One of the questions most often asked by visitors to Warwickshire County Record Office is ‘how old is our oldest document?’ to which, at least since 1970s, our answer has been circa 1119.
The document of note1 is a conveyance by Henry, Earl of Warwick, which, ‘for the good of himself, Margaret his wife, and all his ancestors’ he grants the Church of Compton [Murdak] to the Church of St Mary in Warwick. We arrive at the circa 1119 year due to the witnesses named in the document. These include Margaret, his wife; Siward of Arden; Tustin de Montfort; Hugh, son of Richard and Henry the Steward. It has always been assumed that the document cannot date from after 1119 because Henry himself died then. To back this up, the seal of Henry, Earl of Warwick on tag, green wax, showing an equestrian figure with sword and shield, authenticates the deed.
Or so we thought…
And this was the position, or so we thought, until November 2015, when the record office received the publication The Newburgh Earldom of Warwick and its Charters 1088-1253, edited by David Crouch.
Crouch reasons that the handwriting of ‘our’ document is of a later period, belonging rather to the mid to later 12th century (dating it to around 50 years or so after Henry’s death). As for the seal, this appears to accord with seals of a later earl, which Crouch proposes to be Henry’s grandson, William.
It would appear the charter is a later creation. But this doesn’t necessarily mean our document was created to mislead and be passed off as belonging to an earlier time, or to be a forgery detailing a fictitious event. It is known that early medieval conveyances were not generally documented; rather a ceremony before witnesses would take place (often for example, with a piece of earth taken from land being conveyed given over by the donor to the recipient).
Ceremony and documentation
As time went on, documenting the event took place as dual practice with the ceremony, but with the document taking precedence as the all important part of the transaction. Witnesses to events died, but documents made with good quality materials and housed well, survived.
And so perhaps, the grant to St Mary’s was enacted through ceremony only, and as witnesses to Henry’s grant died away (and written practices were becoming the norm in any event) it was decided to strengthen St Mary’s ownership with a charter to this known event.1 And if the document was never meant to be taken as a forgery, a seal of the then earl would seem to be appropriate.
Of course, another scenario also presents itself. It is viable to believe this document to be a copy of an older, original charter. And certainly, contemporary charters for other enactments of Henry’s exist at around our charter’s time and before. Could, therefore, the original have been destroyed during the upheaval of Stephen and Matilda’s civil war (1135-1154), or destroyed as a result of a fire or flood? Mundanely, the document may have just been misplaced.
And where does that leave us?
Certainly with a more interesting narrative concerning one of the record office’s oldest documents. And of course, the record office’s oldest document is no longer Henry’s charter of c1119; rather it is an 1124, Charter of Roger, Earl of Warwick.3
1 Reference CR1886/cupboard 4/top shelf/W6
2 Possibly at the request of the church.
3 This document grants to his canons of Warwick the right to have a dean and chapter, to serve God in the church of St Mary, and to hold all their possessions as freely as the canons of London, Lincoln, Salisbury, and York. Reference DR1146/1.