Kent’s museums and archives are bursting with thousands of fabulous objects that don’t always get the admiration they deserve. So, with the valued support of those involved, I’m going to bring some of them to you through a weekly blog post. And there is no place better to start than the Wihtred Charter that, according to a report by Gordon Ward. M.D, F.S.A. in 1948, ‘takes us back to far off times when Kings of the line of Hengist reined at Canterbury – and found their subjects far less docile that we are today.’
On the 6th day of the Ides of April in the year 699 A.D, King Wihtred of Kent held a ‘witenagemot’ – a great council – at Cilling near Faversham. His kingdom was in turmoil and he was eager to implement a scheme to placate his people.
Numerous attempts by Mull, a Wessex King, to claim the Kentish throne had resulted in the people of Canterbury venting their anger by burning him in his palace, but an air of unrest remained. The ‘new’ Christian faith was challenging pagan customs and King Wihtred sought to save ‘the future of his soul’ by reuniting his people and regaining their loyalty. And what better way to unite a diverse group than by putting money in their pocket?
Having gathered together the highest clerics, abbots and abbesses in the land, King Wihtred proposed a charter granting the churches and monasteries certain freedoms and privileges in return for a more obvious show of ‘Kingly support.’ At that time Kent contained four nunneries (Minster in Thanet, Folkestone, Lyminge and Minster in Sheppey) two non-monastic churches (Christ Church, Canterbury and St. Andrew in Rochester) and two male convents at Canterbury and Reculver. It was a cunning plan that aimed to please both the religious community and reassure the King’s subjects.
According to Gordon Ward’s report, the King’s sincerity should not be doubted, however, as the care taken to ensure the corroboration of Abbot Adrian, the North African Abbot of St Augustine’s, and Beorhtweald, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the presence of Kent’s most prominent Abbesses goes much further than adding mere formality to the charter. King Wihtred was publicly declaring his Christian belief before the council and dedicating himself to church reform. His peaceful intentions were clear and, as a descendent of the royal line of Hengist, he was known to be a man of his word.
The charter was bought at auction in November 1946 by Sir Albert Stern, a former High Sheriff of Kent, who subsequently presented it to Kent County Council. The parchment is now held at the Kent History and Library Centre and is the only original record of the privileges King Wihtred bestowed in a move he hoped would secure him the ‘honour and obedience’ his predecessors had enjoyed.
Omitting the names of the witnesses, an English translation, as given by Gordon Ward, reads as follows:
In the name of the Lord God our Saviour Jesus Christ.
I, Wihtred, King of Kent, considering the future of my soul, have been careful to make this provision because of various calamities threatening the churches of God and the monasteries which exist in this (kingdom of ) Kent, with the consent of my chief men whose names are to be written below.
That they may be free, from the present day and time, from all demand for public taxation and charge or vexation. They are to show to me and my posterity such honour and obedience as they used to show to my royal ancestors, under whom justice and liberty were secured to them. And I decree that both I and my posterity shall hold fast in this pious determination: nor are those things which have been rightly allowed by us and our predecessors to be brought to nought by any chicanery whatsoever, but, as is now said at this time, they are to be preserved with the Lord’s guidance from henceforth and for ever. In full confirmation whereof I have with my own hand portrayed the sign of the Holy Cross and have called upon the most reverend Beorhtweald, the archbishop, to subscribe, together with the most holy bishop Gemmund, as well as venerable presbyters and religious abbots, in the presence of the renowned abbesses ,that is, Hirminhilda, Irminburga, Aeaba and Nerienda.
Done on the sixth day of the Ides of April in the eight year of our reign, in the twelvth indiction, in the place named Cilling.
I just love the mention of chicanery in a legal document and hope you have enjoyed this first instalment as much as I loved researching it. If there is any particular topic or era you would like featured, please do let me know and make sure you don’t miss any treasures by signing up to have new posts delivered directly to your inbox!
Thanks for stopping by.
Many thanks to the staff of the Kent History & Library Centre for their ongoing support and for allowing me to display images of the charter here.