May is an exciting month for Exeter’s Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. As a part of Dr Levi Roach’s AHRC funded grant ‘Forging Memory: Falsified Documents and Institutional History in Europe, c.970-1020’, a series of events will be held across the University, and the Cathedral and its Library & Archives exploring Exeter’s genuine and fake medieval documents.
In the 1060s, shortly before the Norman Conquest, the canons at Exeter Cathedral produced a series of fake royal charters. These forgeries claimed that King Æthelstan of England (924-39) had granted the church multiple pieces of land along the Exe valley. These fakes tell us little about the reign of Æthelstan, but they do provide a fascinating snapshot into the concerns of the eleventh-century cathedral community and its leader, Bishop Leofric.
Medieval charters were created to record a transaction between two parties, such as a king and a church. As such, they capture the interests of both the donor and the recipient. In contrast, a fraudulent charter only represents the concerns of those who later forged it. Medieval forgeries can therefore provide us with a privileged view into the thoughts and concerns of the clerics who produced them. In the case of Exeter Cathedral, the forgeries in the name of Æthelstan were created to try and enhance the church’s properties: none of the lands ‘Æthelstan’ supposedly granted in the charters were held by the Cathedral in the eleventh-century. Through these forgeries, the canons tried to provide proof of their ancient right to things which did not belong to them.
Forgeries can tell us about more than just a community’s nefarious ambitions, however. The ways they were composed reveal how medieval people thought about their past. Often, when completing fake documents, forgers would try and copy the style or handwriting of other ancient documents; they were aware that fakes had to look the part. In turn, the authorities invoked in forgeries reveal what parts of the past were most important to a community. At eleventh-century Exeter, it seems that King Æthelstan was a foundational figure.
Including the Æthelstan forgeries, Exeter Cathedral’s Library & Archives hold sixteen pre-Conquest charters – an exceptionally large number for a regional archive.
Between 13-31 May 2019 some of these charters, both forged and genuine, will be displayed in an exhibition held at Exeter Cathedral’s Library & Archives, titled Forging the Past in Medieval Exeter. The exhibition explores how and why the canons at the eleventh-century cathedral produced forgeries, placing their production in the context of changes within the bishopric and Viking invasions. Also displayed throughout the exhibition is the so-called ‘Golden Charter’ – a charter issued by King Æthelred ‘the Unready’ in 994 to the Bishop of Cornwall, in which the see’s privileges are defined and secured. While the contents of this charter are significant in themselves, the charter’s epithet comes from the fact that all its capital letters are covered in gold leaf. The charter is the oldest surviving golden single sheet charter from Anglo-Saxon England. This unique status led to the ‘Golden Charter’ being loaned to the British Library for the internationally acclaimed exhibition Anglo Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, held from October 2018 to February 2019.
Running alongside the exhibition are a series of public tours on Saturday 25, Monday 27 and Tuesday 28 May. These tours provide a unique opportunity to see some of the Archive’s Anglo-Saxon charters up close. They will explore the motivations of specific Exeter forgeries, as well as the dynamic life of these documents in the 1,000 years after they were written. These tours are free, but numbers are limited so booking is essential – please sign up for tickets here.
The month of forgery events is rounded off by Levi Roach’s public talk, ‘Fake founders and counterfeit claims: the forged documents of medieval Exeter’, held in the Cathedral Chapter House at 19.00 on Thursday 30 May. In this talk, as well as discussing the forgeries produced at Exeter during Bishop Leofric’s episcopacy, Levi will place these fake documents in their broader British and European contexts. Again, this event is free, but please do book your seat in advance here.
Dr Jennie England, researcher on AHRC-funded ‘Forging Memory’ project