Monday, 8 July 2013

King Offa's 790 Charter for Londonwick and Portus Hastingas et Peuenisel

London, Hastings and Pevensey may have been Frankish/Norman colonies in medieval England, settled by Frankish colonists from 785 onwards.  The burgesses of these ports described inland England as "foreign".   Hostility and tensions grew as the size and wealth of the ports increased.   Godwin sacked and seized the ports in 1052. With London and other church lands at risk in 1066, Normandy, France and the Roman church allied to conquer England and place William of Normandy on the throne.

I’ve been trying to find the full text of the 790 charter whereby King Offa confirmed the 785 grant of ports at Hastings, Pevensey and Londonwick to Saint Denis for some time.  Today I finally found not one but two transcriptions of the charter in Latin, but only partial translations to English.  

Modern scholars say the charters are forged, but only based on analysis of the cartulary, not the lost original charters with seals intact.  Scholars that saw the originals in the 19th century thought them real enough.  It is difficult to know one way or the other, but what we can observe is the history that followed and reason whether there might be some historic basis for the Franci and the Frencisce - tribal Anglo-Normans living in coastal settlements for centuries - to concentrate in Hastings, Pevensey, London and coastal ports under their protection.  Many records of battles refer to Franci and Frencisce fighting alongside Saxons to defend England from Vikings.  All of this suggests there might more validity to the Saint Denis charters than is usually accorded them on the basis of philology alone.

Never one to shy from some fun Latin translation, I’ve rendered my own quick and dirty translation of the 790 royal charter below.  This is a fascinating document, confirming the grant of three principal ports of early medieval England to the national church of France.  If the charters were given effect, then Hastings and Pevensey likely remained Anglo-Norman ports for more than 250 years, until taken by Godwin of Wessex - King Harold's father.  London would remain Frankish influenced much longer, into the 13th century, with its independence secured by a further charter from William the Conqueror in 1066 addressed to both English and Frankish burgesses.

Why would an English king give London, Hastings and Pevensey to France?  For the care of his soul and the stability of his kingdom, sure, but also because Saint Denis was a commercial powerhouse and would bring the dynamic commercialism of early medieval France and his hero Charlemagne into staid and parochial England through profitable and efficient administration of the ports.  It was the same rationale which would establish Hong Kong by treaty between China and Britain centuries later.  Also, the Danes had become much more aggressive, even overwintering in England the year before, so King Offa would be highly motivated to adopt the system that Charlemagne had employed to fund and organise walled borough towns under administration of the church as strongholds against the Vikings.

King Offa emulated Charlemagne, with whom he regularly corresponded, in developing England once he had conquered and secured the formerly tribal kingdoms into a unified realm. 

  • He established mints that standardised the English silver penny with the like coin used in France.  These coins were styled much superior to anything before or after among the Saxon kings, evidencing the immigration of Italian or French coinsmiths during Offa's reign.
  • He brought in the Tribal Hideage to determine property rights, land use and taxation.
  • He organised the countryside into territorial hundreds, with a borough town given to a church in every hundred to promote markets, trade and industry. 
  • He promoted the marriage of his sons and daughters (unsuccessfully) with the heirs of Charlemagne that the kingdoms either side of the Channel might become closer entwined through posterity.
  • He endowed the Roman church in England richly with lands and commercial privileges to promote the civilising and stabilising influence of Christianity among a widely dispersed, pagan, tribal set of peoples whom he sought to govern as a single, united realm.
  • He adopted Carolingian forms for diplomas and charters and used a well-crafted seal in contrast to the barbarous style of his predecessors and successors.

If the Saint-Denis charters were given effect then Hastings, Pevensey and London ports were the medieval equivalents of Hong Kong, Singapore and Macao: colonies to be settled and run by foreigners to promote inland trade and commercial development.  Chinese rulers could have overrun Hong Kong at any time with enough political will, but they did not and they do not today because trade and technology are more important than sovereignty and taxes over a few square miles of port and a few stroppy foreigners whose departure would weaken and diminish the future prospects of an emerging economy.  

English, Franks, Normans and other ambitious settlers came to the colonies of London, Hastings and Pevensey to set up businesses and prosper from trading with the 'foreign' inland English from the security of the ports.  The English are referred to as 'foreign' in port documents of the day and places like Rye Foreign in East Sussex carry the distinction in their names today because Rye was a member port of Hastings.  Citizens of the ports were “law-worthy” - endowed with repulican self-governance independent of manorial or king's law.  The ports offered duty-free markets, just like ports and airports still do today, which made them very attractive and established the model for ports into modern times.

Where “Londonwick” is located has been a matter of dispute.  It has been placed outside the City of London’s walls below the Strand and as far away as Sandwich, but I think it is pretty clearly Billingsgate.  London-wick literally translates as tidal, estuarine port at London.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says Mellitus was the first bishop in Londonwick, making it clear Londonwick means London.  There is no reason to think King Offa’s geography so bad that he couldn’t find London, and there is every reason to expect that London then, as today, attracts many immigrants from across the Channel. 

Billingsgate itself may be named for the practice of stamping duty paid on imports.  Bulla means stamp or seal, such as would have been given on customed goods at the port by the port reeve who collected the taxes.  There was a Bulverhythe (bull at haven) near Hastings and a Bullhythegate at Cambridge.  Very likely the names evolved once from the location of customs houses at the port gates.  Certainly port replaces wick in common usage at London after the 8th century, indicating a change in administration from manorial law of the king to church law.  London-wick becomes London-port.  The wick-reeve (vicgerefe) becomes the portreeve.  Port was Frankish and Roman usage, wick was Saxon.

More to the point, the Benedictines of Saint Denis would have established a church at the port of Billingsgate to administer trade at the port.  There was a church dedicated to Saint Botolph, the first Benedictine saint of England.  There are three other churches dedicated to Saint Botolph, each outside a principal gate of the City of London.  Very likely the commercial footprint of the monks expanded out from the port to control all trade in and out of London, exactly as they controlled all trade in and out of Paris.  There was also a St Botolphs church at the landing gate to medieval Cambridge.

Under the early laws of Saxon England, all sales of any item exceeding a very small sum were required to be witnessed in a port by a portreeve.  Also, visiting boatmen were given freedom of the port, but not allowed to venture further into English lands.  For both these reasons it would be important to control access in and out of London and other major medieval ports.

Why is all this important?  Because Godwin of Wessex and the young Harold hated the French and the Normans, and resented their freedom from tax and toll as Anglo-Danish manorial overlords of Wessex.  Godwin coveted their gold and their silver and their ability to tax trade across the Channel and inland.  They sacked and seized Hastings in 1052 when they raised an armed rebellion against Edward the Confessor.  Godwin and Harold had also taken ports from the English church, including Bosham from Chichester and Dover from Canterbury.

Imagine if Chairman Mao had rolled tanks into Hong Kong in 1961 and killed all the British industrialists, bankers and merchants living there, seizing all their gold and other wealth.  Well, the French and the Normans resented violent seizure just as bitterly, and the pope in Rome would have resented royal charters being undefended by the sitting monarch in England.  Abbot John of Fecamp Abbey came to England in 1054 to plead with Edward the Confessor for restoration of the ports after Godwin's death.  Harold refused and Edward could not raise an army against the powerful and popular Harold of Wessex.

As long as the French, Normans and Rome thought William, Duke of Normandy, would succeed Edward as king, they took no action.  Once half-Danish Harold, who had no noble blood, took the crown of England, his foes across the channel allied together to conquer England.  The Frankish allies would have feared losing London.  The Normans resented losing both the crown and the ports in Sussex belonging to Fecamp Abbey.  Rome would have feared losing all of England to a degraded Christianity approaching the former paganism, and feared the loss of wealth and influence throughout the lands previously bestowed by more Christian monarchs on the early church in England.

In September of 1066 a fleet set sail for England to take the crown and restore the church’s lands.  It carried the banner of St Peter, a ring bestowed by the pope, and an edict to all the clerics of England to support William’s claim to the throne.  The monks of Fecamp Abbey provided a boat of their own with twenty warrior monks, a captain and very likely a harbour pilot.

King Harold brought his nobles, hauscarls and fyrd to meet the invaders near the Sussex coast.  His army suffered defeat from fusillades of arrows and darts and alternating cavalry charges.  Harold fell.  William took command of his realm.  To secure the approval of London to his coronation, he granted the Frankish and English citizens of London to be law-worthy, as they were in Edward's day, with rights of inheritance.  He was crowned king with the Witenagemot's assent on Christmas Day 1066.

Below is the charter that set the whole train of events into motion.

By command of Offa, Glorious King of England:

Evident and established fact declares the frailty of human life being bound to countless daily misfortunes.  Therefore anyone to keep and be master of believing repents and safeguards before he passes across the mournful void.  Therefore every one of us must strive anxiously while the will of God grants we remain, lest these same be without the spiritual and just rewards when they pass away.

On which account in the name of God, I, Offa, King of Mercia, provide to Abbot Maginarius through his legate Nadelharium of land in that place at the gate known widely by the name Londonwick, where the two brothers Agonawala and Sigrinus together owned property they voluntarily willed two years ago to Saint Denis, precious martyr, who is in France. In completion of the same, I likewise surrender all my claims at law to receive tax and custom payable to myself until now retained, whether in gold or silver or other rents altogether, for the sake of love for God the all-powerful and reverence for the blessed martyrs Denis, Rusticus and Eleutherius, to the Abbot Maginarius and the holy brotherhood and their successors in the same illustrious monastery that is established in Gaul in honour of the martyr.  With a devout and willing mind, together with my wife and my son, and with the consent of my nobles, from this day I concede the emergence of the muniment and I want it to be perpetual, so that from this day neither I nor my heirs, nor any earthly power may reclaim it hereafter whatever he accounts as his due nor take it back, but always in my time and even my successors in power abide by the order of the abbot and the brotherhood pleasing to Christ, that they may become greater and more perfect.  In addition, our friend and faithful Duke Berhtwald and his brother Eadbald, provided a place of refuge at their property Rotherfield, which is in the county called Sussex above the river Saforda,[1] and the port above the sea of Hastingas et Peuenisel, some time past in an undertaking legally witnessed in favour of the same martyred saints petitioned in great sickness that then afflicted the duke.  When he had made a recovery, the aforesaid abbot asked likewise for an undertaking.  We and my noble assembly approve and confirm together.
If anyone, contrary to this strongly desired disposition to the blessed martyrs for love of God and care of our salvation detracts, infringes or dishonours these grants, a curse come upon him damning him to eternal fire. Who however protects and sustains will live with the blessing of God in perpetuity.
That this may secure full strength, each signature below affirms, as well I make my mark impressed in seal.
The year of our Lord 790, indiction 13, the 33rd year of my reign, with these witnesses, second day of Easter, three days before the ides of April, in Tamworth, this charter I confirm with a sign of the cross of Christ.
        I, Offa, king of England these gifts my hand confirms and subscribes.
        Hygberht, archbishop [Lichfield] subscribes.
        Unuuona, bishop [Leicester] subscribes.
        Cynethryth, queen, subscribes.
        Ecgferth, son of the king, subscribes.
        Brorda, duke, subscribes.
        Berhtwald, duke, subscribes.
        Eodbald, duke, subscribes.
        Edwin, count, subscribes.

        I, Nedelharius, monk, with my brother Vitale and Duke Eodbald, accept this letter from the hand of the king and carry it with me into France to place above the tomb of blessed martyr Saint Denis to preserve this order forever, where the memory of the king as benefactor will be celebrated in perpetuity.  Amen.


[1] Literally Sea-ford, the river may refer to either the Rother or the Ouse, both of which had headwaters near Rotherfield and both of which were estuarine rivers at the time, with tideways reaching deep into Sussex that could be forded at low tide.    

No comments:

Post a Comment