King Athelstan's Charter

When Athelstan arrived in St Buryan about AD 931 he found a well organised Christian community, served by a body of clergy and canons living an easy monastic life, "Canonici Sanch Berrione tenent Eglosberrie". According to tradition it was here that he made his communion and vow before sailing to the Isles of Scilly.

There are believed to be only two copies of King Athelstan's charter left in existence, one made in 1238, at the orders of Bishop Briwire and now in the Exeter Episcopal Registry; the other given by Dean Knollys in his Register of St Buryan College 1473, in a very much shorter form. This copy is believed to be in Cambridge University Library.

Church of St Buryan, Cornwall. Founded by King Æthelstan (church guide).  Copy of charter of King Æthelstan (S 450) said to have been made by Bishop William Briwere (1223-44), in 1238; original burnt in Deanery House in 1287.  Copy entered in a register of Bishop John Grandisson (1327-69): Exeter, D.R.O., E/R 4, 25r; ptd Register of John de Grandisson, ed. Hingeston-Randolph, pt i, pp. 84-5.  Also, short version in late-fourteenth-century ‘Register of St. Buryan College’ (Cambridge, University Library, Ee. 5. 34 (Davis 850), 00); ptd in church guide.  The deanery of St Buryan belonged in the fifteenth century to King’s College, Cambridge; hence s. xv single sheet, in King’s College, MS. SRU/8.  Æthelstan’s charter clearly spurious; but must have been based ultimately on genuine material.  http://www.kemble.asnc.cam.ac.uk/node/172

The original charter was destroyed in a fire that burnt out the Deanery House in 1287.  Doubt has been thrown on the copy of 1238; it is said to be a medieval forgery and that there was no earlier copy. Many difficulties and errors are produced as evidence of forgery, and these do exist, but the majority of them are mistakes that no forger would make; others could easily be the result of copyists' errors.

The following is the short form of the charter, from Dean Knollys Register:

Ego Ethelstanus rex angelorum etc., pro petitione nobilium meorum dedi quandam particulam terre ecclesie sancte Berine ea videlicet condicione ut libera sit ab omni censu nisis ab oratione quam clerici michi promiserunt id est centum missas etc contum psalteria et quotidianas oraciones.

Ego Athelstanus rex totius Brittannie hoc cirographum cum signo sancte crucis + corroboravi.

Ego Huselmus archiepiscopus consensi et subscripsi.  Et ego Ecketset archiepiscipus affirmavi et subscripsi cum pluribus aliis.  Et ego Ethelstanus dux testis.  Et ego Elsihe dux testis cum pluribus aliis.

Translation -

I Athelstan, King of the English etc., have on the petition of my nobles granted a certain parcel of land to the Church of St Buryan, on the condition, be it understood, 'that the aforesaid land be exempt from all secular assessment, except from the Tendering of the Prayers which the clergy have promised se, that is 100 masses, 100 psalters and daily Prayers.

I Athelstan, King of all Britain, have ratified this document with the seal of the holy Cross +.

I Wulfhelius, archbishop, have affirmed and signed.  I Ecketset, archbishop have affirmed and signed with many others.  And I Etheistanus, duke, witness.  And I Elsihe, duke, witness with many others.'

The very such longer form in the Exeter Episcopal Registry gives the boundaries of the property given to the church and many of the names can be found today, one of them spelt letter for letter the same - Treverven.  There are also the names of one more Bishop, Donanus (probably Conanus) of St Germans, and fourteen court officials as witnesses and of these thirteen names are found as witnesses to documents about AD 932.  The longer form is also dated very carefully by the regal year, the year of our Lord, the exact and cyclical year, but it is almost impossible to make them agree.

The words 'exempt from all secular assessment' were the cause of a law suit between the Crown and Bishops of Exeter.  This began in 1301 and in 1351 a decision was given in favour of the Crown, quite against all the evidence.  The court ruled that by these words the parish was a Royal Peculiar, Sinecure and Donative and that the Bishop and Archdeacon had no jurisdiction, with disastrous results for the spiritual welfare of the people. 

The Bishops refused to visit the Parish as they had no jurisdiction.  Matters went from bad to worse until the Black Prince, patron of the living, wrote to the Bishop and asked him to go to St Buryan to grant holy orders, confirmation for children and Chrism - the holy oil of baptism.

In 1328 trouble broke out between the Dean, John de Maunte, a thoroughly unscrupulous Frenchman, and one of the Prebends, Richard Beaupre.  Both the Dean and the Prebend were arrested by the Sheriff as the result of a free fight when the Prebend broke the church door to take away his tithe, which was being withheld by the Dean.  On 4th November 1328, Bishop John de Grandison excommunicated all who had laid violent hands on Richard Beaupre, and interdicted the church and churchyard polluted by the shedding of blood. It is interesting to note that his sermon had to be translated from English into the vernacular Cornish language because nobody spoke English.

For the next few years the King was issuing writs to the Bishop and the Bishop was replying that he was afraid to meddle with St Buryan 'for no one belonging to him dares to go there for fear of death and mutilation ' (Exeter Episcopal Registers.) In 1336 the Bishop, after the death of Beaupre, visited the Parish and received back the rebellious parishioners into the bosom of the Church.  De Maunte did not make his submission until a month later when the Bishop impounded the fruits of his deanery.

This was the Bishop's dying effort; the Crown won its way and the parish suffered until 1850 when an Act of Parliament restored jurisdiction over the Parish to the Bishop of Exeter, the Crown resigning all the peculiar rights.  It abolished the Deanery and set up St Levan and St Sennen as separate parishes in place of the prebends of St Buryan who had once been in charge of them.