AN original royal charter from the first year of King John’s reign has been discovered in County Durham.

The rare document, dated March 26, 1200, was found in the archives at Ushaw College, near Durham.

It was discovered by Dr Benjamin Pohl, a senior lecturer at the University of Bristol, while doing research in the Durham Residential Research Library at Ushaw College.

Dr Pohl immediately recognised the document as an original royal charter, prepared and written in what is known as a “court hand”, likely belonging to a professional scribe, who might have been a member of the king’s government department or chancery.

Prior to this discovery, fewer than a dozen original charters were known to have survived from the first year of King John’s reign.

Dr Pohl said: “Discovering the original charter at Ushaw is extremely exciting, not least because it allows us to develop a fuller picture of the people who were present at York on 26 March 1200 and eager to do business with the new king.

The Northern Echo:

The royal charter seal

“Medieval charters are important not just because of the legal acts they contain, but also for what they can tell us about the society and political culture at the time. Indeed, their issuing authorities, beneficiaries and witnesses provide a cross section of medieval England’s ruling elites.

“Our charter might best be described, therefore, as a kind of ‘who’s who’ of Northern England (and beyond) at the turn of the thirteenth century.”

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

Walter and Robert were nephews of Simon, a chamberlain of Durham who had originally received these grants from his bishop, Hugh de Puiset, sometime before 1183.

The bishop’s charter recording the original grants to Simon is also held within the collection, allowing the two original documents to be compared and studied side-by-side.

The discovery of the original charter enabled comparison with a copy, captured on a medieval administrative record known as a ‘charter roll’, which revealed a surprising difference.

While the charter roll copy listed just three witnesses present when the charter was issued at York, the original charter, found in Durham, lists nine witnesses, including some of the most powerful individuals of the time, several of whom held prominent positions in King John’s government.

Professor David Cowling, pro-vice-chancellor at Durham University, which manages the library, said: “Discovering ancient documents like this gives us a fascinating new glimpse into the past.

“For one of our visiting fellows to identify an item from the collection as a previously-uncatalogued medieval royal charter is a wonderful example of the benefits and advances that can be made by working and exploring our archives together.”

The Northern Echo:

The library at Ushaw College, Durham

The Durham Residential Research Library, which is managed by Durham University, provides scholars with the opportunity to research the globally significant collections of Durham University, Durham Cathedral and Ushaw.

Monsignor John Marsland, President of Ushaw, said: “This is a significant and exciting discovery from the historic library at Ushaw. It is as a direct result of the Residential Research Library project which draws on resources from the three major collections and I am delighted that Dr. Pohl’s visit here has increased the breadth of knowledge relating to the Ushaw College Library.”