Legitimacy through Forgery: The Æthelstanian Grants to the Monks of Malmesbury

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The links between the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelstan (924/7-939) and Malmesbury Abbey (Wiltshire) are well attested. Reputedly a particular devotee of St Aldhelm, the abbey’s founder, Æthelstan donated lands, numerous holy objects (including a portione ligni Domini), and wealth to the monks of Malmesbury. After the Battle of Brunanburh in 937, two of his royal cousins who had fallen in the fighting were passed into the care of the abbey and honoured by being laid to rest at the feet of St Aldhelm’s tomb. Moreover, only two years later Æthelstan was interred at Malmesbury, breaking with tradition which had previously seen Wessex royals buried at Glastonbury or Winchester. The material history of Æthelstan’s kingship was thus prevalent at the abbey –tombs and relics providing a direct link to a time when Malmesbury was favoured by royalty. Less tangible, however, were the abbey’s traditional claims to lands held by right of Æthelstan’s donation. Such appeals to tradition were particularly fragile in post-Conquest England and could not bestow the legitimacy that accompanied a royal diploma confirming land grants. This paper will examine the four extant charters that purport to record Æthelstan’s gifts of lands to Malmesbury Abbey. It does not propose to examine the authenticity of the documents, all of which are established forgeries. Rather, I intend to examine whether these documents represent a genuine tradition of pre-Conquest land ownership; whether they have an authentic tenth- century progenitor; and to what degree the forged Æthelstanian diplomas granted a perceived legitimacy to Malmesbury’s land ownership.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2019
EventInternational Conference of the Australian Early Medieval Association - Monash University, Melbourne, Australia
Duration: 3 Oct 20195 Oct 2019
Conference number: 14th


ConferenceInternational Conference of the Australian Early Medieval Association
Internet address


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