Medieval Studies Charters of the British Isles
Kasandra M. Castle, Michael Gervers
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0189


A charter, narrowly defined, is a written instrument documenting the transfer of property, rights thereto, or privileges. The charter was firmly established as a tool of conveyance in most regions of medieval Britain and Ireland by the 10th century and was, in the post-Conquest period, used at all levels of society. While the number of surviving documents from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales is not as high as that from England, a great deal of information can be gleaned from the materials that have come down to us. The English charter descended from the late-Roman private deed and, while some vernacular documents were produced, most were written in Latin. Study of the particulars of production—the variety of scribal hands, the consistency of materials used—is rendered difficult by the simple fact that the great majority of medieval charters are preserved solely in cartularies, volumes comprising copies of charters and other important documents. Such studies are also complicated by the large number of forgeries produced during the period. However, these problems can, to a certain extent, be circumvented by the detailed study of charter formulae. Medieval charters were highly formulaic and a predetermined set of diplomatic clauses can be found in most documents, a fact that helps with the assessment of their authenticity and date. The continuity of the internal form of the charter from the 7th to 11th centuries was, however, somewhat disrupted by the Norman Conquest of 1066. While the Norman dukes adopted many Anglo-Saxon procedures, forms of land tenure changed drastically, necessitating adjustments in the methods of conveyancing. The roots of many of these modifications were planted in the pre-Conquest transition from the solemn charter to the writ—a private letter form, employed increasingly in place of the charter in the years leading up to and following the Conquest. The existence of a centralized writing agency, or “chancery” is another source of debate. While many argue for an early foundation, the chancery’s formation cannot be conclusively established until the late 11th century. By the late 12th century the royal chancery, now long established, began to “enroll” documents issued by its own hand in several series of rolls, one of these being the Charter Rolls.

General Overviews

A comprehensive introduction to the medieval charters of the British Isles is difficult to come by. Most articles on the subject focus on the minutiae of various scholarly debates, familiar to the seasoned diplomatist but inaccessible to the newly initiated. The sources below can be used to remedy this gap, providing extensive literature reviews and serving as entry points to the major debates within the field. Sharpe 1996 and Boyle 1992 are good places to begin acquainting oneself with the study of medieval charters generally. Flanagan 2005 focuses on the introduction of the charter in Ireland but also discusses its place in medieval Europe as a whole. For the Anglo-Saxon period, Kemble: The Anglo-Saxon Charters Website is an easily accessible and well-rounded jumping off point, while Keynes 2008 provides more in-depth analysis of the central issues of the field. Bates 2005 and Flanagan and Green 2005, the former an essay within the latter, direct attention to the British Isles in their entirety, providing an extensive look at Insular diplomatics.

  • Bates, David. “Charters and Historians of Britain and Ireland: Problems and Possibilities.” In Charters and Charter Scholarship in Britain and Ireland. Edited by Marie Therese Flanagan and Judith A. Green, 1–14. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230523050

    Provides a concise yet comprehensive overview of the major themes of the charter scholarship of the British Isles. Points out gaps in the body of scholarship as a whole and develops ideas for enhancing future studies.

  • Boyle, Leonard E. “Diplomatics.” In Medieval Studies: An Introduction. 2d ed. Edited by James M. Powell, 82–161. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1992.

    An introductory essay with a good bibliography. Traces the process by which diplomatics, the study of written records, came into being. Outlines the process of analysis central to working with historical records—the who, what, how, why, where, when, and with what assistance of diplomatic pursuit.

  • Flanagan, Marie Therese. Irish Royal Charters: Texts and Contexts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    Discusses the introduction of the Latin charter form into Ireland and the possibility of the existence of a pre-Anglo-Norman vernacular charter tradition. The second chapter is a succinct overview of the form and function of the Latin charter in medieval Europe as a whole.

  • Flanagan, Marie Therese, and Judith A. Green, eds. Charters and Charter Scholarship in Britain and Ireland. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230523050

    A volume of essays covering the production and use of charters in England, Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, and Wales, including reviews of current scholarship as well as assessments of the influence of charters on royal administration and authority.

  • Kemble: The Anglo-Saxon Charters Website. London: British Academy, Royal Historical Society Joint Committee on Anglo-Saxon Charters.

    A complement to the Anglo-Saxon Charters project (British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences 1973–, cited under England, Pre-Conquest), the Kemble website serves as an excellent introduction to early English charters. It includes sections on archives in which extant charters are preserved, diplomatic parts, cartularies, etc. and links to the eSawyer (cited under Finding Aids).

  • Keynes, Simon. “Anglo-Saxon Charters: Lost and Found.” In Myth, Rulership, Church and Charters: Essays in Honour of Nicholas Brooks. Edited by Julia Barrow and Andrew Wareham, 45–66. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008.

    Discusses the early antiquarian proclivity for the acquisition of charters and how the gathering, cataloguing, and transcribing activities of these early historians, along with the loss of documents as a result thereof, shaped the extant corpus.

  • Sharpe, Richard. “Charters, Deeds, and Diplomatics.” In Medieval Latin: An Introduction and Bibliographical Guide. Edited by F. A. C. Mantello and A. G. Rigg, 230–240. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996.

    An introductory encyclopedia entry to medieval charters and diplomatics of western Europe generally. Gives a detailed account of diplomatic forms and the circumstances of production that might produce variation.

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