Medieval Writing
Forged Charters (2)
So how good were these forgeries, and how easy is it to tell whether a charter has been forged? The fact that quite a number are still in dispute indicates that it is not always clear, and this partly relates to a certain variability in the format during this period when the whole process of written administration was still under development. What can also cloud the issue is that at least some of the time, monasteries wrote out, and possibly even drafted the wording of genuine charters, which were then presented to the monarch for ratification with the great seal. The distinction between forged and genuine charters blurs when the distinction is between drafting a document retrospectively and drafting one for the present.
Christ Church charter Charter of Henry I (British Library, Campbell Chart. xxi 6), by permission of the British Library.
This charter is a notification that the king has confirmed to the monastery of Christ Church, Canterbury the lands that they held in the time of Edward the Confessor and William I.
The charter, or writ, shown above has been illustrated and discussed in several books. It is believed to be genuine, although it has a number of unusual features. The script is not the chancery hand of the period, but a form of book hand, indicating that it was most likely written in the recipient monastery. The text is written twice, in Latin and Old English, and has a pretty comprehensive list of rights and privileges spelled out in the text. There is no list of witnesses. The great seal is thought to be genuine, although it is attached in an unusual way to the side of the document. It probably represents the sort of co-operative arrangement between grantor and grantee that made the forging of charters not so difficult an operation.
There are various clues which can suggest the authenticity or otherwise with varying degrees of authority. The producers of forged documents were sometimes a tad careless with the witness lists, so that the listed testators could not possibly have been occupying the positions that are ascribed to them at the same time. There are certain formulae within the document that changed over time, such as the title of the monarch. Willelmus rex Anglorum is the usual for William I and II; Willelmus rex Anglie is a later anachronism, Willelmus Dei gratia rex Anglorum is dubious. Such criteria can only be applied to original documents. In cartulary copies, the scribe may simply have mistranscribed a formula into the contemporary mode. Detecting a forgery through dating the handwriting is a dodgy proposition. If an original charter of William I is written in protogothic script, that is clearly incorrect, but there were scribes who could turn out oldfashioned scripts should the occasion require it.
Edward the Confessor and charter
Sketch from a 15th century stained glass window in Great Malvern church, Worcestershire.
The significance of possessing an ancient charter is shown in the above illustration, which commemorates the grant of Edward the Confessor to the church. Note the charter, with seal attached, dangling from his hand.
The forged Battle Abbey charter shown on the previous page is somewhat peculiar in its diplomatic, being a hybrid between a solemn diploma of the antique kind and an Anglo-Norman writ. However, this was not considered too strange for the time. The script is a perfectly acceptable English Caroline minuscule that could readily pass for an 11th century hand.
Willelmus The title of the king from the Battle Abbey charter (British Library, Egerton Charter 2211), by permission of the British Library.
One clue is that it seems a dei gratia has sneaked in there.
This particular charter falls down on a number of grounds, including its Latin grammar, the fact that certain information which should be there is missing and because the foundation charter of the abbey had never been publicly displayed before 1157. In addition, a seriously telling flaw is that the great seal is a rather bad forgery.
Something in this whole process suggests that there has been a shift in the cultural meaning of the great seal between the time of its introduction and the time that the forgeries were produced. A careful examination of seals has indicated to scholars that a number of abbeys in different areas of the country, including Westminster, Battle, Coventry, Gloucester and Ramsey sealed their forged charters with seals that were made from the same forged matrix and the same red wax. Either there was an itinerant seal forger doing the rounds, or one of the abbeys was acting as a centre of production of forged charters. Close examination of the documents has suggested to scholars that the forgeries may have been produced in no less a place than Westminster Abbey; foundation, burial place and shrine of Edward the Confessor himself.
Westminster Abbey, royal foundation and possible centre of document forgery.
At the time of Edward the Confessor, the great seal was an object that substituted for the actual presence of the king on the occasion of an oral proclamation of a charter. One might assume that nobody would regard lightly the false manufacture of such a significant item. By the 12th century they were churning them out in a process of retrospective tidying up of the records. The seal must have become a much less powerful presence in its own right. It was merely an instrument of authentication of the written words of the charter; a sort of very fancy rubber stamp.
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