I always think that the characters of Saxon England are a little too ethereal for people to really connect with. I think it’s difficult to visualise life before the Norman Conquest, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
My current obsession, and victim of my historical fiction endeavours is Leofwine, Ealdorman of the Hwicce during the reign of Æthelred II, who I refuse to call ‘Unready’ because I just don’t think he was. I think, he was a victim of his times, treated harshly by later historians.
My research is going deeper, examining the evidence of the charter attestations that Leofwine made (where he signs, and therefore, it must be assumes, agrees to whatever the charter is concerned with). Charters from before the Norman Conquest are rare, and have only survived in copies because they benefitted someone in some way, normally the monastery or Church that the copy of the original charter has survived in, or a later lay landowner keen to keep hold of the land.
This effectively means that in determining the validity of the charter, historians need to know about what was happening in the world at large, when the COPY of the charter was made. Effectively, to study Saxon history, you have to also study early Anglo-Norman history to work out just what’s going on and why the charter is so important.
In the records of Sherborne, Leofwine’s name can be found attesting two charters. No original copies of the charters survive, and the record as we have it, is in a twelfth century hand. So, should it be trusted? Should it be used as an historical source? Or as with so much history, can it really only be used as a historical record of the time period that produced it? After all, at least a hundred years and probably more like 150 years, separate the copy of the charter and the date of its alleged drafting and attestation.
It’s an interesting dilemma and one I don’t plan on solving today. Would I use it? Yes, I’d but I’d be standing on the shoulders of those giants of academic history who have studied far more charters than me and who’ve decided that the copies are ‘probably’ genuine as they stand. I’d also be wary of this, and all it might mean.
And how relevant are they to Ealdorman Leofwine? I think very, because they appear to show his standing at the royal court. In charter S933 (1015) he signs as the third ‘dux’ (ealdorman) and in S910 from 1005 he also signs as the third ‘dux’. So what does it all mean? Well, as with everything the picture is wider than just Sherborne. In total Leofwine attests 41 charters whilst an ealdorman. So although I think it’s important to examine the validity of the cartularies that the charters survive in, it’s a bit of a painstaking and picky business. But one I’m enjoying. For anyone really keen to look at Leofwine’s charters in more detail, you can start by having a look at the Electronic Sawyer. And you can see an image of S910 it on The British Library Digitised Manuscripts Website ff. 27v-29r and S933 also on The British Library Digitised Manuscripts Website at ff. 4v-6r. The handwriting is amazing.