F. M. (Frank Merry) Stenton.

The early history of the abbey of Abingdon online

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Pangbourne charter, and 849 make no mention of any event
which is sufficient to occasion so considerable a change. Nor
may we ignore the possibility that although a Mercian ealdorman
continued in charge of the shire, the kings of Wessex retained
their ancient estates within its borders. There remains what is
perhaps the more probable argument that the final recovery of
Berkshire was connected with the recorded negotiations of the
year 853 between Mercia and Wessex. In that year Burhred
king of the Mercians requested the help of iEthelwulf of
Wessex against the north Welsh, and received ^thelwulf's
daughter ^thelswyth in marriage. In 856 -lEthelwulf is found


granting land at Ashbury in Berkshire to one of his thegns,^
and it is permissible to suggest that the cession of Berkshire
may have been the price of ^thelwulf's assistance to Burhred,
three years previously. The evidence is not sufficient to pro-
vide an accurate answer to this question, but from 860 onwards
there is no doubt as to the position of the county. In that
year Ealdorman ^thelwulf was associated with Osric of Hamp-
shire in checking the Danish army which had just stormed
Winchester.* In a different form Mercian influence was present
in Berkshire after this date, for in 868 ^thelswyth, ^thel-
wulf's daughter and Burhred's queen, granted to her thegn
Cuthred an estate at Lockinge which ultimately came into the
possession of the monastery of Abingdon.^ But such a fact as
this does not affect the West Saxon government of the shire,
and when in 871 the Danish army first took winter quarters
south of the Thames, resistance was made by the men of
Wessex, commanded by their rulers.

It would not be expected that during these seventy years of
Mercian power in Berkshire the church of Abingdon would
receive many gifts from West Saxon kings. It is therefore
remarkable that the only two land-books now extant issued
under the name of King Beorhtric of Wessex are derived from
the Abingdon collection. The first of them* purports to be
a grant by that king to his ' prince ' Lulla of land at ' Eastun ',
now known as Crux Easton in Hampshire ; its formulas betray
that it is a forgery, and it should not be cited as evidence for
the ninth century. The second charter cannot be dismissed
so easily. It records the gift by King Beorhtric to a prince
named Hemele of land at Hurstbourne in Hampshire in ex-
change for another estate by the river Meon. It is unfortunate
that the king is made to remark ' banc donationem meam
propriis litterarum caracteribus roboravi et singr&fa Crucis
confirmavi '. These phrases are not found in authentic instru-
ments of Beorhtric's reign. With the exception of this single
lapse, the document commits no anachronism, the names of
its witnesses are almost certainly authentic, and the charter
may reasonably be accepted as a genuine land-book of King

^ C. S. 491. Chron. sub anno.

' C. S. 522. * C. S. 282.


Beorhtric, incongruously modified in a single phrase by the
writer of the Abingdon History.

But this gift of Hurstbourne opens up a wider question.
Among the fraudulent charters in the Codex Wintoniensis
which bear the name of Edward the Elder there occurs a
passage which asserts that Ecgbeorht, the king's great-grand-
father, acquired from the community at Abingdon fifty manentes
at Hurstbourne and gave in return an equal territory at Marcham
in Berkshire.^ That this story was known at Abingdon is
proved by the insertion into the History of a charter by which
Ecgbeorht is made to give ' that monastery Marcham ' as fifty
manentes to Abingdon in 835.^ A Berkshire grant by Ecgbeorht
in that year would, if genuine, seriously affect the arguments
which suggest the Mercian government of this region through-
out the time of Ecgbeorht's rule in Wessex. Internal evidence
is strong enough to condemn the charter; its compiler, not
content with asserting Ecgbeorht's gift of Marcham, has in-
serted a short custumal into the document reciting the privileges
which he conceived to belong to his church, and has shown in
so doing that he wrote at a time when the outlines of Old
English law were becoming confused.^ No clerk in the ninth
century would have composed the phrase ' pretium . . . sanguinis
peregrinorum, id est Weregeld'. The man who wrote these
words was acquainted with the Norman murdrum. Not until
the reign of Edgar did the church of Abingdon obtain posses-
sion of Marcham, With the condemnation of Ecgbeorht's
Marcham charter there disappears the only land-book which
implies West Saxon rule in Berkshire between 779 and 854,

There can be no doubt that Abingdon was among the religious
houses which perished in the course of the Danish invasion of
Wessex in the year 871. If the monastery escaped the first
attack of the army moving from Thetford to its new base at Read-
ing, it lay in the path of one of the raids which compelled the
West Saxons to make peace with the invaders at the close of

' C. S. 592. occurring as they do in fabrica-

^ A. C. i. 33. C. S. 413. tions of tie Norman age, are in-

' These passages rank in point of teresting illustrations of early

date with the Leges Henrici Primi. Anglo-Norman law. Cf. D. B. and

The references to the 'angyld' in B. 290-2.

C. S. 366, and the present charter,


the year. The tradition of the house was clear as to its over-
throw. The Danes drove the monks into flight and destroyed
the monastery so that nothing except the walls remained. It
was, however, remarked that the relics and charters which
belonged to the house were secretly preserved ; a fact which
bears definitely upon the authenticity of the earliest Abingdon
documents.^ Before long the ruined monastery appears to have
been re-inhabited ; but its continuous life had been broken, and
the first phase in its history ends at this point.

In describing the events which immediately followed the
disaster of 871, the Abingdon historian introduces the name
of King Alfred in a manner which is of considerable general
interest. 'After the death of King ^thelred^, he says, 'his
brother -Alfred assumed power. He alienated the vill in which
the monastery is placed, . . . with all its appurtenances from the
said monastery, rendering to the victorious Lord an unequal
return for the victory with which he was endowed.' * The
writer of the second text of the Abingdon History expands
these sentences, remarking that Alfred added evil to evil, and
comparing him to Judas among the twelve apostles. Such
passages are in marked contrast with the general tenor of
opinion about King Alfred, and they have naturally attracted

It is obvious that King Alfred does not deserve this violent
reprobation. On any disinterested view, there is little wrong in
the confiscation of the estates of a derelict monastery. But the
exact nature of Alfred's action is less than clear. It is certain
that in iEthelstan's time, and later, when Abbot Ethelwold
undertook the charge of the monastery, the vill of Abingdon
was in the king's hand.* It is less certain whether, before the
Danish war, the house of Abingdon had ever been other than
a little monastery built upon the royal demesne. There is no

' A. C. i. 4:7. ' Reliquiae sane- the Abingdon side,

torum, cum cartis ipsius domus, * The decayed monastery of Ely,

quas superius in hoc libro annota- when bought from Eadgar by

vimus, et inferius sunt annotatae Abbot ethelwold, was in the

clandestine sunt reservatae.' king's hand. A. C. ii. 262, 'Erat

2 A. C. i. 50. tunc destitutus et regali fisco dedi-

' E. G. Hummer, Two Saxon tus.' The parallel with Abingdon

Chronicles, ii. 113. The author is close,
has not examined the story from


adequate evidence that the monastery had ever possessed the
whole of the lands which belonged to Abingdon. Here, again,
it is well to remember how small a body were the monks of
Abingdon in the first two centuries of their house. The one
relevant statement which suggests unlawful action on Alfred^s
part occurs in King iEthelred's great charter of 993. After
describing the restoration of the house by Kings Eadred, Eadwig,
and Eadgar, ^thelred is made to remark, ' For the aforesaid
kings, restoring to the church of God the estate {rus) which is
called Abingdon, ... in which our predecessors, deceived with
devilish avarice, had unjustly built a royal building for them-
selves, forbade that any king should require entertainment
(pastum) there or raise a building at any time.' Against
this definite charge of wi'ong must be placed the silence of
Abbot JEKric, who, without any hint of recent usurpation, merely
remarks that the hundred hides which belonged to Abingdon
were held by the king jure regali. At the close of the tenth
century an exact memory of the local position in Alfred's day
could hardly be expected : the monks of Abingdon were interested
in giving the sanction of ancient possession to their tenure of the
whole vjU of Abingdon. The question cannot be wholly answered;
and there remains a doubt of which the benefit may fairly be given
to King Alfred.

It is uncertain how long the life of the monastery was inter-
rupted. Of one estate which remained with the abbey until the
Dissolution the title was derived from a charter of King Alfred.
The five-hide village of Appleford on the Thames, some three
miles below Abingdon, was sold by that king for fifty mancusses
of gold to his faithful Deormod.^ The document which records
the sale is one of the few charters of Alfred preserved in an
authentic form : the absence of all churchmen from among its
witnesses agrees well with the general ecclesiastical condition of
Alfred's reign, and the king is accorded the style Rex Anglo-
Saxonum current at the close of the ninth century.* From
Deormod or his heirs the estate passed to the Abbey of
Abingdon and is entered among the estates of the house in

The Abingdon History also supplies a charter to the brief
' C.S. 581. ' Upon this style see Asser, 149-50>


series of documents issued under the name of Edward the Elder ,^
The charter relates to what is now the hamlet of Hardwell in the
parish of Woolstone, and is in form the grant of a new land-book
to a certain Tata the son of JEthelhun, the king's vassal, in place
of a similar document originally granted by King ^thelwulf,
but accidentally lost.'' The church of Abingdon was not imme-
diately concerned in this transaction ; and Edward's charter ^ is
only entered in the Abingdon History because the Hardwell estate
ultimately passed to the abbey under the will of Eadwine, ealdor-
man of Sussex, who died in 982.* Eadwine, whose death is
entered in the Abingdon text of the Old English Chronicle,^ was
buried in the abbey church there; but the obscurity which
attends the history of the noble families of the tenth century
conceals the nature of his connexion with Tata the son of
^thelhun and the circumstances of his interest in Berkshire.
But the appearance of a South Saxon noble as a benefactor
to Abingdon may give warning against exaggerating the sepa-
rateness of the provincial divisions of England in ^thelred's

Under these conditions Edward's Hardwell charter is no
evidence that a monastery was in being at Abingdon in his
reign.^ The fortunes of the abbey become clearer with the
accession of ^thelstan. In a document of the year 930, the
name of an abbot, a certain Cynatli, is at last recorded.
The document in question, by which ^thelstan is made to
give Dumbleton in Gloucestershire to the church of Abingdon,
is spurious in its present form, but the name of Cynath was also
preserved in the tradition of the house. He is described as
' Guiatus, who under Athelstan recovered all things which the
Danes, the companions of Inguar and Ubbar took away ', in the

' C. S. 601. ' This document is rich in refer-
' C. S. 600 is also the grant of a ences to the open-field system, and
new land-book by Edward in place has often been cited on this account.
of a lost document issued by jEthel- It is therefore peculiarly unfor-
wulf. This may rouse suspicion, tunate that Kemble and Birch
but the close of the ninth century should have identified the site with
was a time at which land-books Hordle in Hampshire. This mis-
were likely to be lost. C. S. 600 take is corrected in V. C. H. Hants,
comes from the thirteenth-century * A. C. i. 429.
Wilton Cartulary, which is not ° Ed. Plummer, i. suh anno.
known to be related in any way to " C. S. 667.
the Abingdon Histoiy.


Chronicle Roll of the Abhots of Abingdon which has recently
been printed.^ The name Cynath, which represents a late con-
traction of an unrecorded O.E. Cynenoth, appears in two other
land-books, one the Farnborough charter of -^thelflaed of
Mercia, the other an early grant by ^thelstan preserved in
the Hengwrt MS.^ It is not certain whether the same person
is denoted by each of these attestations, for the Chronicle of
Evesham records an Abbot Cynath contemporary with ^thel-
stan. The existence of an abbot of this name in the year 929 is
proved by the appearance of a ' Kenod abbas ' among the names
of those who in that year were admitted to fraternity with the
monks of St. Gall. The evidence, on the whole, seems sufficient
to justify the insertion of Cynath in the list of the abbots
of Abingdon.

In any case, the church of Abingdon in the early years
of jEthelstan's reign was an institution capable of receiving
gifts of land. This much is proved by a very remarkable
document, preserved in both texts of the Abingdon History,
by which ^Ethelstan the ealdorman granted the ' town ' of
Uffington to St. Mary's Church. The document falls into
three parts : first, a Latin notification of the gift ; then a long
description of the boundaries of the estate, set forth in Old
English after the manner customary in charters; and finally,
a second notification, in Old English, corresponding to the Latin
opening of the record. Documents of this kind are very rare ;
in some ways the Uffington example is unique, and its Old
EngUsh conclusion deserves translation: — '^thelstan the ealdor-
man booked this land of Uffington into St. Mary's Church {stow)
in the day of King ^thelstan, and that was done in the witness
of Wynsige bishop of Berkshire and Archbishop Wulfhelm and
Bishop Rodward and many others both bishops and abbots and
thegns who were gathered there, where this town by these
boundaries was added to St. Mary's property at Abingdon.
And the Archbishop Wulfhelm and all the bishops and abbots
that were summoned there excommunicated from Christ and
from all Christ's community whoever should undo this gift or

• E. H. R. xxvii. 727-38. Bdnath, from Eadnoth in the place-

' C. S. 642, ' Cynaht abbas.' For name Ednaston,co.Derby; thirteenth

Cynath, from Cynenoth, compare century, Ethnadeston (I. L. p. 251).


diminish this land in meadow or in boundary ; be he sent away
and thrust into hell bottom, ever without end. And all the
people who stood around there said, " Be it so. Amen, Amen ! " ' ^

The grantor of this estate was ^thelstan, ealdorman of East
Anglia, known later, from his great power, as the Half King.^
He attained fame in later life as a benefactor and patron of
monks, but his name is chiefly associated with the monasteries
of the eastern counties, and it is only from the present document
that we learn of his connexion with Berkshire.^ His grant of
Uffington is another proof that the estates of ealdormen in the
tenth century were not confined to the districts over which they
exercised oflScial rule. The tenth-centmy ealdorman of East
Anglia was lord of Uffington in Berkshire, just as the Norman
earl of Chester was lord of Drayton and Buscot in the same
county. Legally, the ealdorman's action in booking an estate
to a religious house is of some interest. There is no reason for
believing that he had received the estate from the king with any
implied reservation to religious uses. No such royal charter was
preserved among the Abingdon muniments. We may fairly
accept the conclusion that in ^thelstan^s reign a great noble
already had the power of alienating his estates, in his lifetime,
upon obtaining his heir's consent; and if he could ahenate to
a religious house, he could also alienate to friends or dependents.
How far a lord could dispose of his own powers of justice or
tribute-taking is a question to which no adequate answer can
at present be given.

It is evident that the record of this grant which remained at
Abingdon was composed after the event. The exact date of the
gift cannot be determined, for the chronology of the early years
of iEthelstan's reign is in such confusion that the names of the
attesting parties are an insufficient clue. The gift was made in
^thelstan's reign, but the date of ^thelstan's accession has not
yet been finally determined,* The year in which Wulfhelm

1 c. S. 687. matter at length here. The diflS-

' He first attests charters in 923. culty is caused by the fact that

For iEthelstan see C. C. 82, 84 whereas the regnal years given in

' He received Wrington in charters imply jEthelstan's acces-
Somerset from King ^thelstan, sion in 924, the extant lists of O.E.
gave it to Glastonbury, and at last kings assign him a reign of four-
became a monk there. teen years, which, reckoned from

* It is not possible to argue this his death in 940, mean that he


became Archbishop of Canterbury is unknown ; Wynsige, bishop
of Berkshire,! was one of the shire-bishops who appear from time
to time in this period, but nothing more is known about him.
The name of Bishop Rbdward is of more assistance, for this
prelate may fairly be identified with the Hrothweard who in 928
attests charters as Archbishop of York.^ As there is no record
of his translation to York from any other see, it would appear
that at the time of the Uffington grant, although consecrated
archbishop, he had not yet received the pallium and was not
therefore accorded the archiepiscopal title. If this opinion is
correct, the Ufl&ngton grant may reasonably be assigned to
927 or the beginning of 928.

The assembly in which the gift was made known in some
ways bore an anomalous character. It was not a shire moot :
the Archbishops of Canterbury and York are not likely members
of a Berkshire local assembly. That it was not a meeting of the
Witan may be inferred from the omission of any reference to the
king's presence. It was evidently a large gathering : the assent
of the ' people who stood around ' is one of the more interesting
features of the record. It may be compared with another
assembly, later in the same century, in which also the church
of Abingdon was interested. For the sake of comparison, the
record in O.E. of this assembly, which is only found in the first
text of the Abingdon History, may be translated here ^ :

' ^Ifheah the ealdorman bequeathed to ^If here the ealdorman
twenty hides at Kingston ; then Abbot Osgar requested ^If here
the ealdorman that he might obtain that land from him with

began to reign in 926. (SeeStubbs's been administering Berkshire for

Dunstan, Ixxiv.) As ^thelweard Odo, bishop of Ramsbury. But the

places .ffithelstan's accession in 926, reading ' Wynsige ' in the O.E. text

and the Annals of St. Neots assign suggests a blunder in the Latin

to Edward the Elder a reign of version, and there is no difficulty

twenty-six years from his corona- in the belief that a shire-bishop of

tion in 900, I would suggest that that name should only appear once

Edward died in 926, but that in the documents of the time. A

^thelstan had already been asso- contemporary Wynsige was bishop

ciated with him as joint king in of Dorchester.
924. ' He followed an Archbishop

^ The Latin version of the grant .ffithelbeald,the exact date of whose

reads 'kynsii'. Stubbs {Dunstan, death is uncertain. Wulfstan,

Ixxxviii.) identified him with Cyne- Hrothweard's successoi", became

sige, bishop of Lichfield from 949, archbishop in 931.
and suggested that at the time of the ^ A. C. i. 335.
Ufiington charter he might have


money; then the ealdorman agreed with him. And the abbot
gave him then a hundred mancusses of gold.^ Then after Easter
there was a micel gemot at Athelwarabirig and it was told to the
lords that were there, that was Bishop Athelwold and Bishop
^Ifstan and Abbot ^thelgar and Eadwine and ^If ric Cild and
^Elfric SiraFs son and Brihtric his brother and very many other
thegns. And this was done with great witness, and the ealdor-
man iElf here took the counterpart of this writing as evidence.'

^Ifheah, ealdorman of Hampshire, died in 971 ; ^thelgar,
abbot of the New Minster, Winchester, became Bishop of Selsey
in 980 ; at some point in these nine years the present gemot was
held. Here again we are dealing with no ordinary shire-moot :
Athelwold was the famous Bishop of Winchester, ^Elfstan was
Bishop of Ramsbury, ^Ifhere was ealdorman of Mercia, the
place of meeting lay within Wiltshire, and Osgar, Abbot of
Abingdon, was present.^ A copy of the will of ^Ifheah was
presei-ved in the cathedral monastery at Winchester ; ^Ifhere,
the ealdorman's brother, received lands at Alboume in Wiltshire
and Faringdon in Berkshire. Faringdon is known from later
evidence to have been an estate with widely scattered depen-
dencies, among which it is probable that the twenty hides at
Kingston (Bagpuize) were included. The micel gemot of
Athelwarabirig,^ attended by lords from at least three shires,
may be compared veith similar meetings recorded in documents
of the Norman period ; such as the plea in which the Bishop of
Worcester proved his right to Alveston in Warwickshire before
Queen Matilda in presentia quatuor vicecomitatuum.* The
notification of an ealdorman's wUl, disposing of property in
many shires, would naturally give occasion for the holding of
a special assembly of this kind.

1 The manous expressed in gold place of meeting can approxi-
the value of thirty silver pennies, mately be identified from a passage
The present passage is an important in C. S. 1286, a Wilton document,
part of the evidence which suggests The boundaries of land at Avon, co.
a gold currency in England m the Wilts., included a reference to thcem
tenth century. wepe the sccet fram JEambres buruh

2 C. S. 1174. to Ethelware byrig oth hit cymeth to
' The name is of interest as a fham wege the sccet eastan fram

local compound of the feminine mnter human west to Ullan cumbe.

personal name ^thelwaru. The Evidently, therefore, iEthelware-

name, apparently, has not persist- burh lay near to Amesbury.
ed in local nomenclature, but the * D. B. i. fo. 2B8 b.


The gift of Uffington by ^thelstan the ealdorman was made
directly to the church of Abingdon. The Abingdon History
contains entries of charters in the name of King JEthelstan
granting other estates immediately to the monastery, such as
Shellingford on the Ock, Dry Sandford and Swinford in
Hornier hundred, Dumbleton in Gloucestershire. None of these
four charters can be accepted without qualification as au-
thentic records of -^Ethelstan's time. There are, however, certain
features in the Shellingford grant which suggest that the
compiler of the History had before him some earlier record
of the gift.^ The king is made to convey twelve cassati in
Shellingford to the church : Shellingford had been assessed
at 12 hides in 1086, but its assessment had been reduced by
William I to 3| hides. In the body of the charter the place-
name appears in the form Scaringaford ; an earlier form, Scser-
ingaford, is given by the writer of the first text of the Histoiy,
which will account for the later renderings of the name and
is not likely to have been invented in the twelfth century. It is
more remarkable that the grant purports to have been made at
the request of Godescalc the priest. Godescalc is unique as
a personal name in England before the Conquest ; the only
bearer of such a name who enters into Anglo-Saxon history
is the Wendish Prince Godescalc, who as a fugitive entered the
service of Cnut. The name is of German origin; as borne
by a priest at Abingdon in the year 931 it can best be explained
with reference to those continental relations of King ^thelstan
which are most clearly expressed in the marriages of the king's
sisters. It is very possible that ^thelstan may have invited
a continental scholar to take charge of a religious house upon

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Online LibraryF. M. (Frank Merry) StentonThe early history of the abbey of Abingdon → online text (page 4 of 6)