The Hunterian and Stephen’s Reign: The Cartulary of Holy Trinity Priory London

Published on: Author: Harriet Gaston Leave a comment

A guest post by Dr Steve Marritt, Lecturer in History, University of Glasgow.

Hunter’s Coin Cabinet contains the most important evidence we have here at the University for the civil war of Stephen’s reign, but Hunter didn’t just collect coins. His manuscript collection, now held by our Library’s Special Collections includes the decorated cartulary of Holy Trinity Priory London (MS Hunter 215), with which he and his wife, and also King David of Scotland and especially David’s sister, Queen Matilda II of England, had very close connections. Images of the manuscript can be found on the Special Collections website.

Holy Trinity Priory was a house of Augustinian canons (‘canons’ were very similar to monks and followed particular versions of monastic regulations, here ‘Augustinian’) founded by Queen Matilda II, wife of Henry I, daughter of King Malcolm III Canmore of Scotland and Queen Margaret, in the early twelfth century. Matilda II was famously pious: one episode recounted in the chronicle which opens this cartulary has Matilda washing the feet of lepers (then considered ‘unclean’ and ostracized by society) and her brother David (future king of Scotland) horrified not just at the diseased but at his sister’s abdication of her status. Her explanation is Christ’s precepts, and her humility a crucial element of her piety.

Founding a religious house to pray for your soul and those of your family was one of the most important ways the medieval nobility had of furthering their spiritual life. The more austere and rigorous the life of the monks or canons, the better, and the Augustinians were a new and instantly fashionable case. Norman, the first prior (priories have priors like abbeys have abbots), became Matilda II’s confessor.

A ‘cartulary’ is a compilation of copies of documents, mainly relating to property and economic and spiritual rights, belonging to a religious house or to a family into a single or multivolume work. Some were made for specific purposes, such as major legal cases; some because religious houses felt that their lands and rights were threatened by outside circumstances such as a civil war or an invasion; some as part of a house’s re-evaluation of its resources much like a modern business might do. In some cases, the cartulary was compiled in one go, in others new material was added over hundreds of years. In most cases, working out all this is very complicated for historians, but in this case, unusually, we know both who compiled it and why. Thomas de Axbridge drew it up between 1425 and 1427 because of the need for written evidence when disputes over rents due to the house arose. Thomas tells us this himself, but he doesn’t tell us is why he included a Historia, a chronicle of the house at the beginning of his text or why it is beautifully (and expensively) decorated.

It is in the Historia that we find Stephen. Just like Mathilda II, Stephen and his queen, who spent a considerable amount of time in London, were very closely connected to Holy Trinity. Prior Norman had been Matilda II’s confessor, the second Prior, Prior Ralph, would be confessor to Stephen’s queen, Matilda III. He would be present at her deathbed and at Stephen’s own. Two of Stephen’s children who died before reaching adulthood in 1137, Baldwin and Matilda (not uncommonly for the time, already betrothed to a grown man, a key ally of Stephen’s, the Count of Meulan), were buried in the church, Baldwin to the north of the altar and Matilda to the south. It is very unusual for us to be able to get such close personal sense of a king and queen’s relations with a religious house and a religious figure, and, of course, their very real family and piety.

While there are no other Hunterian manuscripts with such a close connection to King Stephen. Other treasures in the collection can give us a real insight into the religious culture of his period. Most important among these is one of our library’s greatest manuscripts, the stunningly illustrated Hunterian Psalter (MS Hunter 229).


Aldgate Cartulary, Folio 1r: opening page.
Sp Coll MS Hunter 215 (U.2.6)

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