The Confessor's Gift and the Conqueror's Oath

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St Nicholas' Church

St Nicholas' Church, Bramber

King William honoured his oath to restore Steyning to Fécamp but not entirely to the satisfaction of the abbey. It was clearly not realistic to allow an important river entry into the country to be defended by monks. The Conqueror placed William de Braose at Bramber, where the new lord built a castle and began a vigorous dispute with his neighbours at Steyning. The boundaries of Fécamp's spiritual and secular powers were never quite reconciled with the Lords of Bramber, who had formidable powers of their own.

The practicalities of power even brought the King himself into dispute with Fécamp Abbey. The monks claimed the same freedoms in the strategic locality of Hastings as King Edward had given them at Steyning. This was more than royal generosity could allow. What's more, William was now their king in England, not merely a duke, and Fécamp's exalted claims were driving a wedge between himself and the Pope.

In 1088, a charter of King William's son, Duke Robert of Normandy, restored some property in Fécamp, "which his father had in wrath taken from the abbey before the day of his death." Even in Normandy, Fécamp's fortunes were not at their height during William's reign.

Technically, the Norman rule of law recognised all land tenure which exisited at the moment of King Edward's death, since King Harold was a usurper. Due homage to King William was also required. Yet it was during Edward's reign that Harold's father had expelled the Norman monks of Fécamp. Were their claims valid or not and would they submit to the King? William turned his back on this embarrassing problem for nearly twenty years, but in 1085 a compromise was finally agreed. The King confirmed the abbey's special position at Steyning but swapped the disputed property at Hastings for the Sussex manor of Bury.

115. Charter of William, dated 1085.

He confirms to the abbey of Fécamp king Edward's gift of Steyning (Estaninges) with its appurtenances; [and] for his own part gives it gladly for the weal of king Edward's soul, and of his own and those of Maud his wife and of his sons, with its rights and dues, sac and soc. And if the abbey did not hold that manor in the time of king Edward, yet he gives it, with all that the abbey held in Steyning in his own time. Moreover he gives and grants to the abbey the manor of Bury (Beriminstre)—for which he offered a trial and justice to abbot William and his monks, and which manor remained his - in consideration of their claim against him for their possessions in Hastings in the time of king Edward; on the terms that if that manor is worth more than the rents they had lost at Hastings, he nevertheless grants them all that manor, with its appurtenances, rights, and dues, sac and soc; while if it is not worth so much he will give compensation to the abbey for that amount.+

Like every landowner in the realm, William de Braose and the Abbot of Fécamp were called to account by the compilers of the Domesday Book, completed in 1086. The process opened up a can of worms. It was found that William de Braose had built a bridge at Bramber and demanded tolls from ships travelling further along the river to the port at Steyning. The monks challenged Bramber's right to bury its parishioners in the churchyard at Saint Nicholas. This was William de Braose's new church, built to serve the castle but Fécamp demanded the burial fees.

King William had neglected to define the terms of his bargain with God concerning Steyning when he gave Bramber to William de Braose, so much so that the monks of Fécamp produced forged documents to defend their position. The dispute over Hastings had deprived the monks of the King's justice until 1085. This had enabled William de Braose to gain the advantage at Bramber, over territory and rights to which he felt equally entitled. After all, he was defending a vulnerable spot on the South Coast, as instructed by his King, as well as building churches and making substantial gifts to God. In 1086 the King called his sons, barons and bishops to court to settle the issues. It took them a full day. The Abbey of Fécamp swayed the court in its favour. William de Braose was ordered to organise a mass exhumation, which must have been an unpleasant and distressing event.

Fécamp's victory meant that Bramber's dead were all moved to the churchyard of Saint Andrew's in Steyning. The tolls at William de Braose's bridge were curtailed. Fécamp also fought him and won over a park, eighteen burgage plots, a causeway, a channel to fill his moat and other encroachments onto the abbey's land.

114. [Notification that] a plea was held at Ala Chocha a manor of William of Eu (Dou) concerning William de Braiose and the property of the abbey of the Holy Trinity [of Fécamp], King William holding the plea on a Sunday, [sitting] from morning till eve.

It was there settled and agreed as to the wood of Hamode that it should be divided through the middle, both the wood and the land in which the villeins had dwelt and which belongs to the wood; and by the king's command a hedge (hagia) was made through the middle, and the abbey and William had their respective shares. As to St. Cuthman's rights of burial (sepultura) it was decreed that they should remain unimpaired, and by the king's command the bodies which had been buried at William's church were dug up (defossa) by William's own men, and transferred to St. Cuthman's church for lawful burial, and Herbert the dean restored the money (denarios) he had received for burial, for wakes (wacis), for tolling the bells (signis sonatis) and all dues for the dead, swearing, by a relative in his place, that he had not received more. As to the abbey's land which William had taken for his park, it was adjudged that the park should be destroyed, and it was destroyed. So with the warren he had made on the abbey's land. As to the toll he took at his bridge from the abbey's men, it was adjudged that it should not be given, as it was never given in the time of king Edward; and, by the king's command, what had been taken in toll was restored, the tollman swearing that he had not received more. As to the ships which ascend [the river] to the port of St. Cuthman (Steyning) it was adjudged that they should be quit for twopence, ascending and descending, unless they should make another market at William's castle. The road he had made on the abbey's land was ordered to be destroyed, and was destroyed. The ditch he had made to bring water to the castle was ordered to be filled up, and this was done. As to the marsh, it was decreed that it should be the abbey's (quietum) up to the hill and the saltpits. The eighteen gardens were adjudged to the abbey. The weekly toll was adjudged to the saint (St. Cuthman), saving William's half. For all this William placed his gage (dedit cadium) in the king's hand as being at his mercy.+

This was a momentous event in English legal history. It was the last time an English king presided personally, with his full court, to decide a matter of law. The word of this legendary monarch, William the Conqueror, might have been expected to settle matters once and for all. Far from it! The port at Steyning silted up and declined but disputes between the lords of Bramber, their own religious establishments and the church of Steyning continued for centuries. The significance of Edward the Confessor's gift and William the Conqueror's oath became lost in the mists of time but the legal muddle and confusion continued.

* From: Regesta Regum Anglo-Normannorum 1066-1154 Volume I, edited by H W C Davis (Oxford, 1913).

+ From: 'Seine Inférieure: Part 2' Calendar of Documents Preserved in France: 918-1206 (1899), J. Horace Round (editor)

See also our article: The Braose Lords of Bramber

Victoria County History Sussex: Bramber (Southern Part)
The Barons de Braose
L'Office de Tourisme de Fécamp
Electronic Sawyer
The Victorian Bayeux Tapestry


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Page last updated
16th August 2021