Medieval Textus Roffensis Manuscript From Rochester Cathedral Added To UNESCO Register

A collection of early English laws housed in manuscript in one of the UK’s oldest cathedrals has been added to a prestigious international register of historic documents.

The document, known as the Textus Roffensis, predates the Magna Carta by nearly 100 years.

It was compiled in the early 1120s by a monk from St Andrew’s Priory at Rochester Cathedral in Kent.

The first half of the 12th century manuscript – named the “Book of Rochester” when translated from Latin – contains copies of pre-Norman Conquest law codes written in Old English, many of which are unique.

Among the texts is a copy of the earliest known set of English laws, called Æthelberht’s Code, which dates back to the Kingdom of Kent in the 7th century.

It is also the first datable work of any genre composed in the English vernacular and contains rules such that if someone “kills” someone in the “King’s House” they must pay “50 shillings”.

Two later 7th century Kentish laws, the code of Hlothere and Eadric, which was written between 679 and 685 AD, and the code of Wihtræd from the year 695 AD, are also unique to Textus Roffensis.

The codes date from before England was united into one kingdom in 927, when the individual fiefdoms were united by King Æthelstan.

The document has been added to the UK UNESCO Memory of the World register, recognizing its national significance.

A collection of early English laws housed in manuscript in one of the UK’s oldest cathedrals has been added to a prestigious international register of historic documents. The document, known as the Textus Roffensis, was compiled in the early 1120s by a monk from St Andrew’s Priory at Rochester Cathedral in Kent.

The UNESCO Memory of the World program was created by UNESCO in 1992 to protect and catalog important documentary heritage so that it will not be lost for future generations.

The register includes a collection of documents, manuscripts, oral traditions, audiovisual material, library and archives of universal value.

There are a total of 35 early English legal codes in the first half of the manuscript, covering a period of five hundred years – including laws written by Alfred the Great, Æthelred “the Unready” and William the Conqueror.

The last of these is the oldest copy of the Coronation Charter of Henry I, the fourth son of William the Conqueror.

Written in Latin, it sets out the king’s responsibilities and limits to the Church and the king’s nobles.

As such, it has been interpreted as a precursor to the Magna Carta of 1215, the historic document signed by King John which first established that neither monarch nor government were above the law. and set forth principles of freedom that have echoed through the centuries. .

The Textus Roffensis offers insight into the lives of those living in changing England and its adjoining regions from the early 7th century to the early 12th century.

Among the texts is the earliest known set of English laws, called Æthelberht's Code (pictured), which dates back to the Kingdom of Kent in the 7th century.

Among the texts is the earliest known set of English laws, called Æthelberht’s Code (pictured), which dates back to the Kingdom of Kent in the 7th century.

The Textus Roffensis also contains the founding charter of Rochester Cathedral, written primarily in Latin.  It announces that King Æthelberht grants lands and privileges to the Church of St Andrew - the first name for Rochester Cathedral in the year 604

The Textus Roffensis also contains the founding charter of Rochester Cathedral, written primarily in Latin. It announces that King Æthelberht grants lands and privileges to the Church of St Andrew – the first name for Rochester Cathedral in the year 604

The Textus Roffensis is on display at Rochester Cathedral (pictured), which is the second oldest in the UK after Canterbury

The Textus Roffensis is on display at Rochester Cathedral (pictured), which is the second oldest in the UK after Canterbury

Dr Christopher Monk, historian of the culture of medieval England, said: “The collection of early English laws which has been preserved in Textus Roffensis rightly deserves its place in Britain’s memory register of the world of UNESCO; it is an essential group of texts for any historian of early medieval Britain.

“The insights that these codes of law offer us, not only into the ideals and practices of domination of the various kings of the time, but also into the social structures in which their subjects lived, are simply extraordinary.

“The fact that we can have access to the collection today through the Rochester Cathedral Guard is truly special and exciting.”

The Dean of Rochester, Philip Hesketh, said: “Textus Roffensis is undoubtedly one of the most important of all medieval British manuscripts.

“It contains the largest medieval collection of ancient English law codes written in the original Old English.

Æthelberht's code are the judgments established by King Æthelberht (depicted above), who ruled Kent between 589 and 616 AD

Æthelberht’s code are the judgments established by King Æthelberht (depicted above), who ruled Kent between 589 and 616 AD

The document has been added to the UK UNESCO Memory of the World Register, recognizing its national significance

The document has been added to the UK UNESCO Memory of the World Register, recognizing its national significance

“Consistent with Rochester Cathedral between 1120 and 1123, it was at the very heart of the emerging monastic community.

“Returning to the cathedral in 2016, Textus now resides, once again, in the heart of Medway Towns and is on display, free of charge, in the ancient crypt.

“This announcement from the UNESCO British Memory Register rightly recognizes Textus as one of Britain’s greatest treasures.”

Founded in 604, Rochester Cathedral is the second oldest cathedral in the UK.

It is only younger than nearby Canterbury Cathedral, which was founded in 597.

Rochester was founded by Bishop Justus, one of the missionaries who accompanied Saint Augustine when he arrived in Britain with the aim of spreading Christianity.

Æthelberht’s code includes the judgments made by King Æthelberht, who ruled Kent between 589 and 616 AD.

Written in Old English but translated by historians, it sets out rules such as: “If the king drinks at someone’s house and someone does anything corrupt there, he must pay double restitution”.

The text also contains the earliest surviving copy of Henry I's Coronation Charter, which is more than a hundred years before Magna Carta granted freedom to the English Church.

The text also contains the oldest copy of Henry I’s Coronation Charter, which is more than a hundred years before Magna Carta granted freedom to the English Church.

Another adds: “If someone kills someone in the king’s house, he must pay 50 shillings.

In total, the Textus Roffensis contains 238 folios (476 pages) and 484 images including flyleaves and covers.

Besides copies of old English laws, the manuscript also contains the earliest charters of Rochester Cathedral.

A number of manuscript pages show signs of water damage after being submerged, possibly in either the River Medway or the Thames, between 1708 and 1718.

Textus Roffensis is currently on display in the crypt of Rochester Cathedral and can be read online atrochestercathedral.org/textus.

What is Magna Carta?

The original Magna Carta reinstalled inside the medieval chapter house of Salisbury Cathedral

The original Magna Carta reinstalled inside the medieval chapter house of Salisbury Cathedral

King John issued the Magna Carta after agreeing peace terms with a group of rebel barons and it is now one of the most famous legal documents in the world.

Many people believed that King John was one of the worst kings in history after he imprisoned his former wife, starved opponents to death, and murdered his nephew.

He also imposed heavy taxes on his barons for costly wars and if they refused to pay he punished them.

But the barons demanded he obey the law and captured London, so King John was forced to negotiate.

The two parties met at Runnymede in June 1215 and wrote the Magna Carter.

It established for the first time that neither monarch nor government was above the law and set forth principles of freedom that have stood the test of time.

The most famous clause, which is still law today, granted all “free men” the right to justice and a fair trial.

Two other clauses are still in force today – the English Church freedom and the old City of London freedoms.

King John died of dysentery in 1216 and nine-year-old Henry III ascended the throne.

The Magna Carta was reissued several times during the 13th century, until it was finally incorporated into English law.

The ancient document lived for 800 years and is used in the United States Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Source: British Library

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