Last week it was announced that the Queen’s Speech would be delayed. Soon after, unconfirmed reports surfaced that this delay was due to the speech being ‘written on thick goatskin parchment paper which … needs several days to dry, meaning a speech cannot be amended at the last minute’ (Jessica Elgot for the Guardian, 13 Jun 2017).

In light of news stories last year that the UK government was still writing new laws on vellum, this report did not sound unreasonable. But it was swiftly debunked by Caroline Shenton, former Director of the Parliament Archives.

However, the story does prompt an unexpectedly timely discussion of manuscript production in the medieval period and the history of writing legal, political and royal documents on parchment in England.

Parchment – typically sheep- or goat-, sometimes calf-skin – was the default writing material across Britain in the early medieval period, largely because of its ease of use for writing on and its durability.

Parchment can survive a great deal of hardship, unless it is eaten by mice or catches fire (or is repurposed for later book-bindings or novelty lampshades, or stolen by choirboys for drum skins). As a result of this durability, a number of our early legal texts have survived. We have some 300 original charters surviving, going back to the seventh century.

Typically, these are records of land grants, involving the king or high church officials. Many more have been lost, as the originals were typically quite small documents – averaging around 25-30cms and folded into parcels as small as four centimetres.

Front of charter from Bishop Swithuls to Beorhtwulf, AD889
Front of charter from Bishop Swithulf to Beorhtwulf, AD889

Once the charter had been written and folded, a note of the beneficiary or the name of the land was usually written on the back like a label so the owner would know what was inside. These notes, or ‘endorsements’, are now often very worn, or have even become illegible, from a thousand years of handling and dirt.

As the charter changes hands, is moved into an archive, and catalogued by successive generations of archivists and librarians, the back is filled with layers of extra writing. On the back of this charter, for example, a grant from Bishop Swithulf of Rochester of some lands to a man called Beorhtwulf in ad 889, the following has been written:

  1. ‘Haddune booc’ (‘the charter for Haddun’, the name of the land) written in the ninth or tenth century
  2. A longer passage, in Old English, noting that the land was later granted by King Edgar to someone called Leofric in the mid-tenth century
  3. A note, in Latin, from the twelfth century, summarising the contents of the original grant
  4. Various notes from the 17th and 18th centuries
  5. A stamp from Canterbury and a note of its shelfmark (H130).
Back of charter from Bishop Swithuls to Beorhtwulf, AD889
Back of charter from Bishop Swithulf to Beorhtwulf, AD889

At the top of the page, however, are the fragments of other words, which prove tricky to read. Although they look like another worn endorsement, the letters appear to be mirrored, and so cannot have been written on the back. Nor are they the writing on the front showing through.

Instead, these fragments turned out to be impressions from the writing on the front of the charter, which became imprinted on the back when the sheet was folded before the ink had properly dried.

Sections from front (top) and back (bottom) of the charter showing where the wet ink has imprinted on the back
Sections from front (top) and back (bottom) of the charter showing where the wet ink has imprinted on the back

How and when did this ink get there? The answer lies in ink-drying times – an issue that is, miraculously, still relevant today. Reports regarding the drying of the ink for the Queen’s Speech ranged from three days to an implausible week. Patricia Lovett, a professional scribe, recently explained that:

Generally speaking … oak gall ink is usually denser than, say fountain pen ink. This will then dry more quickly. The substrate will be parchment or vellum. For a charter it could well be the cheaper parchment which has a more greasy surface and so the ink stays on the top more, rather than sinking in as it does on a well prepared vellum surface with a slight ‘fine-suede/velvet’ finish (and the sinking in is often evident in palimpsests). So the ink drying time is probably a few minutes rather than seconds. 1

In some circumstances, the ink can dry on the surface but still be wet underneath, so at the very outside limit, for important pieces, she recommends waiting 24 hours to be certain.

This doesn’t help to narrow down the timeframe in which Beorhtwulf’s charter was folded, but it does suggest that it happened with undue haste, perhaps faster than a scribe would advise. And it also perhaps shows the same (limited!) awareness of ink-drying times as today’s political commentators.

Kate Wiles is Senior Editor at History Today and researches the languages of Anglo-Saxon charters as a Visiting Scholar at King’s College London. You can find her on twitter @katemond.

All images reproduced with permission from Canterbury Cathedral Archives.


  1. Personal communication. Reproduced with permission.
Tags : Anglo-SaxonAnglo-Saxon chartersmedieval historyMedieval manuscript productionThe Queen's Speech
Kate Wiles

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