes of Weathamstead and Harpenden, must have been put away with the Abbey’s muniments. About a hundred and fifty years afterwards the name of Rothamsted is first mentioned, having by then (1212) risen to the status of a manor. At a date which I have not yet discovered the Charter must have been handed over to the Lord of the Manor of Rothamsted with the documents of title. Only a fourteenth-century copy of it survived, in a register of deeds with the Westminster Abbey muniments.

In 1611 Jacob Wittewrongle (1558-1622) obtained a mortgage on Rothamsted by means of a loan to Edward Bardolph, then Lord of the Manor. The year after Jacob’s death his widow Anne bought the manor outright for her five-year-old son John. On attaining his majority in 1639 John – later Sir John Wittewronge, first baronet – became Lord of the Manor. With the title he would have taken over the deeds (including the Charter) and manorial records. All these (including the court rolls and bailiff’s accounts, a wonderfully complete series from 1273) remained at Rothamsted with the Wittewronge, Bennet and Lawes families throughout three centuries. The last number of the Lawes-Wittewronge line to live at Rothamsted, Sir Charles, died there in 1911. His family were dispersed and the manor house was leased for nearly thirty years. Charles’s son John died in Australia in 1931 and the family decided to sell almost the whole estate including the manor house which was bought by the Lawes Agricultural Trust in 1934.

In the Wittewronge-Lawes family care until 1934

Apparently the family bundled up the bulk of the Wittewronge papers in a large trunk which was deposited at the office of Rumball and Edwards at St. Albans. Here, in 1935, they were examined and some of them transcribed by Bernard P. Scattergood MA FSA of ‘Bennetts’ who prepared a ‘Rough Calendar’, in two volumes, of part of the contents of the trunk. He missed the Charter.

D.H Boalch MA, Librarian at the Experimental Station, drew extensively on these documents while working on his history ‘The Manor of Rothamsted’ (publicised 1953) and about a third of them were taken back into the care of the Library of the Experimental Station. He does not refer to the Charter either. The other two thirds were with Sir Charles Lawes- Wittewronge’s grandson, Sir John Claud Lawes, in the Channel Islands until 1965 when he transferred them to the County Record Office at Hertford for safe keeping.

Discovery of the Charter

In 1966-7 Peter Walne MA FSA FRHist.S, the County Archivist, was negotiating with the Trustees of the Lawes Agricultural Trust for the transfer of the remaining third on indefinite load to the Record Office. In addition to the documents listed by Scattergood were some papers and books which had belonged to Lady Caroline Lawes, widow of the first baronet – a family bible, letters, postcards, etc. In a volume in a nineteenth century binding labelled “Scrapbook” with a lot of family and papers and a few mediaeval documents, Lady Lawes had stuck the Charter. And there, going through the papers prior to their removal to Hertford, Mr. Walne found it. When I first heard this story in 1972, I wrote to Mr. Walne to ask if any comments had been published about this astonishing discovery. He replied “The only contemporary comment I can recall is my own – “Good grief, an Anglo-Saxon Charter’ ”.

So far as Mr Walne is aware, there are no printed references to the original. In Guide to Anglo-Saxon Charters: An annotated List and Bibliography by P.H. Sawyer (Royal Historical Society, 1968) entry 1031 (p.306) refers only to the fourteenth century copy in the Westminster Abbey archives and not to the actual original which is now in the County Record Office at Hertford (D/ELW Z224).

Transfer to Hertfordshire Archives – HALS

After this unique document had this once more been brought to the light of day, it was carried off in high triumph to the County Record Office. Interest in what the Charter said and the way in which it said it was re-awakened. It is a formally handwritten document inscribed on vellum. In the top left hand corner is an introductory sign of the cross beneath which are boldly embellished alpha and omega. The main text is set out in long unbroken lines of Latin in a careful and decorative script, yet with individual irregularities that give it character.

In the first WEA history booklet (The Settlement of Wheathamstead and Harpenden) Mr. Palmer’s translation of the original chirograph is given (p.i. of the appendix). After a brief introductory theological ‘Grace’ (occupying 2.7 lines of the original – “In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord ……… reach out to the kingdom of eternity.”) the King’s dedication of Wheathamstead Estate to Westminster is described with much verbal elaboration and flourish. (4.7 lines – “Remembering these things, therefore, I, Edward ….. to be possessed for ever by hereditary right. “) The unconditional terms of the gift, the penalties for infringement them and on an open invitation to other benefactors to augment the King’s generosity are equally elaborately emphasised. (7.4 lines – “that house with all things that pertain to it …….unless he shall beforehand have made amends.”).

Description of the boundaries in Anglo-Saxon and a different hand

Then follows a section inserted in another hand. The characters are smaller and differently mannered. The language is Anglo-Saxon. It enumerates the estate boundaries in detail – a task which was possibly delegated to a local official. (3.6 lines – “These are the bounds of the manor ….. and so to Marford.”). With considerable research this Anglo-Saxon passage has been ingeniously interpreted by Dr. Ian Freeman in N-L No. 4, Dec. 1974. It is compulsive reading – and walking.

The conclusion (1.4 lines – “The munificent distribution of this bounty ….. witnesses whose names are had below:”) reverts into Latin and is inscribed by the original hand, as are the names of the sixteen illustrious witnesses with whose agreement the gift is made. A note in the title of the translation that the document is signed is incorrect. The names of the witnesses, each prefixed by a small sign of the cross, are carefully inscribed by the writer who set out the main text, and in his same orderly manner. According to the text only Edward’s seal was used and the two archbishops, Stigand “joyfully” and Kynsin “diligently”, marked the document with signs of the cross. The rest – bishops, earls and thanes alike – simply “agreed” and may have testified to this in some ceremonious manner. (The archbishops’ crosses are not apparent on my copy which is a photostat provided by the Record Office). If the occasion of the signing reflected, even in part, the flamboyance and formality of the language and the document, we can picture it as a ceremony of great splendour and rejoicing.

Challenges for the translator

Mr. Palmer claims no special authenticity for this translation but it has the solemnity and panache implicit in the original. The Latin is peculiar: for example, Stigand is recorded as impressing “the triumphal trophy of the holy cross on this royal gift.” At first sight “agiam crucem” would be translated “hateful cross” and yet, though the cross might be thought hateful in that it was the instrument by which Jesus died, the word is a somewhat heretical departure from the more usual description which would be “glorious” or “holy”. The word for “holy” was the key: “agiam” here is not Latin but Greek! The text is misleading in other respects.

The theological preamble carries in itself the deep-seated conviction of Christians throughout the first millennium that Christ was on the point of returning to earth. Everyone believed the end of the world was so imminent that they would all be there, taking part in it. The years passed. Some of those who had been with Jesus when he prophesied his return actually died. The centuries passed. Within the church, now crusting over as it became established, the Return remained an indelible article of faith. As the first millennium drew to a close, expectation heightened. After all, a thousand years in God’s sight were no more than yesterday and here they all are in 1060, a handful of days late, it is true, penning a Charter while there is still “time for business in this transitory life.” The conventional religious preamble to wills of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were no less a product of their period in the theology of the church than are these religious presumptions interspersed throughout the text of the Charter. We of its “herpedene” are fortunate to have such a document preserved for our enjoyment.

(In preparing these notes I have drawn on correspondence or conversations with Dr.
Freeman, Mr. Cawley, Mr. Walne, Mr. Palmer and others. I hope I have not misinterpreted them. My curiosity of course, was triggered by Mr. Munby’s WEA course from 1970-73. EPW)

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