One of the most interesting medieval discoveries of 2009 did not happen in Europe, but in the city of St. Catherines, near the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. It was here at Brock University that scholars decided to look over a document that had been locked away for over thirty years, and soon realized that they held a charter dating back to the 13th century.
The Clopton Charter, as it is now called, records a grant of land by Robert de Clopton to his son, William. It is handwritten, in Latin, on parchment or vellum. It measures about 11cm by 25 cm, and it has a lovely seal (about 4cm in diameter) with an image of a bird appended.
David Sharron, Head of Special Collections and Archives at Brock University, explained that the document came to this collection in 1976, along with a number of other unique pieces, such as bust of Sir Isaac Brock, the British general who defeated American invasions into Canada during the War of 1812 and who is the university’s namesake. A note attached to the document said it was from the 15th century, but at the time there university had no experts to look into the matter. “It was carefully placed in the drawer where it remained in a secure environment,” Mr. Sharron explained. “Through the years, the memory of the parchment faded as the former staff moved on in their careers.”
Over thirty years later the drawer was opened and David Sharron started to look into document and try to discover what he had. He began by sending an image of it to R. Andrew McDonald, Director of Brock University’s Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and asking him if he could shed some light about it. “When I opened the image my jaw must have dropped onto my desk,” Professor McDonald remarked in an interview with Medievalists.net. “One could tell pretty much instantly, of course, that this was a medieval document. David’s initial query was whether it might be older than the oldest item in the collection which is 1597. My initial thought without doing any investigation at all was that the document might be 14th century.”
Professor McDonald soon brought in more colleagues into the investigation – Andre Basson, a campus chaplains who has a PhD in medieval Latin literature and paleography, and Angus Somerville from the English Department, as well as Cynthia Neville of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Professor Neville suggested that the document was even older than first thought, dating it to the 13th century.
While Andre Basson and Angus Somerville began to transcribe the document, Professor McDonald started to research the people named in it, including Robert de Clopton and his son William, as well as several people who witnessed it, namely Willam de Ludinton, Robert de Valle. William de Edricheston, William deWaleford, Robert de Sidesam, and Richard de Ludinton. The final name on the parchment is Nicholo clerico, or Nicholas the Clerk, who in all probability was the person who actually wrote it up.
The research soon led to the United Kingdom’s National Archive, where Professor McDonald found more charters from Robert de Clopton and his family, which were written up during the reign of Henry III (1216-1272). Meanwhile, a careful examination of the manuscript gave more clues to its date. Angus Sommerville noted that a reference to the day “Sancte Marie” in the text would suggest that it was written before the 1240s, since afterwards that date was usually called “Beate Marie” in England.
The team now turned its attention to figuring out where in England this family was from, since there are several places called Clopton in the country. “Most of the place names mentioned in the charter,” explained Professor McDonald, “many in connection with witnesses – are near Stratford-Upon-Avon, and we are pretty confident that we are therefore dealing with the Clopton which is situated near Stratford. The Clopton family were local notables in the region for a long time and the Clopton Bridge in Stratford is named for them.”
Records like this are not uncommon for medieval England. They are written in a legalistic formula and detail a land transaction that includes the terms of the grant and the names of a number of individuals called witnesses who could attest, if the need arose (perhaps in case of a subsequent dispute), to the nature of the grant. In this document Robert is granting his son about 30 acres of land in exchange for homage and service as well as payments of six pennies twice a year (according to one calculation this would be the equivalent of ₤300 or $500 US in today’s currency).
Charters are often an important source for historians and genealogists, giving them details about family history, landholdings, wealth, disputes and many other topics. The team from Brock University will continue his work on this manuscript to see what more can be learned about it as well as to find out a more exact date on when it was created. They are also working on the mystery on how this item actually came to Brock University – David Sharron tells us that “since the news of this ‘re-discovery,’ we have received a few more possible leads that we are following.”
Meanwhile, Professor McDonald is just happy that they have had the chance to work on this charter and share their findings. He and the others involved note that “it is very exciting to have a document of this age turn up at Brock. Examining and handling a document like this one provides a direct connection to the distant past and the presence of this document at Brock University will open many exciting vistas for faculty, students, staff and interested members of the public.”