15.12.02, Kelly, ed., Charters of Chertsey Abbey

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S. Jay Lemanski

The Medieval Review 15.12.02

Kelly, S. E., ed. Charters of Chertsey Abbey. Anglo-Saxon Charters, 19. Oxford: Oxford University Press for The British Academy, 2015. pp. 216. ISBN: 978-0-19-726556-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
S. Jay Lemanski
Missouri Western State University

Anyone having worked with Anglo-Saxon charters will be as nearly familiar with the name Susan Kelly as with that of Peter Sawyer. Of the currently extant nineteen volumes of the Anglo-Saxon Charters series, she has edited eleven (this current volume included) as well as co-edited two others. Her experience with charters and familiarity with the Anglo-Saxon corpus comes through in her edition of the sixteen charters of the abbey of Chertsey (Surrey). (Note: while one may protest that there is a distinction between charters and the diplomas of Anglo-Saxon England, this review will use the terms interchangeably.) This volume, however, is more than a simple edition of charters: it is in many ways an example of how a scholar, skilled in the genre, is able to glean from them as much historical information as possible. Although this collection may not come from the most august of houses, if only for such tutelage this volume is certainly worth having on one's shelf.

The book is divided into two halves. The first begins with the abbey's history from its founding in the seventh century until its dissolution in 1537 (1-34). This is followed by a history of the archive, a description of the manuscripts, and a discussion of their authenticity (34-45). There follows a discussion of Chertsey's holdings, which includes a gazetteer of the estates. Each of the entries provides information about each estate from the Chertsey charters, the Domesday Book, and from other diplomas, if available (45-73). This section concludes with a list of known abbots, using various sources (charters, chronicles, and county histories) to flesh out their careers (73-78).

The second half of the book is the actual edition of the charters and their boundary clauses, which Kelly treats separately (87-169). Each text is preceded by a manuscript citation, a list of where edited, its Sawyer number, and when applicable its edition in Gelling's Early Charters of the Thames Valley (1979). There follow two appendices. The first comprises editions of four papal privileges granted to Chertsey, and the second is a partial edition of an historical narrative found in MS London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A. xiii, fols. 20r, 35r, and 47v (177-79). This latter text is particularly interesting because it records that the monastery was raided by the Vikings, the property plundered, and many monks killed--an event whose historicity Kelly questions (17-18; see discussion below).

This slim volume ends with a number of indices (181-94). The first and the second are the expected listing of personal names and place names. The third, however, is a very helpful index and lexicon of the Anglo-Saxon boundary clauses edited in the book. The final two indices provide a short lexicon and index for certain Latin terms, as well as a list of the formulas used in the charters for invocations, proems, dispositive verbs, and royal titles.

The purported pre-Conquest material, both authentic and forged, is preserved in two sources. The first of these is found in The National Archive (TNA), the Public Records Office (PRO), among the documents produced by the chancery (C), collection 52. This collection, dated to the thirteenth century, contains thirty-nine rolls; the one containing the Chertsey material is roll four. The first ten rolls were edited by Lionel Landon (Pipe Roll Society, new series, 17, 1939). Seventeen items in this roll pertain to Chertsey, only three of which claim to be of pre-Conquest origin: three writs of Edward the confessor (#15, #14, #12). Included is the privilege of Victor II granted to Chertsey abbey (Appendix I, C, 175).

The second and most important source is the cartulary preserved in MS Cotton Vitellius A. xiii, which Kelly dates to c. 1260. She describes this source and it history on pages 37-38. She convincingly argues that the impetus for this compilation was the application for an inspeximus (i.e., process of inspecting and confirming the validity of a charter or group of charters) that was made under Abbot Alan (1223-61) in 1256 (33). Given the importance of this manuscript it is surprising that Kelly does not provide a better "site map" of it, clearly laying out the contents and order of the relevant material. At times Kelly's descriptions of what material is located in the folios are somewhat vague. Below is my own attempted reconstruction; though not having collated the manuscript myself, I cannot vouch for its accuracy.

Of the sixteen charters edited, Kelly has ascertained that only four of them (#1, #4, #10, and #12) reflect authentic material, and even these show signs of revision (35). What makes forgeries particularly interesting is that one must study not only the context of the text's original composition, but also the context of the time to which the charter claims to belong, and its possible significance. Kelly handles this task with a skill that comes from her familiarity with the corpus and thorough research. Admittedly, some of her conclusions may be seen as rather speculative; yet, given the erudition of her work, even these cannot be simply dismissed.

As an example of her analysis, I have selected at random her discussion of charter #9, found in MS Cotton Vitellius A. xiii, 41r-43r (S 752), with edition and commentary on pages 141-148. This charter purports to be a general confirmation of the house's liberties and estates by King Edgar (King 957/959-75). Kelly, however, argues this text was actually fabricated during the abbacy of Wulfwold (1058-84) or around the period when the house fell under the control of Ranulph Flambard (1092-1100). She points out that this king is significant to the monastery, because the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) records under the year 964, that Edgar had driven out the "priests" from Chertsey and settled in their place reformed monks, with Ordbeorht as abbot (20). Given its mention in such a national record, it would make sense that the monks of Chertsey would strive to associate such a confirmation with Edgar's reform of the house. This event is also recorded by William of Malmesbury (Gesta Pontificum, chapter 73), who emphasized that Edgar sought out the previous charters pertaining to Chertsey, in order to restore to the house lands that had been appropriated by certain nobles. Given that Kelly dates the charter between forty and twenty-five years before William wrote his history, she concludes it is most likely that William acquired his information from the Chertsey community itself (18).

Kelly regards this charter as a forgery, because so many of its parts are clearly drawn from other diplomas. Charter #9 is closely identical with charter #11, another forgery purporting to be by Edward the Confessor. The formulation of both charters #9 and #11 seems to draw from a charter of King Ine, dated 704 (S 245). Though the charter of Ine lacks a proem, Kelly points out that the proems of #9 and #11 mimic those of the seventh and early eighth centuries (such as S 1164, 1169), which could have provided a model for the forger. Further, there seems to be confusion regarding who the abbot was in the time of Edgar: charter #9 states the abbot was an otherwise unattested Aethelstan, though the abbot at the claimed date of the charter would have been Ordbeorht (144-45).

Kelly does outline the factors that could suggest that the charter is genuine. She points out that the dating clause has the correct year and indiction for the reign of Edgar, and that the witness list bears appropriate names (144). The dependence of this charter on predecessors is also explainable, in that it is possible that draftsmen of Edgar's charters would have used appropriate ancient charters as a model (145). In addition, since it is clear from the ASC that the house of Chertsey had come under Bishop Aethelwold's reform (904/909-84; Bishop of Winchester, 963), Aethelwold would have been interested in the earlier histories of the monasteries he reformed, and could well have commissioned a charter confirming its estates and privileges (146).

Nevertheless, Kelly convincingly argues that the evidence leads to the conclusion that #9 is a forgery, and in fact was used as the model for two other forgeries produced for St. Paul's, London (S 453 and 1035) (143). The fabrication of such a charter would make sense in the context of the first quarter of the twelfth century. Around 1110 Abbot Hugh (abbot 1107-28) rebuilt the monastery and clearly sought to restore the splendor of the house. This could also explain the unique use of Matthew 16 in the extended anathama, highlighting the exalted position of Peter, and so the house dedicated to him (31, 145). The sophistication of her analysis rests on her familiarity with the evolving nature and style of Anglo-Saxon charters as well as with individual charters. Her analysis of #9 illustrates that knowledge and her skill in weighing the evidence.

Perhaps less persuasive is Kelly's argument that the story of the Danish massacre at the Chertsey community is to one degree or another a fabrication (17-18). We certainly may join in Kelly's skepticism regarding the claim that as many as ninety monks were killed by the Danes, as stated in the narrative section of MS Cotton Vitellius A. xiii, fol. 35r, and even more the assertion from the Anglo-Saxon portion of the narrative that 190 monks lived in the community at that time (App. 2, 178). In addition, the story of a miraculous revelation leading to the discovery of their burial is clearly based on other such hagiographical accounts. Nevertheless, one might be less eager to conclude that "the whole story was concocted at a later date, to account for the discovery of a mass grave on an abandoned minster-site..." (17). Further, she argues that the story was composed to explain the discrepancy between the number of estates claimed to be granted by the Anglo-Saxon kings against the comparatively meager holdings of the community after the conquest (29). It is equally possible, however, that such a fall of the monastery would account for an actual loss of lands. Exaggeration and the insertion of divine intervention do not necessarily call the entire account into question. I do not wish to overstate Kelly's position. She herself acknowledges that William of Malmesbury's account mentioning the collection of the monasteries ancient charters from all quarters would suggest that their records had been scattered due to some major disruption in the community, perhaps borne away by the survivors of the raid (18). One might lend greater credence to this historical claim than Kelly suggests, and accept that there had been a significant attack on the community during the Viking Wars, though the graves of the monks may not have been discovered until the building of the new church in 1110 by Abbot Hugh.

One might argue that the charters edited in this volume do not have the same historical significance as those from greater houses such as Abingdon or Peterborough. However, given that the bulk of the diplomas are forgeries, these charters provide an opportunity for Kelly to demonstrate the kind of analysis needed to assess the validity of such documents. She also exemplifies how one equipped with a familiarity of the diplomatic corpus can skillful draw a great deal of historical information from such a small and admittedly disreputable collection of charters.

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