Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

26 January 2019


The British Library holds the world’s largest collection of Anglo-Saxon charters, wills and letters, over 200 of which have recently been added to our Digitised Manuscripts site. An impressive selection of these charters are also currently on display in our landmark Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

What makes these charters, letters and wills so fascinating?

(1) We sometimes know the dates when specific charters were issued

The Hlothhere Charter

The Hlothhere Charter: Cotton MS Augustus II 2

In general, charters are formulaic documents. The main portion of text outlines the transaction, often a grant of land, and then states when and where it was formalised. A list of witnesses might then be added at the bottom. This charter, issued in the name of King Hlothhere of Kent (d. 685), states that it was issued ‘in the city of Rochester in the month of May, the seventh indiction’. This refers to the Roman dating system, split into fifteen-year cycle, which equates to the year 679. 

(2) Charters were often created in response to a meeting or event

Charter of Æthelwulf

Charter of Æthelwulf, king of the West Saxons and of Kent: Stowe Ch 17

This charter was issued in the name of King Æthelwulf (d. 858), who styled himself ‘king of the West Saxons and the men of Kent’; in it, he granted land in Chart, western Kent, to a nobleman called Æthelmod. The small piece of parchment stitched to the bottom reveals that this charter was made in a two-stage process. The main part of the document was drawn up in advance and used at the official ceremony. A note was then made of all the witnesses present, listing the king, his entourage, the archbishop and members of the Canterbury community. These names were copied onto the main document at a later date.

Added names from the Charter of Æthelwulf

3. Charters sometimes confirmed important changes in the Anglo-Saxon Church

Decree of the church council at Clofesho

Decree of the church council at Clofesho abolishing the archbishopric of Lichfield: Cotton MS Augustus II 61

In 787, the bishopric of Lichfield was raised to an archbishopric, most likely at the request of King Offa of Mercia. For sixteen years, Lichfield was the third archbishopric in the English Church alongside Canterbury and York. However, in 803, a church council held at Clofesho confirmed that Lichfield should revert to a bishopric. The charter above confirmed the decision made at that council.

(4) Wills can provide valuable insights into the private lives of Anglo-Saxon noblemen and women

Will of Wynflæd

Will of Wynflæd, late 10th or early 11th century: Cotton Ch VIII 38

Wynflæd was an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who lived in south-western England in the first half of the 10th century. She left a will detailing what should happen to her possessions, which survives in a copy made in the early 11th century. Wynflæd’s will lists several estates, tamed and untamed horses, slaves, coins, livestock, items in gold and silver, and books. The will also stipulates what should happen to her clothing, including her engraved bracelets, linen gowns, caps and headbands. This fascinating document provides an insight into the estate of a wealthy woman in the 10th century in a level of detail rarely found in other sources.

(5) Charters could very occasionally be decorated

Miniature of King Edgar from a charter for the New Minster, Winchester

King Edgar from a charter for the New Minster, Winchester, 966: Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 2v

In some very rare instances, Anglo-Saxon charters could be decorated. A stunning example of a decorated charter is King Edgar’s charter for the New Minster, Winchester, which depicts Edgar, flanked by St Peter and the Virgin Mary, presenting the charter to Christ.

(6) Charters were sometimes consulted several centuries after they were created

charter of King Æthelbald

King Æthelbald of the Mercians and of the South Angli grants ten hides at Ismere by the river Stour and land at Brochyl in Morfe forest, Worcestershire, to Cyneberht, comes, for the construction of a minster, dated 736: Cotton MS Augustus II 3

Inscriptions on the reverse of these charters can often reflect how they were archived. On the back of this charter issued in the name of King Æthelbald of Mercia in 736, it is still possible to see the impressions from where the document was folded for storage. A portion of parchment that would have been exposed is slightly discoloured and bears two inscriptions: ‘Norð stur’ is written twice in a 10th-century hand, and ‘Æþelbald rex’ in a 12th-century hand. These notes would have helped the archivist identify the charter's content without having to open it.

Reverse of a charter issued in the name of King Æthelbald of the Mercians: Cotton MS Augustus II 3

You can explore these charterrific documents on our Digitised Manuscripts site. A full list of all digitised Anglo-Saxon charters from the British Library’s collection can be found here. And you can see a host of Anglo-Saxon charters, letters and wills for yourself in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (until 19 February 2019).


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