A cartulary is simply a register (or compilation) of deeds and charters that relate to land ownership. They were particularly popular with monasteries in the late medieval period as a way of reaffirming endowments that had been made in previous centuries. By copying the abbey’s most important charters into a cartulary, monks were able to channel the authority of long-dead founders and benefactors by bringing them into the present day. Although this means the charters in cartularies are not actually the original documents, they are often the only surviving record of them as the cartulary effectively replaced the need to keep the original. However, many of the earliest gifts and endowments abbeys received had been made orally and in accordance with tradition, were usually declared in front of a public audience, but rarely actually written down. Credible witnesses were seen as more important than a written record of the transaction, with monks relying on word of mouth to ensure they weren’t forgotten. This meant that formal documentation such as title deeds to many of the abbeys’ lands did not exist. As levels of literacy increased and written proof became more important, cartularies were an excellent way for monks to give substance to legal claims. They also happened to be a convenient opportunity for elaborating and embellishing certain grants and privileges where it suited them!
Hereditary complications provide an excellent example of the types of legal challenge abbeys were often faced with. They occurred where tenants’ heirs sought to take advantage of the abbey by refusing to give up lands without substantial compensation. The subsequent disputes could drag on for decades and it took Shrewsbury Abbey thirty years to remove the nephew of Richard de Belmeis from Abbots’ Betton despite a death-bed confession from Belmeis that the land rightfully belonged to the abbey. Belmeis had even been the king’s deputy when unlawfully in possession of the land! Perhaps now you can see why having a written record of the lands owned by the abbey was so important.
The main cartularies for Shropshire are for:
- Shrewsbury Abbey
- Haughmond Abbey
- Lilleshall Abbey
- and Wombridge Priory
As well as their obvious importance to monastic history, they are a fantastic source of information for everyday life and we are lucky enough to have the original of the Haughmond Abbey cartulary here at the archives. We also have published versions of all of the cartularies with an excellent commentary by Una Rees. (These are very useful as the original cartularies were written almost exclusively in Latin!)
Cartularies generally served a dual purpose of practical, estate management and keeping the memory (and thus authority) of its chief benefactors alive.
Most cartularies start with the abbey’s most important charters, like the foundation charter and are arranged by status of grantor, with grants from the king followed by those of bishops and finally laymen.
Cartularies can reveal much about:
- The political landscape of the country
- Trade and urban life
And many other things besides!
The Shrewsbury Abbey cartulary provides an interesting insight into the abbey’s dominance of the milling industry. In a royal charter dated 1121, it was granted milling rights to the whole of the town. This was evidently actively policed, as later charters show the abbey bringing actions against burgesses trying to flout the rules. In 1267, an order was given for three of these illegal mills to be demolished.
Cartularies can also be a rich source of information for keen early genealogists and in particular those interested in families connected with landed estates. They are also useful for understanding the social context in which your ancestors might have lived.
Curiously, some of the charters in these cartularies are well known to be forgeries, which inevitably raises some suspicion as to the accuracy of the whole of text. The Shrewsbury Abbey foundation charter is one of these documents. We know this because many of the details don’t match up with other contemporary sources and some of the gifts it claims to grant to the abbey were actually made much later. However, as long as the information is not taken to be exact truth, these forgeries are actually very interesting and the intention was rarely opportunistic deceit. The previous reliance on oral tradition meant formal charters often did not exist, yet were essential to legitimising claims. Nonetheless, despite these fairly respectable intentions, monks were not above manipulating a situation to their advantage to maintain the abbey’s authority in society. Thus, numerous rights and privileges were significantly elaborated when recorded in these cartularies.