What Are The Anglo-Saxon Charters?

Anglo-Saxon Charters predate the Domesday Book by around 100-200 years, giving us one of the only glimpses we have of what England was like before the Norman Conquest in 1066.

As such, these charters provide uniquely revealing evidence about the history and culture of Anglo-Saxon England. They tell us a great deal about how land was owned, used, and transferred and by whom.

An Anglo-Saxon charter is a formal document, typically in Latin but not always, recording a king’s grant of land or rights.

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It could be bestowed on a religious house or on a layman. The earliest surviving charters date from the 670s and they continued to be used extensively until the Norman Conquest when they became less common but continued to be used for some purposes.

Anglo-Saxon charter
The oldest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, issued by King Hlothhere of Kent in 679

Oliver Rackham

As the historian of the English countryside Oliver Rackham puts it: “In England, as probably nowhere else at so early a date, we have a large set of documents which clothe the archaeological record with vivid detail and tell us what specific pieces of country looked like”.

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Charters are an unrivalled source of knowledge about Anglo- Saxon England and its lands – who owned them, who worked them, and what they looked like.

They represent a remarkable treasure trove of historical insight and information. The term ‘Anglo-Saxon charter’ can be used to describe several types of documents. It primarily refers to the royal diplomas issued by Anglo-Saxon kings which were formal legal documents written in Latin.

Celtic field system
It recorded the landscape that we still recognise today

The term ‘charter’ is also applied, more loosely, to a variety of other documents written in Old English, ranging from records of lawsuits and wills to letters. The charters which are today recognised as formal legal documents describing land use, land ownership, and land rights, number around 1,600 texts.


There are, furthermore, traces of a further 250 charters, which are either lost or incomplete.It is believed that these numbers represent only a small proportion – some historians have estimated it at around one tenth – of the total number of charters produced in the Anglo-Saxon period.

Of the surviving charters, only 300 are preserved in their original form. These original documents are written on sheets of parchment in the original handwriting of the Anglo-Saxon scribes who recorded them.

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The rest are later copies of original documents made by the compilers of cartularies (a term used to describe collections of title deeds) as part of the legal record. These copies might have been made from the eleventh century to the sixteenth.

Anglo-Saxon charter
Writ of King Edward the Confessor granting land at Perton in Staffordshire to Westminster Abbey, 1062–1066

Copies were also produced by early modern antiquaries with a historical interest in the original documents. These documents – original and copied – represent precious and fragile survivals which give us a unique insight into land use, ownership and rights before the advent of the Domesday Book.

So, what exactly was an Anglo-Saxon charter like? What did it look like? What information did it contain?

Tenth Century

As they were used for a long time and across a relatively large geographical area, the form they took changed with their circumstances and wasn’t standardised. For example, from the mid-ninth century onwards, charters frequently included a detailed clause written in Old English which described the boundaries of the area of land concerned in the charter.

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These were known as perambulations and are an especially informative aspect of the charters which will be described in more detail below.

In the tenth century, meanwhile, charters often contained detailed and precise information about the date and place in which the charter was issued which tells us something about how these legal arrangements were made.

Anglo-saxon building
Anglo-Saxon charters describe what the land looked like, how it was spoken about, how it was used, and by whom.

In general, the main components of a charter are as follows: they are usually written in Latin (but with some elements written in the vernacular, Old English), they include a sermon, name the land under issue, describe what sort of transaction is taking place, and list the necessary witnesses to the legal transaction.

They also included a curse on anyone who would interfere with the legal rights laid out in the formal document. In spite of this precaution of a curse, forgeries abound; charters proved rights and ownership, so these forgeries were likely attempts to subvert the law by creating fraudulent claims.

What do They Tell Us?

As we have seen, Anglo-Saxon Charters contain a wealth of information. They cast light on the condition and rights of the peasantry on a particular estate by describing their rights to access and use land.

They suggest the policies of particular rulers by describing the decrees they made about land ownership and land rights.

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Where they are written in the vernacular, they even tell us something about the dialects of the regions concerned and the vocabulary used to describe particular landmarks or practices.

For example, later translations sometimes corrupt the meaning of the original documents by using the word “forest” in place of a more specific original word. But this was a term which was only introduced by the Normans after the Norman Conquest in 1066 to designate areas reserved for royal hunts.

oak tree
Forest doesn’t mean woodland

It did not mean woodland.

The actual terms used in the original document, then, reveal how people thought about their lands, which were unlikely to be identical with the meaning of the word “forest” which didn’t mean wooded area (as it came to be understood) but a restricted one.

The Anglo-Saxon charters can also be used to reconstruct the boundaries of ancient estates, describing historical land ownership.

By describing these premises in significant detail, they also tell us what landscapes have changed and how, as well as what has stayed the same. Or, to put it briefly, Anglo-Saxon charters describe what the land looked like, how it was spoken about, how it was used, and by whom.

What the Land Looked Like

Many charters (though not all) contain perambulations. Perambulations were point by point descriptions written as the boundary route was walked in the direction the sun travels.

It was a description of land created by walking around the boundary and noting down what was seen in order to define the borders of the land under issue in the transaction.

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There are 840 perambulations attached to charters created between 600 -1080 AD. More than half of these date from between 930 and 980 AD. They are less common after the Norman Conquest but there continued to be occasional perambulations included in new charters as late as the seventeenth century.

Iron age hillfort
“Most charters show that England has altered surprisingly little in the last thousand years”.

These perambulations give us a wealth of information which is not available from any other source. By providing visual descriptions of the landscapes the charters are concerned with, they give us an unrivalled glimpse at what pre-Norman England actually looked like.

Importantly and uniquely, this gives us an insight into what has changed and what has stayed the same in the English landscape.


As Oliver Rackham, puts it “Most charters show that England has altered surprisingly little in the last thousand years”. Many streams, hedges, roads, paths, and bridges remain unchanged and are used as landmarks in the perambulations of the Anglo-Saxon charters.

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Furthermore, when the charters were written, the landscape was already filled with history and ancient monuments such as barrows and hillforts appear as markers of boundaries. These things, for the most part, remain where they were. One significant omission from the descriptions of the perambulations are villages and other places where many people lived together.

This is because perambulations only describe the boundary of an estate, not its centre where people were more likely to live. These central areas are, arguably, the places which are more likely to have changed as villages expanded into the surrounding countryside.

anglo-saxon village
They gave us unrivalled glimpse at what pre-Norman England actually looked like.

This may partially account for the surprising continuity of the landscape described in the Anglo-Saxon charters today; the edges of parishes, for example, have historically been less populated and therefore less vulnerable to significant development.

In some cases, however, the transformation has been very significant indeed. For example, the description of London’s Westminster in a charter dated 959 AD is entirely unrecognisable today. The description is as follows:

“First up from the Thames along the merfleot [boundary creek]; to the pollard stump; so to Bulung fen; from the fen along the old ditch to Cowford; from Cowford up along teobern [the river Tyburn] to the wide army-road; from the army-road to the old post-built St Andrew’s church; so into London fen; along the fen south to the Thames to mid-stream; along the stream by land & shore back to the merfleot.”

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This is the description of the West End of London with rivers and fens which have since vanished, and pollarded trees. Nothing could be further from the central London we know. This charter, then, is a window on a lost landscape.

How the Land was Used and by Whom

Another key subject of these charters – besides physical descriptions and details of who owned the land – is an account of the rights which were given to different people, including lay people and religious houses, to use the land and its resources.

interior of an Anglo-saxon house
The Anglo-Saxon Charters told us how owned the lands, who lived on the lands, and how the landscape looked

The Charters contained details of land management and common rights. This tells us a great deal about who accessed the land, how they were entitled to use it and what limits were placed on these rights.

For example, two charters issued by King Henry I granted specific rights to the monks at Chertsey. In the first of these charters, the King orders that “… in all their woods they are to have the power of taking timber for the use of their church, without anyone’s leave.

They may have their own dogs to take hares and foxes and wild cats on their own land, both within and without the forest”.


In a subsequent charter to the same religious house, the King granted the right to take “from their own wood all that is necessary for their own use, without leave of the royal foresters or hindrance from them”.

This is one example among a great many in which people who did not own the land were given rights to make use of it as a shared resource. It also shows, however, that these rights weren’t absolute but subject to limitations and restrictions. In this case, for example, the monks are entitled to take as much wood as they reasonably needed but no more.

In this way, Anglo-Saxon charters played a role in managing the different claims people might make on the natural resources of the land and served to keep these demands in balance.