Bristol academic discovers 819-Year-Old Royal Charter Issued by King John


The royal document was signed by nine witnesses (University of Bristol)

A rare, original royal charter from the first year of King John’s reign has been discovered in Durham by a medieval historian from the University of Bristol.

The document, which was not previously known to have survived, carries the seal of King John and is dated 26 March 1200, issued in York, exactly 819 years ago today.

The document is held in the archives of Ushaw College Library, one of the core collections forming part of the Durham Residential Research Library (RRL), managed by Durham University.

It was identified by Dr Benjamin Pohl during his time as a Lendrum Visiting Fellow at the RRL.

Dr Pohl, a Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Bristol, came across the charter by chance while examining the medieval manuscript holdings of Ushaw College Library, assisted by Durham University archivist Dr Jonathan Bush.

Dr Pohl immediately recognised the document as an original royal charter, carefully prepared and written in what is known as a ‘court hand’, likely belonging to a professional scribe, who might have been a member of the king’s government department or chancery. 

Prior to this discovery, less than a dozen original charters were known to have survived from the first year of King John’s reign, making this a hugely exciting find for historians.

Professor David Cowling, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Arts and Humanities, Durham University, said: “Discovering ancient documents like this gives us a fascinating new glimpse into the past.

“For one of our visiting fellows to identify an item from the collection as a previously-uncatalogued medieval royal charter is a wonderful example of the benefits and advances that can be made by working and exploring our archives together.”

The document confirms the granting of possessions in County Durham, namely the two hamlets of Cornsay and Hedley Hill, to Walter of Caen and Robert FitzRoger, Lord of Warkworth and Sherriff of Norfolk and Suffolk.

Walter and Robert were nephews of Simon, a chamberlain of Durham who had originally received these grants from his bishop, Hugh de Puiset, sometime before 1183, but who later decided to part with the bequests in order to provide for his two younger relatives.

The bishop’s charter recording the original grants to Simon is also held within the Durham Residential Research Library collections, allowing the two original documents to be compared and studied side-by-side for the first time.

The discovery of the original charter enabled comparison with a copy, captured on a medieval administrative record known as a ‘charter roll’, which revealed a surprising difference.

Read the full Press Release on University of Bristol

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