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819-Year-Old Royal Charter Issued by King John Found in University Archives

A visiting historian happened upon the medieval document while conducting research in Durham, England

The royal document was signed by nine witnesses (University of Bristol)
smithsonian.com

Long before he signed the Magna Carta, England’s King John issued a charter granting the transfer of two County Durham hamlets from a local chamberlain to his nephews. Signed with the regal seal and dated to March 26, 1200—the first year of the unpopular monarch’s reign—the document was believed to be one of the many royal charters lost over the intervening centuries.

Thanks to a chance encounter at Durham University’s Ushaw College Library, however, the 819-year-old decree has now been rescued from an eternity spent gathering dust. As Jack Malvern reports for the Times, Benjamin Pohl, a visiting historian from the University of Bristol, happened upon the handwritten charter while searching for unrelated materials in the library’s archival safe. Penned in the distinctive “court hand” style used by professional scribes and accompanied by a cracked seal depicting the Angevin king riding into battle, the document immediately stood out as an authentic royal charter.

According to a University of Bristol press release, the charter is one of fewer than a dozen surviving documents dating to the first year of King John’s reign. Rather than garnering attention due to its relatively mundane subject, the rediscovered decree is significant for serving as what Pohl calls a “kind of ‘who’s who’ of Northern England (and beyond) at the turn of the thirteenth century.”

The existance of the document itself has long been known to historians because of an extant “charter roll,” which records all charters issued by a particular court. Interestingly, Atlas Obscura’s Matthew Taub writes, the charter roll replica names just three witnesses—the Archbishop of York, the Chief Justiciar of England, and the Sheriff of Yorkshire and Northumberland—while the original names nine.

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The king's wax seal was found alongside the 819-year-old charter (University of Bristol)

“[The charter] allows us to track movements of powerful individuals: … barons, bishops, sheriffs,” Pohl tells the Times’ Malvern. “It’s a good way of gauging the movements of the king and the people who [derived power from him].”

As Malvern notes, the County Durham charter was one of at least eight issued in York on the same day. Given the number of individuals whose names are included on the document, as well as the wide range of decrees issued, Pohl suggests that March 26, 1200, found King John holding court in the northern stronghold alongside petitioners, court officials and local authorities alike.

The rediscovered charter transfers possession of two Durham hamlets, Cornsay and Hedley Hill, to Walter of Caen and Robert FitzRoger, Lord of Warkworth and Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk. Originally, the Bristol statement explains, these lands were held by the pair’s uncle Simon, a Durham chamberlain who received a grant detailing the claim sometime prior to 1183. According to I News’ Josh Barrie, this grant also happens to be housed at the Durham Residential Research Library collections, enabling historians to compare the contemporaneous documents for the first time.

“Medieval charters are important not just because of the legal acts they contain, but also for what they can tell us about the society and political culture at the time,” Pohl says in the statement. “Indeed, their issuing authorities, beneficiaries and witnesses provide a cross section of medieval England’s ruling elites.”

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