Explore Your Archive: Worcestershire’s Oldest Document?

  • 19th November 2013

As we continue to celebrate the Explore Your Archive campaign week we bring you today’s treasure from the Archive Service, which is what we believe may be the oldest surviving document from Worcestershire.  It is part of the archives of the Lechmere family of Hanley Castle and has been dated to about 1100.’

The document is a legal deed made by Ralph de Mortimer by which he confirms a gift of land at Wribbenhall to the monks of Worcester cathedral, which had been made to them by a certain Tustin, Ralph’s tenant.

This document demonstrates how simple these early deeds were, whereas now we associate a deed with a long and complicated document. This deed just states that Ralph has confirmed the gift to the church for the good of his soul and those of his family (he hopes for a reward in Heaven for his gift!) and, crucially, lists all the people who have witnessed his act. It is by analysing these names (as well as by analysing the handwriting) that we can come up with an approximate date, because, as is usual at this time, the deed itself is undated. The deed also contains two crosses made by the grantor to show his agreement, as this was a time before most people could write.

It always surprises people how small this document is – just 6 by 3 inches. It is written in a clear miniscule hand on parchment, and still bears a white wax seal, which has, however, been badly worn. The seal is attached in an unusual way, being attached to a parchment tag inserted through slits right in the middle of the document rather than at the bottom, as is more usual. At this early period procedures were not yet firmly set and there was more room for variation.

This document demonstrates clearly just how much effort had to go into the smallest written document. The skin of a sheep had to be prepared to create the parchment, the scribe had to mix his own ink and cut his own quill from a feather – there were no shops where pen, ink and paper could be bought.

Only rich and powerful people controlled the resources needed to produce such a document, and of course Ralph de Mortimer was such a rich and powerful lord. He was lord of Wigmore and at the time of Domesday (only about fourteen years before this deed was written) was the king’s tenant-in-chief, holding land not only in Worcestershire but also Shropshire and Herefordshire.

Worcestershire Archives is devoted to preserving the written heritage of the County, and this document represents the very early stages of keeping written records. This document can be found at reference number 705:134 BA1531/72.

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