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Book of the Month

August 2002

Aldgate Cartulary

London: 1425-1427
Sp Coll MS Hunter 215 (U.2.6)

The August book of the month is a fifteenth century manuscript volume of medieval charters from the Priory of the Holy Trinity, Aldgate, in London. Lavishly produced, its contents offer a fascinating insight into the social and economic life of London from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. 

Folio 1r: opening page 

The Augustinian priory of the Holy Trinity in Aldgate was founded in 1108 by Queen Matilda, Consort of Henry I. An important monastic house from its inception, it enjoyed the support of many of the citizens of London as well as royal patronage. Although it is said that the first Prior spent so lavishly on buildings, books, ornaments and vestments that the monastery was left short of food, he managed to double the Priory's income. After Matilda's death, Henry I continued to favour the house, and its financial position continued to improve throughout the twelfth century, helped by large grants of land such as that of the soke of the English Cnihtengild in 1125. During its heyday, in fact, the Holy Trinity  had interests in some 87 London parishes, gaining much of its income  from owning properties, selling land in which fixed annual rents were retained, and collecting quit rents. Much of this business activity is detailed in the set of administrative documents collected together in this manuscript. 

The documents found in the manuscript are loosely referred to as 'charters'.  These encompass a wide range of non-literary texts, such as diplomas (grants of land), leases, wills, writs, administrative letters, rent lists, summaries of law suits and other miscellaneous documents. In their original form, they would usually have been written out on a single leaf of parchment. This would physically act as legal proof of any ownership/agreement made and be carefully preserved by the beneficiary. The earliest charters in England date from late 670s, although less than less than 2,000 survive from the Anglo-Saxon period; however, there was a huge increase in their production in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries when they began to be used by laymen to convey property to one another. This increase may be said to reflect the growth of a literate mentality throughout the medieval period. The need to retrieve and preserve such documents also became paramount, and collections of copies of important charters in cartularies - such as this volume - were firmly established by the thirteenth century. 

This cartulary was compiled from material in 'ancient books' by Brother Thomas de Axbridge between 1425 and 1427. It is a substantial volume of some 205 folios and, in all, it transcribes over one thousand documents relating to the business of the Holy Trinity Priory from its foundation until the mid fourteenth century. Mostly in Latin, these documents are of varying length and ordered systematically by parish with later folios inserted to maintain the sequence as necessary. The foundation and other charters in the first seven folios are connected by a chronicle that provides a fairly full history of the house. As well as such details as a listing of the early priors and the possessions of the Priory, notable events such as a disastrous fire of 1132 are related.

At the end of this chronicle, Thomas explains that one of the reasons he made the cartulary was in order to facilitate the collection of rents, for, he says, 'the world has progressed to such evil and contradicts ancient facts unless copies of charters are everywhere produced in evidence'. It was to be hoped that such written evidence would settle any disputes over payment of rents to the house and thus 'posterity' would be 'better informed'.

Folio 44v: detail of inserted page

Thomas' main aim, therefore, was to make a record of any documents that would make the Priory's claims more secure. He was ill-informed and misleading in some matters, however: on occasions, for example, he evidently  could not read the documents he was copying and consequently transcribed some names incorrectly.  

Opening: folios 1v-2r

Although primarily a pragmatic document, this manuscript is undeniably a professional and fairly lavish production, particularly when compared with other books of its type. Many of its pages are adorned by richly gilt and flourishing initials, and the openings of the main sections are particularly ornamental. Different artists have been identified at work on the painted and pen-work initials, and two hands can be distinguished in the painted initials; both were working in broadly the same style, but with some variation. The first artist, who was a little old fashioned for the time, painted the elaborate decoration on the opening page: on this folio, an initial incorporates a 'Scutum Dei triangulum' providing a statement of the doctrine of the Trinity; this is topped by a crown (denoting the Priory's royal foundation) that is decorated with leaves and penwork sprays terminating in gold discs and other shapes. This hand also painted the initials in the following eight pages and on folio 179. 

The colours of the second artist, who painted the border and initials on folios 149-150, are less rich, but his work - according to Francis Wormold - is the  more exuberant and inventive. His flower forms include a daisy flower in an elongated form, and the spoon flower. Shown on the page to the right also are his initial 'E' in the form of a crown and the arms of Edward the Confessor, drawn to accompany the charter of Edward above. 

Folio 149r

Folio 150r

Detail from Folio 150r

As well as enhancing the appearance of the document with painted initials and intricate floral sprays, this second artist also incorporates a tinted drawing of a mitred ecclesiastic into his decorative scheme; this is probably purely decorative and cannot be regarded as representing anybody.


Folio 129r (enlarged)

Other, smaller details add further interest to the layout of the manuscript. Included as part of the mise-en-page are numerous pointing hands (or 'manacules'), used to highlight particularly noteworthy sections of text. Penwork initials, meanwhile, are used to flag up the beginning of different documents throughout the volume, and a number of these playfully incorporate grotesque heads as part of their ornament.  

Detail of penwork initial 'H' from 150v

Detail of marginal paraph sign from 165v

The chief interest of the manuscript, however, lies in the information it contains about the economic and social life of medieval London. It is an indispensable resource for tracing the changing topography of the city from the twelfth century onwards, and offers insights into the business methods and legal processes employed in land purchase during this period. Sometimes the transactions are recorded in such detail as to allow the topographer to reconstruct small areas of London at specific times. Furthermore, the records of rent payments demonstrate the pressure of a growing population as properties are increasingly sub-divided: there are many examples of originally large holdings being divided among two or three tenants who then become responsible for portions of the rent due to Holy Trinity. The actual size of tenements is also often documented - the charter below, for example, is a grant to 'Hugh Upchurch, fishmonger, of a certain shop in the Fishmarket in the parish of St Nicholas ... in width along the street 3 ells and 1 inch and in length 3 ells'. 

Detail of charter from folio 111v

While the majority of the charters in the volume are in Latin, there are also some in Anglo-Norman and one in Anglo-Saxon, written out in a close imitation of Anglo-Saxon script. This text is particularly significant for being the earliest document relating to the 'Cnihtengild'. Originally dating from between the accession of Edward in 1042 and the death of Bishop AElfweard on 25 July 1044, it is a writ of King Edward declaring that his men in the guild of English 'cnihtas' are 'to have their sake and their soke within borough and without over their land and over their men, and as good laws as they had in the days of King Edgar and of the king's father and of Cnut'. Little is known about the origins of the Cnihtengild, although this text infers that it existed as far back as the reigns of Cnut, AEthelred II and Edgar. The original cnihtas (or 'knights') of the guild would probably have been responsible servants of magnates owning property in London, appointed to supply their lords with goods coming to the London market; however, in time, independent traders entered the association and changed its character until it became a wealthy association of prominent London citizens. In 1125, fifteen of these burgesses of London gave to the Holy Trinity Priory a large grant of their land, and in return for their gift, they and their predecessors in the guild were received by the Prior into the fraternity of the house. In order that their gift should remain valid and unimpaired, the guild members offered upon the altar the charter of St Edward (copied here) and other charters relating to their donation. 

Folio 149r: detail of Anglo-Saxon charter

Folio 203v: signature of Stephen Batman

The manuscript fell into private hands after the dissolution of the Priory in 1532. Although we do not know who this first private owner was, the manuscript was evidently used by John Stow in his Survey of London (1598). In the sixteenth century it belonged for a time to the Elizabethan antiquary, Stephen Batman, who helped Archbishop Parker to collect the library now in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.  

It seems that the cartulary has been used by many antiquarians and historians in the course of the past five hundred years, although its existence has not always been widely known. It was apparently not referred to, for example, between 1603 (when the second edition of Stow's survey appeared) and the beginning of the eighteenth century. At this point it was passed around by several scholars.  A letter dated 27 January 1713/14 from Dr Thomas Tanner (1674-1735), the antiquarian and Bishop of St Aspah, is bound in at the beginning of the volume; Tanner expresses his happiness that the manuscript has got into the hands of John Anstis (1669-1744), the Garter King of Arms and noted collector of manuscripts. Tanner expresses the view that the cartulary had been quoted by Stow, and asks for confirmation regarding the name of the founder. Anstis was apparently a generous owner - not only did he let Tanner borrow the volume in 1720-21, but the historian  Thomas Hearne (1678-1735) also had access to it, printing its first seven folios in his 1719 edition of William of Newburgh's 'Historia'.  The volume was sold by Anstis' son to Thomas Astle (1735-1803), the palaeographer, in 1768. William Hunter (1718-1783) presumably acquired the manuscript from Astle; he bequeathed it to Glasgow University along with the rest of his library and other collections. It has continued to have been recognized by medievalists as a valuable primary source since that time and was recently exhibited as part of a display of Special Collections material for the Battle Conference on Anglo-Norman studies.

Letter bound in at beginning of volume


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Julie Gardham August 2002