Rare mediaeval documents identified by Exeter’s Bonhams

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

When an antiques dealer bought a box of 1930s royal memorabilia from a country house clearance he must have hoped there would be something of value in it.

What he cannot have expected is to have unearthed a rare mediaeval manuscript. It has emerged that the manuscript was in fact a rare set of accounts ordered by Richard III from his lands and properties in the Duchy of Cornwall. The document is now going on sale at auction with an estimated price of between £4,000 and £6,000.

The seller only discovered its potential worth after asking experts at Bonhams in Exeter to take a look at the document. Following a painstaking identification, the auction firm’s mediaeval manuscript specialists identified it as a ledger prepared for the hunchback king, covering some of the most turbulent years in English history following the start of his two year rule 1483.

The papers show how much income Richard made in one year from the Duchy estate in Devon and Cornwall – and particularly from the area’s famous tin mines.

They reveal profits from the Duchy at this time were worth around £500 a year in contrast to the annual wage of a labourer of about £2. The accounts show detailed totals for rents, sales and court receipts for manors within the Duchy and in Devon. Also detailed are the names of bailiffs who supervised work on each manor and would act as a link between the serfs and their feudal lord. The amounts raised from each manorial lord amounted to between £12 and £30 per annum.

Peter Hammond, president of the Richard III society, said: “It is a very important record and we don’t know how many of these 15th century documents still exist.

‘It gives us a handle on the kind of income that was coming in to keep the country running. The bureaucracy was alive and well in the 15th century – they kept amazing records.”

Historians hope the document will remain in Britain following the sale and be made available for public research. Mr Hammond said: “It would be good if it was bought by the Cornwall Record office or the National Archives and it would be great if people were then able to see it.”

Sam Tuke, a valuer at Bonhams in Exeter, said, “It is always exciting to come across something so special. The accounts include details of properties in Devon as well as in Cornwall itself. They are of course written in faded mediaeval Latin, but our specialists were able to decipher the text, and reveal their true value.

‘There are all kinds of reasons why these accounts have survived over the centuries. They may have been lent or stolen but it is very rare to find anything like them offered for sale. The seller bought the manuscript as part of a job lot at a house clearance sale, along with royal memorabilia from the 1930’s.”

Richard died at Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485, in the last significant battle of the War of the Roses. Despite the lack of any concrete evidence, he was blamed for the murder of the Princes in the Tower, his nephews Edward V and brother Richard, after being appointed Protector of the Realm to the 12-year-old Edward. The Duchy of Cornwall was created by
Edward III in 1337 to provide income for the heir to the throne.

It continues to this day as part of the extensive property holdings of Prince Charles, income from which fund both the Prince and his charitable causes.

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