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23.11.11 Sharpe et al., Foundation Documents from St Mary’s Abbey, York

23.11.11 Sharpe et al., Foundation Documents from St Mary’s Abbey, York

Given that it was the biggest and most prominent Benedictine abbey in the whole of northern England, with an annual income that in the early sixteenth century exceeded £1000, it is tragic that so very little remains of the vast archive that St Mary’s Abbey in York must once have had. Very few original charters and even fewer account rolls, of either its obedientiaries or its estates, have survived; little, in fact beyond the remnants of its sets of cartularies. Most of the archive seems to have perished in 1644, when the tower in the York city walls where many monastic records were being stored was blown up. Bizarrely, some charters which had been salvaged in the aftermath of the explosion were still extant in the early nineteenth century but have since been lost: the tale is told by N. Denholm-Young in the Bodleian Quarterly Record, viii (1935-8), pp. 95-100 (an account which is not cited here).

An exceptional survivor is part of the book that is now British Library, Additional MS 38816. This comprises a mere thirty-nine parchment leaves, and the first twenty of these have nothing to do with St Mary’s but come from a Cistercian house, perhaps Byland Abbey. The remainder, however, have a group of texts written at different times in the second half of the twelfth century, and these furnish enough material for the set of editions and studies that form the book under review. The texts are printed in full, and all are accompanied by a translation into English.

Add. 38816 as a whole is expertly described and discussed in terms of its codicology and palaeography by Michael Gullick in the first chapter. One valuable point that he makes en passant is that the same scribe wrote entries for both St Mary’s and York Minster in the mortuary roll of Abbot Vitalis (1132-3).

The three longest chapters in the book are by the late Richard Sharpe, written several years before his untimely death in 2020 and prepared for publication by David Crouch. These are an edition and discussion of a set of three royal confirmatory charters, in the names of William II, Henry I, and Henry II (121-201), an edition and discussion of such deeds of gift as can be found that date from before 1140 (203-337), and an introductory survey of the abbey’s foundation, considered in terms of its acquisition of estates (11-119). That each royal confirmatory charter is a forgery and that the deeds of gift are almost all known only from later transcripts did not deter Sharpe in the slightest: rather, they stimulated a magnificent display of his rigorous skills as a diplomatist and historian, as he examined their dates, subject-matter, and grantors.

Sharpe’s notes on the donors together could form a register of biographical details of a vast array of Yorkshire landowners: this book will perhaps be valued most of all for this massive set of notes, all impeccably researched. Indexes of persons and places (though not of subjects, regrettably) make all this scholarship accessible.

To take just one set of Sharpe’s notes, on a confirmatory grant by Bernard de Balliol, datable to 1138×40 (332-7): a deed relating to this is purportedly by Henry I, but Sharpe cogently proves that the scribe must have miscopied its initial S (for Stephen), the original having only an initial at the beginning; further scribal error then expanded H to Henricus. Parallels are then adduced to support this argument. Similar displays of ingenuity and skill abound, and Sharpe’s commentaries are in fact worth reading simply as models of diplomatic editing. Time and again, too, his comments reflect a profound knowledge of twelfth-century charter-making, as well as a perfect Latinity; crucially, depth is added by his deployment of detailed historical knowledge. The existence of such works as the corpus of Early Yorkshire Charters of Farrer and Clay gave him the perfect body of data with and against which to work, so that he could hone and improve on their findings.

The English Monastic Archives website includes two documents relating to St Mary’s Abbey which have not been used here: a seventeenth-century set of excerpts from a roll recording fundatores who were donors to the abbey in e.g. Belton (Lincs.) (Lincolnshire Archives, Brownlow Estate Records, BNLW 1/1/4/55), and a roll of charter-texts about rights in e.g. Overton, in the forest of Galtres (York Minster Archives, COLL 1896/3). It may be that these would have contributed only very slightly to the materials published here, but it is still surprising that they are not mentioned.

Any monastic house that had an early history that was in the slightest degree contested was likely to want to set out what could become the received history of its foundation, and Nicholas Karn’s chapter gives us both an overview of that for St Mary’s Abbey and its broader historical and literary context, as well as its text (339-407). Its monastic community was clearly extremely vigorous, even contentious, in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, having a share in the establishment of Durham Cathedral Priory in 1093 as well as providing the initial group of monks for Fountains Abbey, 1132: some sense of this emerges from the very direct and frank-seeming autobiographic memoir of the protracted foundation of St Mary’s.

Even that does not complete the wealth of material within the book. It closes with editions by Janet Burton of a list of the houses with which St. Mary’s was in confraternity, probably copied into Add. 38816 in around 1200, and by Sharpe of deeds about the setting up of anniversary services for Abbot Stephen (the founding abbot of St Mary’s) and Count Stephen of Brittany, as well as records of the setting up of other anniversaries.

The last word belongs, however, to the Appreciation of Richard Sharpe by David Crouch, with which the book opens. This is a wonderful evocation, fair-minded but sympathetic, of the brilliant scholar that Richard Sharpe was. I can only read it with the deepest sadness at his loss.