THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

16 August 2014

The Lacock Abbey Cartularies

A cartulary or chartulary (derived from the Latin chartularium) is a collection of charters, title-deeds and other documents relating to a specific, most often religious, institution.  They survive in the form of books and, less commonly, rolls.  Some are finely copied and decorated, but the majority are plain productions.  This reflects their functional purpose as repositories of records that were essential then – and highly useful now – for understanding the administration of the land, property and finances of a cathedral, monastery, parish church, hospital, or fraternity.  The British Library possesses around five hundred cartularies or similar gatherings of documents, including the earliest example from a religious house: Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII, from Worcester Cathedral Priory, made in the first half of the eleventh century.  A large proportion of these were part of the ‘foundation’ collections of Robert Cotton and Robert Harley and his son Edward that were brought together with the creation of the British Museum in 1753. 

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The front binding of the ‘older’ cartulary, wooden boards covered with white-tawed skin with a single clasp (now gone), England (Lacock), mid-13th century, Add MS 88973
 

The newest addition to our collection of cartularies was in 2011, with the accession of those of Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire.  In two volumes that each retain a medieval binding, these are now Add MS 88973 and Add MS 88974.  They have been fully digitised and have recently been loaded to our Digitised Manuscripts site. 

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Copy of a charter recording the grant by Ela of the manor of Lacock for the foundation of a nunnery, Add MS 88973, f. 7v
 

The first, ‘older’ cartulary contains copies of some of the earliest charters relating to the Abbey and its foundress and first abbess, Ela, countess of Salisbury (b. in or after 1190, d. 1261).  Possessed of royal connections of a sort through her marriage to William Longespée, an illegitimate son of Henry II, Ela was also the sole heiress of William Fitzpatrick, 2nd earl of Salisbury.  She thus commanded considerable wealth, which she used to found and endow a new abbey over several months in 1229/30.  Her original plan was for a house of Cistercian nuns, but the decision in 1228 by the General Chapter at Cîteaux not to accept responsibility for any further female houses left Ela little choice but to accept the Bishop of Salisbury’s recommendation in April 1230 that the house follow the rule of St Augustine. 

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Detail of a list of the acquisitions made by Lacock Abbey during the abbacies of Ela and Beatrice, Add MS 88973, f. 57v
 

The manor and village of Lacock formed the nucleus of the Abbey’s possessions, which were augmented in stages by further benefactions not just from Ela, but from her son William Longespée (II)

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Documents and notes in Latin and French, copied by several hands, Add MS 88973, f. 76v
 

The charters in the first volume are arranged in a very rough chronological order.  The core part of the manuscript was copied in stages between the mid-13th and mid-14th centuries.  The involvement of numerous scribal hands of different periods indicates that the volume was produced in fits and starts, an impression confirmed by the insertion or stitching in of loose sheets of parchment, or copying of additional charters in blank spaces at later junctures. 

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Detail of the opening of the section containing charters relating to Calne in the ‘Newer’ Cartulary, Add MS 88974, f. 91r
 

The second volume, ‘newer’ cartulary, by contrast, appears to have been copied by a single hand and is arranged in such a way as to suggest a concerted attempt to impose order on the abbey’s documents.  They are sorted topographically into eighteen sections, providing a convenient geographical overview of the extent of the Abbey’s holdings: from Calne and Heddington to the east, Sherrington and Chitterne to the south, Winterbourne to the west and Chippenham to the north. 

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Detail of a confirmation of William (II) Longespée of a charter relating to Lacock Abbey originally issued by Ela in the ‘Old’ Cartulary, with a marginal cross-reference to the third charter in the Lacock section of the ‘New’ Cartulary, Add MS 88973, f. 8v

The second volume, though later and containing duplicate copies of many charters, was by no means intended to replace the first.  That they were intended to function as a pair is suggested by their very similar binding – they may have been bound around same time, probably no later than the mid-fourteenth century – and confirmed by their contents.  The first volume contains marginal cross-references to documents in the second, allowing the reader to gain a chronological and geographical overview of the abbey’s holdings. 

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Detail of the same confirmation, copied into the ‘New’ Cartulary, Add MS 88974, f. 2r
 

The Lacock cartularies join another manuscript relating to the history of the Abbey: Cotton MS Vitellius A VIII, which combines the Annals and the Book of Lacock.  Unfortunately, it was badly burned in the fire in 1731 at the Ashburnham House, where the Cotton collection was kept prior to its deposit at the British Museum.  Much of the Book of Lacock is entirely illegible, though luckily a copy made in the late 16th century survives as Harley MS 5019.  The two cartularies acquired by the British Library are thus especially important for the study of the history of this Abbey, its endowments and administration.

- James Freeman

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