The Wrington Charter is described in detail in Wrington Village Records . It records the confirmation by King Edward the Elder in 903 AD of the grant of the manor of Wrington to a Saxon nobleman called Æthelfrith, whose deeds had been destroyed in a fire. The manor was later inherited by Æthelstan. It passed to Glastonbury when Æthelstan became a monk there in 956 AD. But what stories lie behind these bald facts? And who were these Saxon landholders?
The Charter Documents
First we ought to discuss the documentary evidence. Two copies of the Wrington Charter exist today. One is in the Great Cartulary of Glastonbury Abbey that is held by the Marquis of Bath in the archives at Longleat. The other is the fair copy that was made for the personal use of the Abbot. It is known as Secretum Domini and is kept in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. A microfilm copy of this is held in the Somerset Record Office in Taunton. Both versions of the Charter are believed to have been written in 1346, some four hundred years after the events they record. There are very brief references to earlier copies of the Charter in contents-lists of other cartularies and in histories of Glastonbury Abbey.
A great deal of work has been done on the Saxon charters, much since the publication of Wrington Village Records. However, this has often tended to confuse our understanding of what occurred, rather than clarify it! The reason is that most of the copies of pre-Conquest documents that have come down to us contain transcription errors, and some are outright forgeries.
Much work in this area has been carried out by Professor Simon Keynes and his colleagues at Cambridge University1 . A list of almost all known Saxon charters was compiled by P. Sawyer in 1968, and they are now generally referred to by their S-number. The Wrington Charter is S 371. It is one of three in existence that tell a similar story about Æthelfrith’s fire and its
The three charters conform to the same basic structure which implies that they were initially drawn up more or less at the same time by the same scribe or scribes. First there is an account that is common to all three of the circumstances that led to their being drafted. Then there is a brief summary of the essential detail in the charter that had been lost. Finally, for two of the three, comes a description of the boundaries of the manor that was added at a later date.
In the case of S 371, the charter that has come down to us is one that had a sentence added later to show how the estate had passed to Glastonbury. The fact that there are three similar charters that have survived in three different archives telling the same story about the deeds for three different estates lends credence to their content. The other two are S 367 which refers to Monks Risborough in Buckinghamshire and S 367a which refers to Islington. Transcriptions of all three are given at
In other primary sources, there are suggestions that it was King Æthelstan (who succeeded Edward the Elder) who granted the estate to Æthelstan and confirmed its transfer to Glastonbury, and also that King Edmund (who succeeded King Æthelstan) restored the estate to Glastonbury, perhaps after it had been temporarily lost. It is hard to see how all these various accounts can be reconciled but S 371, unless it is a deliberate forgery, probably tells the most believable basic story.
Two contradictory dates are given in the Charter for the confirmation of Æthelfrith’s landholding: 904 AD and the sixth indiction (a method of dating based on a fifteen-year cycle). It is thought that the correct date should be 903 AD.
Several printed transcriptions of the Wrington charter have been produced. That of Walter de Gray Birch3 was based on Secretum Domini, with notes on textual variations in the Longleat copy. Dom Aelred Watkin4 used the latter. A detailed study of the landholdings of Glastonbury Abbey was conducted in the 1990s by Lesley Abrams, now of the University of Oxford. Her book5 provides a wealth of background information on the documents. The information on the people named in the Wrington charter has been derived mainly from The Danelaw by Cyril Hart6 .
The Historical Background and the Royal Succession
By the Peace of Wedmore (878 AD), King Alfred the Great won control of Mercia (the Midlands, south and west of Watling Street). He married his formidable eldest daughter, Æthelflæd, to a Mercian leader called Æthelred, and installed them as Ealdormen or governors of the province. Three sub-Ealdormen, who each governed an allotted area, were appointed under them. Æthelfrith, whose deeds of Wrington and his other manors were lost in a fire, was initially the most junior of these. He is thought to have been descended from the royal house of Wessex and would thus have been a distant relative of Alfred and Æthelflæd. His family estates appear to have been mainly in Somerset and Devon. He was made responsible for the south-east part of Mercia, an area probably centred on modern Buckinghamshire.
Edward the Elder was the second son of Alfred the Great. He succeeded his father in 899 AD but was challenged for the kingdom by his elder brother’s son, who was killed in 903 AD. Edward gained control of most of England and even came to be accepted as overlord by the Scottish king. When he died in 924 AD, he was succeeded by Æthelstan, the son of his first wife. King Æthelstan reigned until he died, unmarried, in 939 AD. His half-brother, Edmond, son of Edward the Elder’s third wife, Ædgifu, succeeded and reigned until 946 AD, when he was murdered at Pucklechurch by a thief who had been exiled. The two signatories confirming the Wrington Charter are King Edward the Elder and Ealdorman Æthelred of Mercia.