A writ of William the Conqueror lost for over 500 years and giving unique insights into the Norman king’s methods has been discovered by a British historian.
The document overturns previous ideas about William’s “special treatment” of London and provides the first detailed evidence for his process of regranting English lands after his victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Dr Nicholas Karn found the writ through a reference in a book of 1428 that pointed to the wrong page number in a 14th-century compendium of legal texts, the Liber Ordinationum. By trawling through this manuscript, in the archives of the Corporation of the City of London, he found an overlooked Latin translation of the lost Old English writ dating from a year or two after the Norman Conquest.
In the later Middle Ages, this document was held up by City officials, alongside another writ of William’s, as allegedly showing that Conqueror treated London with particular favour and protected its citizens’ longstanding privileges. Karn’s analysis of the rediscovered writ indicates that, in reality, William subjected London to the same humiliating treatment as other defeated English communities.
In the document, William grants to the townsfolk of London the waterfront and land of the City and implies that they previously occupied it, rather than held it. No other writs of this nature survive from William’s reign and Karn recognised that it was unique contemporary evidence of his sweeping programme of regrants.
He said: “In the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings, William had the problem of how to deal with the conquered English elite. So he said he would confirm them in their land and properties if they submitted to him and paid him a fine. This document is doing that for the City of London, with William clearly having had negotiations with City leaders. They had paid over an unstated but presumably very large sum of money and he was then confirming to the citizens of London, ‘You now have security in the possession of your lands’.”
The broader process of regrants — alongside confiscations and new grants to William’s Norman followers — is referred to retrospectively in Domesday Book, William’s 1086 survey of landholdings. Through it, the king exacted recognition of his status, along with hefty payments.
Karn, associate professor of British History at the University of Southampton, said: “We knew about these regrants because Domesday Book mentions them. However, Domesday Book simply records the value of the lands when William returned them to the previous owners. And in quite a few places it says that William did this by writ. It mentions lots of these writs, but we’ve never had one before.”
Significantly, the writ is informative about post-Conquest changes beyond London. Karn said: “It tells us that William worked through the existing structures of English law. He was sending out orders to local representatives — sheriffs and others — saying, ‘Do a valuation on this piece of land,’ as part of this process. And in some cases he was telling them, ‘Actually take possession of it from the previous owner’. So there’s a lot going on that has been hidden from us before, but is implicit in this document.”
There are, nevertheless, clues that the 14th-century translation contains changes from the original. For example, William addresses the Londoners as his “beloved” Angles and Saxons of London. The affectionate greeting and use of those ethnic terms for “English” are anachronistic. Karn suggests that they replaced an original introductory clause that showed that London was under the jurisdiction of the sheriff of Middlesex, the old county in which the city lay.
In his paper, in the History journal, he writes: “London’s domination of Middlesex by the later thirteenth century was such that the terms of the writ would have looked quaint and anachronistic, and perhaps threatening to the City’s liberties and privileges.”
Given the anachronisms, couldn’t the whole writ be fake? Karn says definitely not. “The reason it’s authentic is because it has features that would be very hard to forge. We now know quite well what authentic charters of William the Conqueror or other kings look like because we have collected editions… So I can compare a document against a large selection, and see how well it matches up. They couldn’t do that back then, because most of these things would have been in private archives. It would have been impossible for anyone to build that sheer level of command of the source material.
“And it gets a lot of things right. For example, the way the king’s title is phrased [i.e. Will(el)mus rex, for Willelm kyng] is exactly right for William the Conqueror’s documents in Old English, even if the Latin ones use a different form.”
He said the reconstructed writ challenged longstanding narratives arguing for William’s preferential treatment of Londoners. “That idea goes back to the late Middle Ages. When the City authorities were trying to defend their position and protect the privileges and rights to run the city independently, they spun this story about how William specially favoured them — and how other kings, his successors, gave them extra rights because they specially cared for London. And because this is such a big thing in the sources, perhaps people have been a bit uncritical in believing it and not questioning the actual documents it’s based on.”
Could the writ’s troublesome content, from the viewpoint of London’s civic authorities, have led to its loss? “Yes, it could be,” Karn said. “Because I’ve not found anything in the archives to say when it disappeared or why. It was there in the 14th and 15th centuries, because I’ve got mentions of people seeing it, and there are a couple of places where it’s cited. But then it disappears from the record until there is a note in 17th-century handwriting in the margin of a register and the writer says, ‘I’ve gone looking for this, but I can’t find it anywhere’.”
According to Karn, the find can help us to understand the Norman king’s character and rationale. “What it tells us comes from its early date — really very early in William’s reign. William was out of the country for most of 1067, so when this was written he had been in England for a few months, at most. But clearly he and his advisers understood how the English system worked even at this very early date.
“It also shows how seriously he took ideas about the meaning of his office as king. He clearly saw it as meaning that he needed to continue with a lot of the established structures of the kingdom… That feeds forward into the fully worked out arguments that appear from about 1070 for why he was the rightful king and Harold was a usurper.”
William may have sought to preserve English institutions, but that doesn’t mean the defeated English welcomed his methods. Karn said: “As well as the evidence from Domesday Book, it’s also mentioned in a few chronicles kept by the great churches. ‘Shock’ is a good word to describe their response. They’ve been drawn into this and made to pay in the same way as secular lords and they are not happy about this. So clearly this was something they looked upon as victimisation almost.”
This process of submission also paved the way for bigger changes that occurred not immediately after the conquest but within a couple of generations.
“One of the biggest is the fact that we start seeing beginnings of lords’ courts,” the historian said. “This means that a lot of law, and management of society, was done within courts that were not the king’s, but rather were controlled by powerful local aristocrats trying to manage districts in ways useful to themselves.”
As for the other writ of William’s that later Londoners grandly cited as proof his favour, Karn previously published a paper arguing that it wasn’t intended to enshrine ancient privileges, but simply to ensure squabbling French and English residents kept the peace.
The top image shows reenactors playing the role of William I’s Norman cavalry in a reconstruction of the Battle of Hastings at Battle, East Sussex. Photo: Shutterstock