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Law and Order and Magna Carta – Secrets of a Christ Church Priory Register

Law and Order and Magna Carta – Secrets of a Christ Church Priory Register

The utilitarian and dull titles often afforded to documents in archives belies the magnitude of what can be found in them, and such is the case with ‘Register E’ of Canterbury Cathedral. This register is one of a series that came about due to the foresight of Henry of Eastry, elected Prior of Christ Church Priory, Canterbury in April 1285; a position he held until his death in 1331. Register E’s contents reflect a massive shift in legislation trends and even includes a copy of the Magna Carta that was once held by the priory at Canterbury Cathedral.

Much of Eastry’s early life before becoming a monk is lost in the mists of time but we do know that he was a clerk in Archbishop Kilwardby’s household, a Canterbury treasurer (twice) and monk-warden for the East Anglian estate s, positions that contributed to Eastry’s administrative ability and probably helped him develop the skill to foresee the impact of changes in legislation and policies formulated by archbishops, kings and popes. Eastry would no doubt have viewed the thirteenth century’s significant changes to royal and ecclesiastical government together with the major enhancements to canon law, begun with Gratian’s Decretum [c.1140], and strengthened with the publication of Gregory IX’s Liber Extra [1230], as requiring a robust and wide-ranging set of archives.

Additionally, he would have observed the growth and development of the legal profession, and the emergence of statutory laws from Edward I, which impinged on all levels of English society. Royal investigations such as the Hundred Rolls and quo warranto proceedings were moving the burden of proof from customary acceptance to the possession of authenticated and proven documentation, a burden of proof applicable to both lay and ecclesiastical courts. It is the impact of these two jurisdictions and the potential for disagreement at their boundaries, the ‘grey areas’, which moved Prior Eastry to protect Christ Church Priory, where possible, from dangerous precedents being set. Faced with this increased legislation and the need for documentary proof, it is evident that Eastry had little or no choice but to commission a major overhaul of the Christ Church archives.

The richness of the content of all registers produced during his priorate is testament to establishing Christ Church’s rights and privileges and provides us with a unique portal to examine the priorities of a major Benedictine monastery. The Christ Church registers can be divided into five categories: a) cartularies of title deeds, and royal and papal grants of licences and privileges; b) general estate memoranda; c) letter books; d) sede vacante administrative documents; and e) lease registers.

The best preserved is Register E (CCA-DCc/Register E), which measures 16 by 11 inches and consists of 408 leaves of vellum bound in leather on stout boards, a binding that dates from 1913; it is a unique register and, ignoring the later entries in cursive hands, was not updated in a book-hand after 1331. Register E is perhaps better described as a cartulary, which genre Patrick Geary observes as being important for their memorial significance. It consists of fair copies of nearly two thousand charters, deeds and compositions relating to rights and privileges granted to the Priory and including significant Royal charters from both English and French Kings.
It is entitled Registrum omnium Cartarum et Composicionum Ecclesie Cantuariensis, yet despite this grandiose title it does not contain all Christ Church charters and compositions.

Register E052However, it does contain a very important charter that was highly relevant to the Medieval Church, King John’s Magna Carta. The very first clause of this historically significant document guaranteed the freedom of the Church in England. Interestingly the charter’s title is engrossed (copied) on the previous folio, where it is referred to as Carta euisdem magna De Ronnemed. The inclusion of Magna Carta in this register is key to the recent identification by Professor David Carpenter of one of the two copies of the 1215 Magna Carta held at the British Library as that which had originally been sent to Canterbury Cathedral. This document had been removed from the Cathedral’s collections in about 1630 by Sir Edward Dering (d. 1644), at the time Lieutenant of Dover Castle, who gave it to Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631)

The example opposite is a superb example of medieval illumination with the initial letter J [representing the first letter of King John’s Latin name – Johannes] extending for two-thirds of the folio and highlighted in red and bordered in blue. The top of the letter J is decorated in blue and the design may possibly represent a boat.

Registers and cartularies were not necessarily lavishly illuminated, such illumination often being restricted to the initial letter of the charter. Register E is no different in this respect as the example from a folio of French Royal charters illustrates. The letters that begin the charter wording are Register E040alternatively coloured blue and red, with each letter being in-filled with a decorative pattern that in the case of the “N” and “P” are remarkably similar. From a close examination of the register it is probable that illuminations were completed after the main body of the charters had been engrossed, as a number of folios have blank spaces where illumination was not completed.

Register E has an interesting three-tier structure with two discrete indexes that give exact foliation for direct access to a specific deed, a fact that may suggest that Register E was the exemplar for the five registers in the series. The first tier has nine categories under which deeds were engrossed; each entry is preceded by Roman numerals, the example in the image is xxxv, specifying the medieval folio where the particular category begins.

Although Magna Carta obviously takes much attention, especially in this 800th anniversary year, there are many interesting and valuable documents in Register E, such as a set of charters granting wine to the monks of Canterbury. The initial grant was made in 1179 by Louis VII of France following his visit to St Thomas Becket’s tomb at Canterbury to pray for his sick son. This grant was renewed by successive French kings into the late 15th century; there is however a break in the grant during the Hundred Years War.

In addition to Register E, Eastry’s priorate was supported by two other personal registers. The first is a Letters Close register [CUL MS Ee.5.31], a register consisting of copies of letters to Christ Church proctors, Florentine merchants, deeds, compositions and other letters relating to Christ Church business. The other register is entitled memoriale Henrici prioris monasterii Christi Cantuariensis [BL MS Cotton Galba E.iv] also dating from 1285 and referred to as The Memorandum Book of Henry of Eastry. The register contains copies of royal and papal charters, governing ordinances, visitation articles, surveys of arable and pastoral farming, and other Christ Church business.

The significance of this register however rests with the meaning of the adjective memoriale. Its meaning could refer to a remembrance, which the register certainly was, however it is possible that the word was chosen to mean a memorial, that is, a thing hallowed by some memory and to be treasured by successive Priors of Christ Church.

Arguably, this collection of extant registers can be considered as memorial objects, objects which when viewed in totality preserve an image – a memory of Christ Church Priory. The ease of access to individual pieces of information, provided by tables of contents, magnified the usability of these document above any other type of traditional cartulary. It is also self-evident that the ability to gain rapid access to important privileges and substantiate Christ Church’s rights was crucial to ensuring that no one, not even the king, the archbishop or the pope, could set a precedent against Christ Church.

John Moon: MEMS Friend
Jayne Wackett: Editor

Further Reading:

Nigel Ramsay, ‘The Cathedral Archives and Library’, A History of Canterbury Cathedral (Oxford University Press, 1995)
Patrick Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance (Princeton University Press, 1994)

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