Figure 1.4. The charter of A.D.985. Translation: Starting from Harandun Way, it goes to the people of Middleham, to Sutton lake; from Sutton lake to the people of Leofsige, to the twisted ditch; from the twisted ditch to the bramble-thorn; from the bramble-thorn to Hengest Gate to the old down, to the people of Brihtwold; from the people of Brihtwold then to Harandun.
Throughout history land has been an important, if not a major source of wealth. Ownership of this wealth, and particularly any changes in this ownership, had to be recorded at first by verbal agreement but later by inscribing the fact on stone, clay, wood, papyrus or paper. The first historical references to Harwell are records of this kind, being three Anglo-Saxon charters of the tenth century in which the king makes over the small agricultural settlement of Haranwylle, Harawylle or Harewyllan to one of his thegns or retainers. In return, the thegn had certain obligations. He had to maintain the fortifications, keep bridges in good repair, and fulfil military service. In A.D. 973 such a charter, signed by King Eadgar, gave Harwell to his thegn Ælfric for his perpetual inheritance. Twelve years later, in A.D. 985 and perhaps on the death of Ælfric, Harwell was made over to another thegn, Æthelric. King Eadgar was dead and the charter was signed by his son Æthelred the Unready (i.e. the ‘redeless’ or uncounselled). Both these charters were solemnly witnessed and agreed to by Dunstan as Archbishop of Canterbury, followed by other religious and secular leaders.
This parcelling out of land to loyal retainers was already a time-honoured way of consolidating power over a territory. The Romans had withdrawn their legions from Britain by the middle of the fifth century and bands of what were later to be called Anglo-Saxons had invaded, settled, become Christianized and founded various kingdoms which from time to time contended with each other. Harwell was in Wessex, the kingdom of the West Saxons, which had been inherited by Alfred the Great (who was born only a few miles from Harwell, at Wantage in A.D. 849) and although by the time of King Eadgar the Anglo-Saxon part of England was united, there was still the threat of further Danish inroads from the east. Throughout this whole period, therefore, the granting of lands to loyal thegns was more than just an act of gratitude for some service.
With the arrival of William the Conqueror and his troops in 1066, the Anglo-Saxon rule was broken, but the old units of land and the agricultural wealth that they represented were still of importance and needed to be recorded. Domesday Book did just that. Even sixty years after the Conquest, the former Anglo-Saxon bounds of Harwell were of sufficient interest for scribes to be employed to copy out the charters that had been written nearly two centuries before. The original charters were then either thrown away or became lost. The copies, however, have survived and three for Harwell are bound up with others in a large cartulary or collection of such charters now in the Department of Manuscripts of the British Library (the so-called Codex Wintoniensis). They seem to have been compiled at the time of Henry de Blois, Bishop of Winchester (and brother of King Stephen) around 1130 – 50.
These copies of the Harwell charters are described in more detail in Appendix I, where the Anglo-Saxon bounds of Harwell are reproduced (with translations). The charters for A.D. 973 and A.D. 985 seem to be authentic, but an earlier one dated A.D. 956 is almost certainly a forgery. What is significant is that the boundaries of Harwell in the A.D. 973 charter seem to be little different from those of the modern parish.
However, to have altered the boundaries of a land unit would have meant altering those of its neighbours (for example Milton, Sutton Courtenay or Didcot), so that it was presumably simpler in most cases to retain the existing boundaries. The result is that even now, a thousand years after the time of Æthelred the Unready, one can still stand on the high ground above the village and visualize the Haranwylle, Harawylle or Harewyllan made over to his thegn Æthelric. One can actually see a millennium of recorded history.