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Ancient royal charter discovered in Durham

(26 March 2019)

Dr Benjamin Pohl with the royal charter (left) and an earlier charter by Bishop Hugh de Puiset from before 1183 (right). Both documents are held in the archives of Ushaw College Library. Credit: Dr Benjamin Pohl

An ancient royal charter might not be what everyone expects to find when they come to work, but for one of our visiting fellows that’s exactly what happened.

Dr Benjamin Pohl was recently in Durham on a visiting fellowship and came across the rare, original charter by chance whilst studying medieval manuscripts held at Ushaw College Library, along with our archivist Dr Jonathan Bush.

Exciting discovery

The charter is dated 26 March 1200, the first year of King John’s reign. Before now fewer than a dozen original charters were known to have survived from the first year of King John’s reign, making this discovery even more exciting.

The charter, which was written in what is known as ‘court hand’, was most likely prepared by a professional scribe, who might have been a member of the king’s government department or chancery. It also includes the royal wax seal.

It confirms the granting of possessions in County Durham, including the hamlets of Cornsay and Hedley Hill, to Walter of Caen and Robert FitzRoger, Lord of Warkworth and Sherriff of Norfolk and Suffolk.

Surprising difference

Discovery of the original charter meant it could be compared with a medieval administrative copy known as a ‘charter roll’, which revealed a surprising difference.

Whilst the charter roll copy listed just three witnesses present when the charter was issued at York, the original charter lists nine witnesses including some of the most powerful people of the time, some of whom held leading positions in King John’s government.

Discoveries like this give a fascinating insight into society and political culture of the past and show why exploring archives is so important.

Ushaw College Library is part of the Durham Residential Research Library, which gives people the chance to research the fascinating collections of Durham University, Durham Cathedral and Ushaw.

Find out more:

  • Follow the Durham Residential Research Library on Twitter here.
  • Read more about our fascinating special collections here.
  • Watch a video about the discovery here, while Dr Benjamin Pohl talks about why this find is so exciting here.
  • Find out about studying in our Faculty of Arts and Humanities here.
  • Dr Benjamin Pohl was a Lendrum Visiting Fellow at the Durham Residential Research Library. Dr Pohl is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Bristol.

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