780 AD ‘Oslac’ Charter granting land south of Chichester (Cap/I/17)

Caroline Chosen by Caroline Adams, former member of staff

This charter grants land somewhere south of Chichester – we’re not sure of its precise location. The grant dates from 780 and is from Oslac, leader or King (styled ‘Dux’ in the charter) of the South Saxons at the time, to the church of St Paul the Apostle, which was probably located in the Witterings – a possible forerunner of the cathedral, as the charter ended up amongst its muniments. The first cathedral for this diocese was also down in the Manhood area, probably at Selsey, which had been the centre of the region since the Roman period. About a hundred years before this document was written, a permanent Christian presence had been set up by St Wilfrid in the south Saxon kingdom, and a minster established at Church Norton. Property was often given to the local churches by wealthy residents in the area, who wanted to make their mark on the community, and who would also have considered such gifts as acts of piety.

47 Cap I-17-2 Oslac Charter (scan) (2)

It was very unusual to have a deed of title or grant at that time. More important was the ceremony that took place – the handing over of a rod or piece of turf, symbolic of the land itself, and then the procession around the property so that everyone was aware of its boundaries and new owners.

The grant doesn’t follow the pattern for a deed that we might be used to. Instead, only the first seven lines deal with the property. After a religious preamble, Oslac states that he is to ‘give certain lands, for the good of my soul, to the church of St Paul the Apostle; the property being in Earnley and Tielesora, with woods and fields adjoining. Given in the year 780 at a place called Selsey’. The scribe should probably have given more territorial information at that point, but he has omitted the location and area of the property. After that Oslac says he has signed it by his own hand, and the names of the witnesses are given. The format of the text suggests they have actually signed the deed, but the script is all one. At the end there is a clause which threatens anyone trying to undo the grant or make the decree invalid; such a perpetrator would be sent to the ‘lowest hell’.

Commentators have suggested that the document is crude; the scribe was unfamiliar with the script he has tried to use, the Latin grammar doesn’t work. But we archivists are only too grateful for such a small piece Anglo-Saxon history to have survived.

This little piece of parchment was eight hundred years old when Elizabeth I was on the throne. A brief unofficial survey suggested it’s the oldest original document in a local authority archive. Almost all charters of this period only survive as copies in chartularies of the 13th and 14th centuries. Folded into small squares, it has withstood the move of the See to Chichester, the assault on the cathedral by the parliamentary forces in the seventeenth century, and various Victorian attempts to tidy up and clear out. It was ‘restored’ by the Public Record Office in the 1950s. Now it’s in a stable environment and in safe hands.


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