June 2011 – Forgery and the Wars


Forgery and the Wars of Independence: the example of Kelso Abbey

Andrew Smith, Research Assistant


As discussed in two previous features of the month, the wars of independence had a serious effect on the social, economic and political well-being of Kelso Abbey and its inhabitants. However, the trials and tribulations that Kelso endured in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries may continue to have ramifications, particularly for historians and historical research. This feature of the month will evaluate Kelso Abbey for one final time, and will ask the following question: could the wars of independence have inspired the monks of Kelso to engage in forgery?

A. Inspiration for Forgery in Other Contexts

Scottish historians have dedicated very little attention to forgery. However, historians of medieval England, France and Germany have dedicated a substantial amount of research to the subject. Throughout their investigations they have identified several catalysts which appear to have inspired individuals and institutions to engage in the fabrication of deeds and legal documentation, and two catalysts appear prominently in a number of their studies. One is the destruction of an individual’s or institution’s charters.[1] The other is a period of political and social upheaval, and there is no better example than Norman Conquest which led a number of Anglo-Saxon monasteries to forge charters in an attempt to convince their French overlords that they were endowed with particular possessions.[2]

As discussed in a previous feature of the month, Kelso appears to have lost a substantial number its charters before 1305, and as a result, were unable to obtain warrandice from their patrons. Therefore, in at least one respect, the circumstances which they faced did mirror the circumstances which a number of prolific forgers encountered. However, Kelso also encountered a period of dramatic political and social upheaval during at the turn of the fourteenth century which was quite similar to the Norman Conquest. For one, life at their community was completely upturned as is demonstrated by the prologue of a charter produced on behalf of Bishop William of Lamberton:

[T]he monastery of Saint Mary at Kelso in our diocese, situated on the border of England and Scotland, is destroyed, on account of the general war and the daily plundering of goods, by pillaging, fire, and slaughter; and – we report this with sorrow – its monks and lay-brothers seek food and clothing, going about the other religious houses of the kingdom of Scotland as beggars.[3]

Moreover, much like the Norman Conquest, the social structure of lowland Scotland, where Kelso was a property-holder, was also altered as a result of the fact that the King Edward I installed many of his own men in the region. There is no evidence that redistribution took place on any grand scale after his initial invasion in 1296. However, at the York parliament which preceded the Falkirk campaign in 1298, Edward stated that he intended to expropriate the lands of his enemies, and he appears to have made good on his promise.[4] Among other things, the barony of Renfrew, where Kelso held interests, was given to the earl of Lincoln. Similarly, the barony of Bothwell and the forest of Selkirk, where the abbey was a property holder, were granted to Aymer de Valence,[5] and in 1300, Henry of Prenderguest made suit to King Edward for the barony of Wiston where the monks held the parish church.[6] Moreover, the lands of Robert of Keith, whose ancestors were generous benefactors of the Tironensians, were declared forfeit, and granted to other individuals.[7]


B. The Wars of Independence and Kelso Abbey’s Charters

As demonstrated above, the loss of the monks’ charters, the hardships that they faced, and the contemporaneous upheaval of the native land-holding establishment in lowland Scotland are all highly reminiscent of the circumstances which led other institutions to forge charters. However, the question still remains as to whether the monks of Kelso engaged in forgery themselves as a result of the crisis.

As discussed in a previous feature of the month, virtually all of the surviving charters of Kelso Abbey are found in late-medieval cartulary (or charter-book) which was produced shortly following King Robert’s assumption of power in the second decade of the fourteenth century. Within the manuscript are several twelfth-century charters which contain elements that make them candidates for forgeries, and seventeen of these items relate to fisheries which Kelso held on the River Tweed. Thirteen of these charters, all of which record the fact that several individuals quitclaimed (or renounced) their rights to various fisheries, are called into question by two key elements.[8] Firstly, they contain some diplomatic features (or stock legal phrases) which appear to be too advanced for their time.[9] Moreover, there is evidence that the scribes who were copying them into the manuscript were using a formulary.[10] On the other hand, the authenticity of at least one of the remaining four fishery charters, all of which related to the fishery of Woodhorn in Northumberland, is called into question by the fact it gives King David I credit for confirming this possession. In his edition of early Scottish charters, Archibald Lawrie admitted puzzlement about how King David would have confirmed a fishery on the Northumberland side of the River Tweed, and it is noteworthy that this is the only surviving charter of King David which records his confirmation of property in the region.[11]

In the end, it is impossible to say for certain whether any charter is a forgery, including the aforementioned. However, if these charters are spurious then it is noteworthy that a catalyst for their production can be identified which dates from the early fourteenth century. On 13 June 1304, King Edward wrote to his chancellor, Master William of Greenfield, commanding him to issue letters under the Great Seal which ordained the bishop of Durham to restore to the Abbot and Convent of Kelso the fishery of Woodhorn (Wodhorn) ‘which they held long before the war’.[12] Could it be that these charters were fabricated as a result of the trouble that Kelso was having with the bishops of Durham in the early fourteenth century? The bishops certainly held rights in the region, not just to Woodhorn, but to all of the fisheries which are recorded in the aforementioned charters, and disputes over property rights were not only common during times of crisis, but oftentimes led to forgery.[13] Ultimately, whether a link is in fact extant is debatable. However, it might be wise for individuals interested in Scottish charters to start thinking of the wars of independence not just as a period of significance in and of itself, but a period which could be responsible for the creation of many of the charters that we believe date from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.[14]

[1] T. Foulds, ‘Medieval Cartularies’, Archives, 77 (1987), 3-35 (31).

[2] M. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record, 2nd Edition (Oxford: Edward Arnold, 1993), 318; M. Brett, ‘Forgery at Rochester’ in Fälschungen im Mittelalter: Internationaler Kongreß der Monumenta Germaniae Historica München, 16. – 19. September 1986, Teil IV: Diplomatische Fälschungen (II) (Hannover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1988), 397-412 (397-98, 401); M. Chibnall, ‘Forgery in Narrative Charters’, in Fälschungen im Mittelalter: Internationaler Kongreß der Monumenta Germaniae Historica München, 16. – 19. September 1986, Teil IV: Diplomatische Fälschungen (II) (Hannover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1988), 331-346 (342-43).

[3] Liber S. Marie de Calchou [Kelso Liber], 2 vols (Edinburgh, 1846), ii, no. 309.

[4] M. Prestwich, ‘Colonial Scotland: The English in Scotland under Edward I’, in Scotland and England, 1286-1815, ed. by R. A. Mason (Edinburgh: J. Donald, 1987), 6-17 (7).

[5] Origines Parochiales Scotiae, 2 vols., ed. by C. Innes (Edinburgh: Bannatyne Club, 1851-5), i, 242, 272.

[6] Ibid., i, 147.

[7] Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland [CDS], 5 vols (Edinburgh, 1881–1986) iii, no. 245.

[8] Kelso Liber, i, nos. 56-59, 61-62, 65-70.

[9] For one, they are the earliest surviving charters in the Kelso, Melrose and Holyrood collections to contain the phrase caritatis intuitu, apart from another charter which is of questionable authenticity (Kelso Liber, i, no. 180). Moreover, their address clauses also reference litteras. English studies of private charters have found that referencing the ‘charters’ themselves in the address clauses does not become protocol until the thirteenth century (M. Gervers, ‘The Dating of Medieval English Private Charters of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries’ in A Distinct Voice: Medieval Studies in Honor of Leonard E. Boyle, ed. by Jacqueline Brown and others (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), 450-504 (5)). It is also not found in any of the three Scottish collections mentioned above, except for the questionable item (Kelso Liber, i, no. 180).

[10] There are some corrections in the manuscript which are very suspicious: the scribe incorrectly writes ‘me’ for ‘nos’ in the notification clause of one charter, and ego for nos in the confraternity clause of another charter. In the second charter, he also incorrectly uses future active indicative plural of posse instead of the perfect active indicative plural in the dispositive clause (Kelso Liber, i, no. 65, 68; NLS, MS Adv. 34.5.1, ff. 27v-28v). Mistakes like the aforementioned are very uncommon in the manuscript, and may suggest that the scribe was using a formulary since many of the other fishery charters, all of which have the same basic structure, are in the first person singular.

[11] Early Scottish Charters Prior to 1153, ed. by A. C. Lawrie (Glasgow: MacLehose, 1905), 475.

[12] CDS, ii, no. 1545

[13] Kelso Liber, i, nos. 37, 54.

[14] For further discussion of forgery in the Kelso Abbey cartulary, see A. Smith, ‘The Kelso Abbey Cartulary: Context, Production and Forgery’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Glasgow, 2011).


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