A Case of Clerical Fraud – King Æthelstan and Malmesbury Abbey

The Norman Conquest changed the character of the English church. Anglo-Saxon clergy were ousted, churches and cathedrals began to be built on a much larger scale, the king wielded direct influence over the church, and it marked a period of monastic expansion that saw the number of clergy and religious houses expand fourfold.  Yet despite these changes, it remained that, in Anglo-Norman England, many individual institutions had their origins in the pre-Norman period. Given the fierce competition for land that accompanied the arrival of a new nobility and many new religious houses, these abbeys and churches had a useful tool: the ability to lay claim to a region as the bequeathal of a long-dead Anglo-Saxon king. However, if the religious house in question did not have an extant charter or writ (diploma), and only held the land by right of tradition, how did they prove their ownership? Easy. They created a new one, and believe me, clerical fraud was rife. So, in today’s post we will look at one such example of a fraudulent charter. Known as S 436 and purported to date to 937, the charter we are looking at records King Æthelstan’s gifts of land at Wootton, Bremhill, Somerford, Norton and Ewen to the brothers at Malmesbury Abbey.

Royal 13 D II f. 25 r. William of Malmesbury, Gesta pontificum Anglorum.

S 436 is only found in William of Malmesbury’s twelfth-century Gesta pontificum Anglorum, and it ties very much into the mythos William creates around Æthelstan’s kingship (a topic I have discussed elsewhere). It seems likely that the abbey at Malmesbury claimed a right by tradition to certain landholdings as gifts from Æthelstan. Certainly, local tradition held that the abbey’s most prominent relics were given to them by the Anglo-Saxon King, and Æthelstan’s burial in Malmesbury Abbey can be read as a sign of his favour, so it follows that this relationship would have included gifts of land. Yet, in the era after the Norman Conquest, if a religious house did not hold a diploma; if tradition was the abbey’s only claim to a landholding, that claim could be contested. As such, William adopts something of a defensive tone as he introduces S 436: but now I see I must append the records of the estates which the king bestowed upon the monastery…

(1) The mischievous vicissitudes of this fickle world, not to be loved for the milky white of lilies but to be hated for the bitter poison of lamentable corruption, tear apart its stinking sons in the vale of tears, ravening with the venomous fangs of the flesh. Its smile may make it alluring to the unfortunate, but in its impudence it slopes down to the depths of Acherontic Cocytus, were it not that the Son of the High Thunderer comes to the rescue. (2) Because it falls into ruin and collapses unto death, one must hurry with all speed to the lovely meadows of ineffable joy, where the hymn-singing organs of angelic jubilation and the honeyed scents of flowering roses in all their inestimable sweetness are sniffed by the nostrils of the good and the blessed, and heard in all their charm by the ears of the fortunate without end.

If you are unfamiliar with medieval charters, you may be wondering what just happened. The opening passages of Anglo-Saxon charters invariably comprise what is known as the protocol – a declaration that invokes God, details the spiritual concerns that have led the king to this act, and gives evidence of the king’s own piety. These tend to be somewhat formulaic and adherence to those formulas, or lack thereof, are useful to detecting forgery. For now though, I will make note of the obscure allusion to hell in the words Acherontic Cocytus – referencing the two rivers of the underworld – but otherwise leave that passage alone. Importantly, even though this diploma is integrated as a part of William’s wider history, it is of note that in form and style it conforms to the standards of a royal charter.

(3) Lured on by love for such happiness, I, Æthelstan, king of the English, raised to the throne of all Britain by the right hand of the Almighty, have given some portions of land to the respected family of Meidulf, to save the souls of my cousins, the sons of Æthelweard Clito, Ælfwine and Æthelwine, to God and to St Peter, to enjoy by right forever.

A brief pause here. Technically this could be a part of the protocol, however given that we are not mentioning the grant itself, it can also be considered as part of the corpus. More importantly though, there is a lot of context here. Æthelstan had, by this time, claimed his famous victory at Brunanburh and thus made a claim to be the king of all Britain. In that battle, Æthelstan’s cousins, Ælfwine and Æthelwine (no confusion in that household) had both died, subsequently being interred either side of the altar at Malmesbury (another sign of royal favour). The community charged with the care of these royal cousins is here referred to as the family of Meidulf, a reference to the seventh century Irish monk reputed to have founded Malmesbury Abbey. Thus Æthelstan is in effect presenting Malmesbury Abbey with lands in exchange for the intersession of its monks on behalf of the souls of the cousins who had died for his cause.

(4) The lands are reckoned thus: ten hides at Wootton, sixty at Bremhill, five at Somerford, also five at Norton, also five at Ewen. I have these lands with the injunction that none of our successors try to break the continuity of this our gift, even to a tiny extent, so long as Christianity flourishes. If anyone does so try, let him be damned for ever by God.

We do have record of these gifts of lands to Malmesbury from other diplomas. Those charters, as I will detail when I have finished transcribing the next section of text, are undoubtedly also forgeries. In effect, S 436 is a forgery based on prior forgeries. With that understood, given that this is a written by a monk defending his abbey’s right to its landholdings, the closing passages here are rather brilliant (if a little heavy-handed). Wary that capricious successors may seek to reclaim these lands, Æthelstan (according to William) had the foresight to include a curse to counter exactly that circumstance and protect Malmesbury’s lands.

(5) But let the wise men of our province known that we did not seize these lands unjustly and give the loot to God; I received them on the judgement of all the noblemen of the kingdom of the English, and besides of the pope of the Roman church, John, after the death of Alfred, who was the enemy of our happiness and our life alike. For he consented to the wickedness of my enemies, when on the death of my father they wished to blind me, though God in His mercy rescued me. (6) But their machinations were exposed, and Alfred was sent off to the church of Rome to answer for himself on oath before Pope John. And this he did at the altar of St Peter. But after swearing his oath he collapsed at the altar, and was carried by his men to the Schola Anglorum, where he died two nights later. Then the pope sent to me, and asked what should be done with him. At the request of my noblemen, I granted that he be given Christian burial, little though he deserved it. This is how all Alfred’s property came to be adjudged to me.

Where to begin? I have discussed the Alfred narrative in a previous article on Æthelstan and have an 8000-odd word article forthcoming which looks at it in some detail – the provenance of this story is a topic that defies summary! But I will try.

This account, or something very close to it, also appears in the charters S 414 (Bath Abbey), S 415 (Malmesbury Abbey), and in William’s Gesta regum Anglorum. S 414 an S 415 appear inter-dependent, while William undoubtedly based his versions, both that in the Gesta regum and that of the charter we are looking at here, on S 415. This gives us a huge problem in trying to authenticate the narrative, as we have no independent attestation. Further, there are elements of this story that seem like clear hagiographical trope – such as Alfred falling ill at the altar in Rome.

Nonetheless, there may be some truth to the account. Certainly there was some tension in Wessex insofar as Æthelstan smooth succession to that throne (his coronation there occurred a year after he was crowned king of Mercia). The detail that Æthelstan was to be blinded also adds plausibility – a punishment that negated a person’s agency to rule while also allowing the perpetrator to avoid the sin of murder (see my article on blinding in Anglo-Saxon England). Lastly, there is some linguistic evidence to support the idea that Alfred was considered a rival to Æthelstan and thus a person of some political consequence, which may explain why Æthelstan sent him to Rome as opposed to executing him for his treachery, why the pope granted him audience, and why Æthelstan allowed himself to be swayed into granting a Christian burial. So, I would argue, we may be dealing with a fictionalised account of a genuine event. Which then takes us back to S 414 and S 415. Both are forgeries – their witness-list are anachronistic, dating to a decade after their purported composition and likely copied directly from yet another charter housed in Bath (confused yet?). That means our charter here is perpetuating that forgery. Yet there is a good chance William believed them to be genuine, as their date of actual composition is likely to be between 950 and 1050, thus predating William’s histories by at least seventy years. The most likely reason for the fabrication of S 414 and S 415 was in response to a challenge mounted by Alfred’s descendants relating to the legality of the seizure and redistribution of the lands.

Yet S 415 only relates to the lands in Norton, Somerford, and Ewen – so clearly William is not drawing upon this charter alone to create S 436. Indeed, the greater portion of the land is unaccounted for – ten hides at Wootton, and sixty hides at Bremhill. The former grant is detailed in S 435, the latter in S 434. So lets take a closer look at them. They are (surprise) both forgeries, near identical in form, and clearly based upon an authentic charter from Æthelstan’s reign, yet in their forgery missing some of the stylistic and formulaic markers that would indicate authenticity. Where such markers do resemble an authentic diploma, these would point to a model charter originating somewhat earlier that the date of 21 December 937 attached to both charters. Indeed, the evidence of the dating clauses would seem to suggest they were written in 935 and, while 937 is plausible for all the witnesses, some dominant advisors that may be expected for that year are missing.  Importantly, however, there is one statement that ties both charters to the year 937: [Æthelstan had] given some portions of land to the respected family of Meidulf, to save the souls of my cousins, the sons of Æthelweard Clito, Ælfwine and Æthelwine. Now where have we seen this? Yes, charters S 434 and S 435 are the source for William’s protocol in fabricating S 436, right down to the Acherontic Cocytus. Both charters predate William’s history – he is not our forger. Nonetheless, his charter is a forgery. Constructed in form as a royal charter ‘quoted’ in Gesta pontificum Anglorum, with protocol, corpus and (as we shall see) witness list, William has amalgamated all the claims to land the abbey held by tradition from Æthelstan into a single diploma. A forgery of three other forgeries.

(7) The record of this decision, which God and the Lord Jesus Christ inspired me to reach, was written in the year of our Lord 937, the eleventh year of the reign freely entrusted to me [note that this would indicate rather a date of 935], the eight indiction, the fourteenth epact, the third concurrent, 21 December, the tenth moon of the turning month, in the famous city of Dorchester, when the whole body of my nobles was rejoicing under the protecting wings of the royal liberty.

(8) There subscribed: Sub-kings Owain, Hywel, Morgan, and Idwal; Archbishops Wulfhelm of Canterbury, Wulfstan of York; Bishops Burgric of Rochester, Theodred of London, Æthelgar of the East Angles, Ealhferth of Winchester, Alfred of Sherborne, Wulfhelm of Wells, Æthelgar of Crediton, Oda of Wiltshire, Eadhelm of Selsey, Seaxhelm of St Cuthbert’s, Tidhelm of Hereford, Ælfwine of Worcester, Cynesige of Lichfield, and Wynsige of Leicester.

To close, there is one matter on which I suspect many of you are curious. Did Malmesbury indeed hold these lands at the time of the Conquest? What is recorded in the Domesday book?

Here is what we know, with the caveats that an attestation in Domesday did not guarantee that the land would remain with the holder, that an institution of Anglo-Saxon  origin may later be requested to prove the provenance of its holdings, and that religious houses pre-dating the Conquest could later make claims against an area which was granted to a Norman land holder. In any of these situations, a seemingly authentic royal charter was invaluable.

Bremhill – 60 hides, Domesday – 30 hides with – small radial tenancies noted that were apparently alienated from the original holding.

Wootton – 10 hides, Domesday – 12 hides held by Leofnoth and Miles Crispin – none held by Malmesbury.

Norton – 5 hides, Domesday – 5 hides

Somerford – 5 hides, Domesday – 5 hides tenanted to Ælfweard

Ewen – 5 hides, Domesday – formed a part of a 30 hide holding at Kemble

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: BL, Yates Thompson 26, f. 2r. – Scribe working (potentially Bede)
  2. The Electronic Sawyer – Online catalogue of Anglo-Saxon Charters
  3. Matthew Firth, “Allegories of Sight: Blinding and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England,” Cerae: An Australasian Journal of Medieval Studies 3 (2016), 1–33
  4. Sarah Foot, Æthelstan: The First King of England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).
  5. S.E. Kelly (ed.), Charters of Malmesbury Abbey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005),
  6. William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, The History of the English Bishops: Volume I, edited and translated by M Winterbottom, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007.
  7. William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, The History of the English Bishops: Volume 2: Commentary, R Thomson, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009.
  8. William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum: The History of the English Kings: Volume I, edited and translated by R.A.B. Mynors, R.M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom. 2 vols. Vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).

If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

King Eadwig, St Dunstan, and the Ménage à Trois – Propaganda in the Anglo-Saxon Court

Shrouded in Rumour – The Lost Childhood of King Æthelstan

When Justice Cost an Arm & a Leg – The Mutilated Body in Medieval Anglo-Scandinavian Law

See our bibliographies on the Æthelstan and Chronicle Editions


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