It is rare to find new information about the Norman Conquest of England, but a historian has uncovered a document revealing William I’s relationship with London shortly after 1066.
Nicholas Karn, an Associate Professor at the University of Southampton, made the discovery while doing research at the City of London’s archives. His research has just been published in History: The Journal of the Historical Association.
Karn was able to piece together a writ given by William the Conqueror for the residents of London, created in either late 1067 or 1068, by examining two entries in medieval records from the City of London. Karn believes that it originally read:
King William sends friendly greetings to Bishop William and Swegn the sheriff and all [his men of Middlesex and London]. And I make known to you that I have given to you, my men who live within the boundaries, all my waterfront and land there upon which you live. And I do not want to learn that anyone, French or English, does damage to you thence.
This writ was originally written in Old English, but we have only a translation of it in Latin. The text is in the Liber Ordinationum, a book of laws and statutes about the administration of London written in the fourteenth century. There are summaries of it in Letter-Book K, a book of day-to-day records for the mayor and aldermen, one added in 1428 and the other a transcript of an older legal case from 1321.
Several other scholars had come across these texts before but had not realized their significance. Karn tells Medievalists.net how he was able to better understand what he was reading:
The real problem was working out its meaning, so that it linked to bigger ideas and debates. The handful of scholars who’d seen it before seem to have been troubled by the word hida, and thought it had to mean hide as a unit of land measurement, and noticing that it could mean hithe – dock or waterfront – was the real key to working out its meaning. So, finding a meaning and a context for it was more exciting than actually finding the source, because then it had some significance.
What the writ is saying is that William is granting the people of London ownership over the city and its waterfront, although they were already living there. In essence, William is making an attempt to solidify his rule as King of England by making this grant. Even though Londoners had already possessed this land before the Norman Conquest of 1066, this possession was not valid unless William agreed that it was.
Karn also makes the point that King William was not just making a show of his authority. Rather, it is likely that the people of London actually had to pay their new ruler a substantial amount of money for this privilege. It was around 1067 and 1068 that Norman Conqueror was doing similar deals with other defeated English elites, including landowners and towns – making them either pay for their properties or lose their legal rights over them.
The process of buying back lands after 1066 is mentioned in Domesday Book and elsewhere, but this writ for the first time shows how that process worked practically, and how English landholders and lawmen were central to it, and the many stages of that process. pic.twitter.com/mULXMTyAME
— Nicholas Karn (@karn_nicholas) August 10, 2023
The discovery of this document therefore offers new details on how the Norman Conquest was being played out in the years following the Battle of Hastings and William’s coronation in 1066. William regarded all those who had supported the other claimants to the throne as rebels and deemed that they had lost their claim to their lands. This means that lots of English landholders had to buy back William’s favour and their claims to their lands. This writ shows for the first time that the Londoners were caught up in this process.
Karn also concludes that it reveals much about the new king’s relationship with the city:
Much of the analysis of London’s experience of conquest has tended to depict it as exceptional, as though William the Conqueror specially favoured London and protected it. Yet this document shows that the Londoners were required to buy back their legal claims to land like other landholders were, and presumably had to spend a very large sum to buy back the City from the Conqueror’s claims over it.
Nicholas Karn’s article, “William the Conqueror’s Lost Writ for London Rediscovered,” is published in History: The Journal of the Historical Association. Click here to read it.
Another part of Karn’s research has also been published in the article, “William the Conqueror’s writ for the City of London,” which can be read in Historical Research. You can learn more about Nicholas through his university website or follow him on Twitter @karn_nicholas
Top Image: William depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry