1215 and all that …

Monday 16 February 2015
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So, 2015 is the anniversary year for Magna Carta – 800 years on and the document still has clauses in legal force and has a powerful appeal as ‘a touchstone of English liberties’ (Nick Higham, BBC) . The first week of February saw news reports about a Historic Magna Carta moment, when the four original surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta were brought together for the first time. More than 40,000 people entered a public ballot for the chance to see them, with 1,215 people winning the opportunity to visit the display at the British Library during that week. All four documents were together at the BL for 3 days, then for a day in the House of Lords and then they were dispersed – two returning to the BL and the others back to their homes at Lincoln and Salisbury Cathedrals.

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University’s ‘bull of foundation’ (UYUY100).

But here in St Andrews we also have a special document dating from 1215. It predates our ‘bull of foundation’ by 200 years. It’s special because it is the earliest document in our muniment collection, or institutional archive. It begins our 800 years of recorded history about the University of St Andrews and the lands with which it was endowed. It is a grant by John son of Michael the clerk of half a mark of silver to be raised on St Andrew’s day from the brewery at Muircambus, near Elie, Fife, which was to be given as alms to God and the church of St Andrew the apostle and the canons there, to be used to light the church.


The charter is found amongst the early records of St Leonard’s College, in the series of pittance writs – documents relating to small parcels of land with which the College was endowed. Many of these had been part of the patrimony of the ancient Hospital of St Leonard, originally located next to the Augustinian Priory of St Andrews. The co-founder of the College, Prior John Hepburn, consolidated his new foundation of 1512 by giving it the land and property which had been held by the hospital. This document is numbered ‘3’ in the series, but items 1 and 2 no longer survive in the collection. Those are listed in a 19th century inventory as dating from 1165-1214, being grants from King William to the Hospital of St Andrew of rights of common in pasture and of a marc of silver from the farm of the Burgh of Crail, respectively. Our 1215 charter is the earliest to survive and is listed as:

3. Sine die. Johannes filius Mikaelis, Deus et Ecclesia beati Andree Apostoli, ½ marca argenti ad luminare Ecclesiae de Bracino de Morkambus.

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For a charter to be ‘sine die’ – without date –was not uncommon at that time. Earlier archivists dated it [1215], based on the hand and the names of the witnesses given. Information about witnesses from other sources can help to establish an approximate date for an undated charter. In this case we need to find out about William of Wyville knight, Henry Abernethy, Michael Scott son of Malothen, Gilbert parson of Wemyss, John son of Wynemer, Richard Monipenny, John Pigate, and Maurice de Methil. Some of the latest research, not available to previous generations of archivists, is brought together at the People of Medieval Scotland 1093-1314 (poms) website: http://db.poms.ac.uk/record/factoid/63337/#. This indicates that the charter is dated some time between c. 1200 and c. 1235.


The charter was out for use in class by MLitt students learning medieval palaeography recently.  The beautiful finely-written script uses elaborate capital letters, with skeletal lines and flourishing strokes for emphasis. There are fine hairline diagonal strokes over some single strokes to indicate the presence of a letter ‘i’, but the tightly-packed minims make this difficult to decipher. Many of the abbreviations are standard curls and loops and to make an accurate transcription requires good Latin.


The seal which is still attached to the tag, pendent from the foot of the charter, is in green wax, the colour for perpetuity, but it has darkened over time to appear black. There is a very clear early heraldic insignia of John son of Michael in the centre and the legend around the seal reads: + SIGILLUM [JOHAN]NIS FILII MICAELIS.


Other surviving grants issued by this man can be found here http://db.poms.ac.uk/record/person/4083/


One very interesting note is the wording relating to John’s use of his seal to authenticate, or guarantee, the charter. He says that he has strengthened the protection of the charter with his attached seal, and the word he uses is ‘munimine’. The word for our institutional archive comes from the same Latin root – and gives the sense of the ‘fortifying evidence’. This is surely a fitting designation for the repository of the institutional memory of the University.

Whether or not it is exactly 800 years old we don’t know for certain. However, since it has borne this date for many generations, I am delighted to wish our oldest muniment, along with Magna Carta, a very happy anniversary!


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5 thoughts on "1215 and all that …"

  • Claire Chesneau
    Claire Chesneau
    Tuesday 17 February 2015, 8.13pm

    Reblogged this on Camberley Historian and commented: Nothing to do with Camberley, but I am re-blogging because I think my readers will be interested - many thanks!

  • rachelmhart
    Wednesday 18 February 2015, 6.08pm

    Hi Claire, Thanks so much for the re-blog - and so glad you found it interesting. Best, Rachel.

  • Rachel
    Friday 6 March 2015, 3.01pm

    The University's Professor of Legal History, John Hudson, met the Queen as part of the Magna Carta celebrations - there's coverage here: https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/news/archive/2015/title,255132,en.php

  • Special Collections Teaching 2017/2018 – Martinmas Semester | Echoes from the Vault
    Wednesday 6 December 2017, 2.39pm

    […] were able to see some of the earliest documents in the University’s collections, such as the 1215 Pittance Writ (UYSL110/PW/3), a grant by John son of Michael the clerk of half a mark of silver to be raised on […]

  • “For a quart of Ale is a dish for a king.”: celebrating Beer Day Britain | Echoes from the Vault
    Friday 14 June 2019, 10.18am

    […] is a long history of brewing in Fife. Our earliest record is a sealed pittance writ from circa 1215, granting one shilling annually from the profits of the brewery at Muircambus near […]


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