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Charters (Latin carta, cartula) were a key means of land ownership in Anglo-Saxon England. In the pre-Christian period, land appears to have been kept within kindred groups, but at any point in time held by an individual who had demonstrated sufficient loyalty and service to the king - a concept often called 'folcland'. The coming of Christianity in the seventh century complicated matters. When a king gave lands to a church, he was effectively establishing an undying institution. Somehow, the church needed to be able to prove its right to its estates over centuries. The solution was simple - a written document, confirming the donation under the king's authority, and witnessed by his magnates: the charter.

Inevitably, the prospect of guaranteed, permanent landholding - and the opportunity to transfer that ownership to someone else - made charters very attractive for lay magnates. During the seventh and eighth centuries, holding land through a charter or 'book' became increasingly common ('bookland'). By the ninth century charters had become so important to land ownership that a Mercian ealdorman whose charters were destroyed in a fire felt the need to go straight to the king to seek fresh documents. In the tenth century, records from the vibrant land market in the Fens show the importance of charters. In a highly litigious society, the only sure proof of owning one's land was to have a written record: a court meeting would accept charters as incontrovertible evidence, but anyone without a charter was likely to face disputes or counter-claims by previous owners, tenants or even their own relatives.

Using charters

Editions of pre-Conquest charters

Over 1850 charters survive from pre-Conquest England, many in their original form. The corpus of pre-Conquest charters can be accessed online at

Peter Sawyer's Anglo-Saxon Charters: an Annotated List and Bibliography (Royal Historical Society, 1968) provided the first comprehensive catalogue of pre-Conquest charters. The reference numbers which Sawyer allocated to each document are still in use.

The collections of charters preserved in the archives of a number of key pre-Conquest religious houses have been published by the British Academy ( While the commentary in these editions can be highly informative, the publications are aimed at an academic audience, and assume that a reader has a reasonable working knowledge of both Latin and Old English.

Types of land document

Several types of document are included:

Charters: sometimes called 'diplomas', used throughout the pre-Conquest period and invariably written in Latin - though, from the ninth century onwards, frequently with a description of an estate's boundaries in the vernacular (Old English). Early charters usually granted landed estates, though in the tenth and eleventh centuries kings increasingly made grants of privileges. Charters usually included a list of those individuals who were in the king's presence when a grant was made, and acted as witnesses, which can provide an important insight into the composition of the royal court.

Writs: documents used in the eleventh century, in the vernacular, conveying instructions or information from the king in a written format. A writ was frequently directed to the assembled notables, for example at a meeting of the shire court, and was clearly intended to be read aloud. Writs carried the same landholding authority as charters, and to an extent came to replace them under Edward the Confessor.

Wills: gave instruction for how a wealthy man (or occasionally woman)'s properties should be distributed following their death.

Leases: gave temporary possession of an estate to a tenant in return for annual payments. Leases were generally given for three lives - ie the life of the tenant and his two heirs (typically his wife and son).

Understanding charters

S955: a charter of Cnut

S 955 was a grant by Cnut to his thegn Agemund (ON Agmundr) of 16 hides (cassati) at Cheselbourne, Dorset in 1019. Full information can be found on the electronic Sawyer website ( The charter survives through the archive of Shaftesbury in two later medieval copies, from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It appears to be authentic.

The text reads as follows

Pious preamble: even though charters had become routine secular land-documents by the late eighth century, they never lost their religious character. Charters were not only written in Latin, but invariably began by the donor reflecting on the power of God, his own sins and the fleeting nature of the mortal life - often in florid and complicated Latin, to show off the scribe's erudition.

In trino superne deitatis nomine. Uniuersarum conditor gubernatorque rerum ex nichillo cuncta quicquid usquam est aut in superis summum quodue ceteris amenum ineffabili magestatis sue imperio facta fore fecit, 'celum quippe' ut ueridici stoma prophete perite profert 'Domino, tellurem scilicet filiis hominum diuisit'. Postquam uero protoplaustus amaro uetiti gustamine mali preceptum hiriale in obliuionis transgressum preteriens negligenter floccipendit felicemque paradisiace iocunditatis uetustatis lugubriter amisit, ignoratur hucusque quid pro dolor mali, quid mesticie, quid meroris, quid angoris, quidue doloris humanum perpessum sit genus, ob illud quod antecessores fecerant scelus. Sed tandem omnicreantis pia Domini clemencia mortalibus benigniter misericorditerque permisit, quatinus terrenis mundi pragmatibus celica mercari ualeant tripudia, atque qui per boni operis fructum peruenerit et in euum felices sine fine manebit.

Donation: the core of the charter sets out exactly what has been granted and with what reservations or conditions.

Huius amande felicitatis gloria cordetenus ineffabili delectatus, ego Knut telluris Britannie tocius largiflua Dei gracia subpetente subtronizatus rex ac rector cuidam meo ministro appellamine Agemund eternam in hereditatem, sub potestatis mee regimine, aliquam impendo terene particulam mansionis, scilicet .xvi. cassatos ab incolis estimatam, in loci ipsius habitamine quod regionis illius accole Cheselburne nomine solito nuncupant in cosmo, scedulamque istam illi adnotare mandaui quatinus calcetenus prefatum rus possideat postque se cuicumque uoluerit liberaliter iure relinquat hereditario.

Pleased by such heartfelt love of ineffable glory, I Cnut by the grace of God king and ruler of the whole extent of Britain give to my thegn named Agemund [to keep] eternally in heredity, beneath the power of my rule, a particular estate, which is reckoned to be 16 hides, in the dwelling-place which is known in the region as Cheselburn, which aforesaid place he shall possess and after him may freely give and bequeath in lawful heredity.

Rights and reservations: charters generally conveyed land free from obligations - with the important exception of the general requirement for all landholders to perform military service (expeditione) and to build or repair bridges and fortresses.

Maneat igitur hoc meum inmobile donum eterna libertate iocundum cum omnibus que ad ipsa loca pertinere dinoscuntur, tam in notis causis quam ignotis, in magnis et in modicis, campis, pratis, pascuis, communi labore excepto, expedicione, pontis arcisue municione.

And my gift shall remain eternally free with all its appurtenances, as in great matters as in small, in greater and in lesser, with its fields, woods and pastures, with the exception of the general obligations, of military service, and the building of bridges and fortresses.

Anathema: most charters conclude with dire threats of eternal punishment for anyone who transgresses or intrudes upon the donation - another legacy of charters' origin as a way of establishing religious communities during the conversion period.

Sed tamen torpentes auaricie incessus omnimodo in nomine agii saluatoris ab omnibus interdico, eo uidelicet tenore ut meum donum corroboratum sit, eciam siquis alium antiquum libellum in propatulo protulerit, nec sibi nec aliis proficiat sed in sempiterno graphio deleatur et cum iustis non scribatur. Si qui denique mihi non optanti hanc libertatis cartam philargirie liuore depressi uiolari satagerint, cum tetre tortionis agminibus delapsi uocem examinacionis ymera districti arbitris sibi horribiliter dicentis, 'Discedite a me maledicti in ignem eternum', ubi cum zabulicis gehennarum parasitis ferreis sartaginibus crudeli torqueantur in pena, si non ante mortem digna hoc emendauerit penitencia. Prefata igitur tellus undique hiis limitibus circumgirari uidetur.

Boundary clause: written in the vernacular (Old English), the boundary clause describes the extent of the estate being granted. Vernacular literacy was widespread among the thegnly classes from the ninth centuries, at least partly driven by the need to read charters and other land documents. Even if the rest of the document was in Latin, a thegn would be able to see the exact extent of his lands, and perhaps even use his charter as a guide when he walked their boundaries.

Arest of berteswelle on þare ealde diches heued, of þare dich on flexcumbes heuede, on þane ealde paþe, of þane paþe on þa ellen þirnen, of þare þirnen on Deueliscstream, anlang streames on þone hwitenwelle, of þane welle on þane bergh uppen morhelle, of þane berghe on þa ealde berig, of þane bery on þane rugen bergh, of þane bergh on se bergh, of seberghe on þorþiuel, of horþiuele onne þan pol, of þane pole inne þa þornen, of þare þyrnen on þane þorn up an gretindune, of þane þorne on þo stancysten on holencumbe, of þane stancyste on blacmanne bergh, of þanne berghe be anne hefden on hippepad, of þane pade on Cheselburne on shete bergh, of þane berghe on bradenbergh, of bradeberghe on þare diches hirne, of þere hirne on þorndunes cnep, of þane cneppe on þane greate hlinc, of þare linke on burnestowe on þat ealden reshbed, of þane bedde bi streame in þane miliere, of þane miliere on þo apeltreu, of þare apeltreu on þare haren torre on hiwiscbergh, of þane berghe on liscbroc, uppe be broke on þa sticelen lane, of þare lane on þo tweie pettes, of þonne petten on þane hord þiuel, of þane þiuel on þane bergh, of þane bergh on anne þorn stub, of þane stubbe on þane imeren fyrs garan, of þan garan eft on berteswelle.

Dating clause: when the charter was issued. This is frequently expressed as "datum apud..." (literally "given upon") and often says where the grant was made.

Scripta uero est hec cartula anno dominice incarnacionis .mxix. indiccione .ii.,

Witnesses: while charters were important documents, they were ultimately just records of a royal grant which, like any other important business, would be done in public and in front of witnesses. The name of each witness was usually accompanied by the sign of a cross - perhaps sometimes made by the witness himself.

hiis testibus consencientibus quorum nomina infra cerraxantur. Ego Knut gracia Dei prestante rex hoc donum firmaui sigilloque agie crucis impressi. + Ego Leuuig archiepiscopus regis munificenciam Christi crucis uexillo pretitulaui. + Elgiue thoro consecrata regio hanc donacionem sublimaui. + Ego Alfsige episcopus confirmaui. + Ego Brihtwine episcopus conscripsi. + Ego Brithwold episcopus corroboraui. + Ego Athelwine episcopus consolidaui. + Ego Wine episcopus consensi. + Ego Buruhwold episcopus non renui. + Ego Þurkil dux + Ego Godwine dux + Ego Yrc dux + Ego Þelred dux + Ego Eilaf dux + Ego Hacun dux + Ego Þrihwig abbas + Ego Brithtmer abbas + Ego Alfuere abbas + Ego Arfnoð abbas + Ego Alfstan abbas + Ego Brichnod abbas + Ego Athelwold abbas + Ego Acun minister + Ego Hastin minister + Ego Aslac minister + Ego Toga minister + Ego Boui minister + Ego Toui minister + Ego Kaerl minister + Ego Aþelmer minister + Ego Alfget minister + Ego Brichtric minister + Ego Siward minister + Ego Admund minister + Ego Brichtrich minister. +

This particular charter of Cnut is witnessed by Archbishop Lyfing and six bishops, six earls, seven abbots and thirteen thegns (ministri), in order of precedence. While the clergy are English, the earls and thegns are a mixture of Scandinavian and English names, reflecting the combination of old and new in the Anglo-Danish court. Over time, the Scandinavian earls (Thorkell 'the Tall' of East Anglia, Eric of Northumbria, Eilaf of Mercia and Hakon (whose earldom is unclear) would disappear, to be replaced by English names - and in particular Godwine, who here appears in second place and went on to dominate Cnut's court.