The verbal maps of the Anglo-Saxon Charters



A carved wooden image of St Oswald. Photograph taken by Chris Guy, Cathedral Photographer. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


During the Anglo-Saxon period the community of priests and monks centred on the Cathedral at Worcester was a very wealthy one. Much of this was in the form of land, and the survival of charters from the period allows us to see just how large an area was at their disposal: the Worcester community owned estates in what are now the modern counties of Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Warwickshire, Oxfordshire, and Gloucestershire, as well as those nearer at hand in Worcestershire. At least, the evidence enables this only with some application because the charters are usually in rather formulaic Latin, and do no more than name the estate with no hint as to where it might be geographically, not even with reference to other places such as ‘south of Worcester’ or ‘near Gloucester’. Fortunately for those interested in such matters there are often maps provided as a kind of appendix to the charter but these are not maps as we use them today, visual representations of the landscape with grid references and compass points. These are verbal maps, that describe the land in terms of its edges, they lay out the boundary.

Boundary clauses define the extent of the land by using marker points which the boundary line runs between. A somewhat strange feature of them, at least to a modern understanding of how land divisions work, is that these markers can be any feature, natural or man-made. The description of where the boundary line runs depends on local knowledge of the terrain, possibly from information provided by the steward of each estate, and hence the clauses are almost invariably in the vernacular Old English rather than the official formulaic Latin of the charter itself. So boundaries rely on such disparate features as individual trees, roads, ditches, gates, woods, buildings, hills, stones, other settlements, streams, fences, or marshes with complete indifference. This means that the enduring features, such as rivers or hills, can still sometimes be used to check on the extent of the land.

In 980 Archbishop Oswald leased five hides of land at Waresley to one of his priests, Wulfgar.



 The start of Archbishop Oswald’s charter to the priest Wulfgar 980AD. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


The list of witnesses to the charter from Oswald to the priest Wulfgar. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

These are two pages from Hemming’s Cartulary edited by Thomas Hearne and published in Oxford in 1721. They contain a transcription of the 980 charter. The higher page is mainly in Latin and sets out the contents of the charter, the lower page is a list of the witnesses to the charter


A hide is a measure of land, so in this case Wulfgar was not being given the whole estate but a specified part. We can discover what is understood by the five hides at Waresley as named in the main body of the charter by investigating the boundary clause. The line starts from the road that runs to Hartlebury, so we can immediately tell what part of the country it is in. It then runs along ditches to a gate and from there onto the edge of the land occupied by the Elmley dwellers until it reaches the junction of that boundary with the one of those who live at Ombersley. The line continues from there via a road, a tree stump, a multi-coloured stone, a spring, and a croft belonging to Æthelnoth, back to its original starting point. It is in fact a detailed map of the landscape but presented in linguistic rather than visual terms. To any local person these features would all be familiar, a part of their daily lives. It is a way of identifying possession through an understanding of the land, knowing who lives where, how the boundary turns at the spring to run to the stone and so on. This is a detailed specification of the perimeter of the five hides, a map that relies on personal experience of the land rather than solely on the arbitrarily induced man-made co-ordinates of compass points and grid references.

This approach is consistent throughout, each boundary clause defines a perimeter in the same way yet each is particular to the estate it defines because all are different parcels of land, with their own individual marking points. Mapping the land in the Anglo-Saxon way allows an appreciation of the special qualities of every place.



Detail from Christopher Saxton map of 1579 showing Hartlebury. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


Detail from John Speed map of Worcestershire 1610, also showing Hartlebury. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


Here are details from two maps from the Library collection, showing the land around Hartlebury, which is part of Worcestershire. The higher image is from Christopher Saxton’s 1579 map and the lower one is from John Speed’s 1610 map. They are are not too dissimilar to modern day maps but are still quite pictorial, with the pictures being in images, not words as in Anglo-Saxon times.




Mary Ward













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