Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts in Trinity College Library: A Domesday Dossier

The Wren Library holds two manuscripts with close connections to the Domesday Book and it is exciting to report that one of them (O.2.41) is now displayed adjacent to Great Domesday itself as part of the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Both of the Trinity manuscripts are referred to as ‘Liber Eliensis’ (‘The Book of Ely’) and contain various material relating to Ely abbey.  By the time of the Norman Conquest the Abbey was one of the largest and wealthiest endowments in England, second only to Glastonbury. Both manuscripts were copied in the later twelfth century and by the seventeenth century came into the possession of Thomas Gale (1635/6-1702), Fellow of Trinity and Dean of York, whose extensive collection of manuscripts was presented to Trinity by his son Roger Gale in 1738.

O.2.41, f. vi verso: Ely calendar including, on 23 June, the Feast of St Etheldreda

The older of the two manuscripts (O.2.41) comprises four main items: a calendar including Ely saints; the ‘book of Bishop Aethelwold’ describing the expansion of Ely abbey and its endowments; a cartulary of Ely abbey (a collection of transcripts of legal charters); and a copy of the Inquisitio Eliensis, or ‘Ely Inquest’.

O.2.41, p. 161: the preface to the ‘Ely Inquest’, describing the inquisitio terrarum (‘enquiry into landed property’) undertaken by the king’s barons.

The Inquisitio is a dossier of information collected from the original returns made to King William’s commissioners for the Domesday survey of 1086. In this compilation the account covers all the lands in the possession of Ely abbey, which were spread across Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Huntingdonshire. The collection is prefaced by an explanation of the way in which the survey was undertaken, which lists the names of the men who gave sworn testimony in each district of Cambridgeshire and part of Hertfordshire. These names are particularly useful as they are among the material which was excised from the eventual compilation of the Domesday survey in the Great and Little Domesday Books.

O.2.1, f. K14r: lists of Abbots, Bishops and Kings in the later Liber Eliensis

The second Liber Eliensis (O.2.1) was compiled slightly later than the first, at the end of the twelfth century, and has related but slightly different contents. It also begins with a calendar, but here listing not only saints but also benefactors as well as kings, abbots and bishops. This is followed by a history of Ely abbey, partly derived from the ‘book of bishop Aethelwold’, but also compiled from various other documents in the abbey. It includes an account of King Cnut rowing past the abbey and hearing the monks singing.

O.2.1, f. K14v: Bishop Aethelwold and King Edgar seated beneath two arches

This is followed by a further copy of the Inquisitio Eliensis, which incorporates some information not found in the earlier manuscript. The final section of the manuscript contains the lives of six Ely saints: Seaxburh, Eormenhild, Eorcengota, Werburg, Aethelburh and Wihtburh.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War is at the British Library until 19 February 2019.