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Beyond the Archive Door: Medieval Charters

Posted By : Emily Naish Monday 3rd November 2014

This is the first in an ongoing blog highlighting items of interest in the Cathedral's archive and library.  One major part of my role as Cathedral Archivist is to update the current manual catalogues and indexes.  Over the last few months I've been designing a new catalogue structure so the records are organised in a more logical manner but keeping all the rich information about each document for which I have my predecessors to thank.  I thought I'd start at the beginning with organising the archives relating to the Cathedral's foundation and earliest history.  These archives include charters, royal letters patent, statutes and similar official documents forming the basis of the Cathedral's rights and authority.  This also connects well with current interest around Magna Carta which is, of course, a charter and forms part of this collection. 

A charter is simply a document that lays out the granting of rights or privileges, often issued by the monarch.  The charter illustrated in the gallery attached to this post was issued by Henry III on 1st August 1240 and grants to Robert, Bishop of Salisbury, the rights to hold fairs including one annually at the bishop's manor of 'Rammesbyr' (Ramsbury). In return the Bishop will 'quit-claim' the market he has established at 'Rammesbyr' and which was detrimental to the king's market at 'Merleberg'.  (To 'quit-claim' was to transfer your interest in a property or other right).  However, the Bishop's men can still sell bread and ale and other foods at 'Rammesbyr'.  At the bottom of the charter would have been attached Henry III's great seal, the three holes though which the seal threads would have passed are still clearly visible but the seal has long since been cut off.  

To show how the seal would have originally appeared I have included a photograph of a monarch's great seal from another charter in the archive, that of Edward I in 1294 (see gallery link below).  The monarch's great seal was double sided with the king on horseback on one side demonstrating his military prowess and on the other side seated on his throne dispensing justice.  You can also see how the threads were attached.  King John's seal on Magna Carta was attached in the same fashion and the seal holes partially remain.

Some charters have survived in the archives as individual documents, the text of others has survived as they were copied around the time that the Cathedral received them, as was the custom, into volumes known as cartularies.  Two medieval cartularies have survived in the Cathedral's archives; the Register of St Osmund and Liber Evidentiarium C (ie 'Book of Evidence', the C standing for Cathedral, a similar book survives in the Diocesan archives but labelled B for Bishop).

View the medieval charter gallery.