Family Lessons 109: Oxgangs and Charters

In 1199, King John granted a charter. It was much less famous that the great one he would reluctantly confirm at Runnymede in 1215, but it meant rather a lot to Henry de Walton, my 24th great-grandfather:

'to Henry, son of Gilbert, son of Waldeve, and his heirs, six oxgangs of land in Walton, four oxgangs in Wavertree, and four oxgangs in Newsham, and the masterserjeanty of the wapentake, free and quit by the service of serjeanty for all service and custom, in fee and inheritance, to hold of us and our heirs, &c., as Waldeve his grandfather wholly held the same lands and the said serjeanty in the time of William, count of Boulogne, Warren and Mortain, and of King Henry our father, and as we whilst we were count of Mortain granted and confirmed the same lands and the said serjeanty to Gilbert father of the said Henry'.

An oxgang, sometimes called a bovate, was a measurement of land which a gang of oxen (typically eight) could be expected to plough in one season. As some lands were easier to plough than others, the size of an oxgang varied, but was typically fifteen acres. Thus, Henry was given around 200 acres of what we today call west Liverpool and north Preston. A ‘wapentake’ was the division of a county, sometimes called a Hundred, and the masterserjeant was a kind of local sheriff who was responsible for law enforcement and was able to collect fines. All in all, a rather good charter for the family coffers, despite Henry having to pay King John one palfrey (a desirable horse below that of war horse) or five pounds. In 1206, the King seems to have broken his charter, and fined Henry five marks (a mark valuing 13 shillings and fourpence) in order to have the masterserjeanty confirmed a second time.

Interestingly, the charter was granted on 23 September, 1199 at Chinon, in France’s Loir Valley. This was something of an unofficial capital for John’s father, Henry II, whose Angevin empire covered much of modern France. Yet John, dubbed ‘Lackland’ by his critics, lost Chinon and its valuable castle (above) to the French King just a few years later in 1206. He who had a reputation for stealing or encroaching upon others’ estates (including, to a lesser extent, Henry de Walton’s), would lose much of his own.

We ought to have regard for others’ property rights, respecting boundaries and proprietorial privileges. Yet we also ought to realise that all property is really borrowed, leased, lent and hired. One day it shall belong to another, for another shall claim it when death comes to claim us. The tragedy of this life is that we cling onto what we cannot keep, while disdaining to reach out to that which we could not otherwise lose: Christ Jesus and His heavenly riches. Few in the Middle Ages could see this, and arguably, even fewer today.

For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost? Luke 9:25, NKJV

Image by Johan Puisais from Pixabay