In the twelfth century a Norman chronicler by the name of Gaimer wrote in his L'Estoire des Engleis that king Alfred had "caused a book to be written in English about events and about laws and about battles in the land and about kings who made war".
Gaimer was of course only reporting on the tradition that Alfred had ordered the complilation of this book to be written in English, a belief that may or may not to be true, as there is no direct evidence that links Alfred to the Chronicle.
Be that as it may sometime in the mid ninth century, some anonymous cleric was given the task of compiling what might be termed the original archetype of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; an annalistic record of events from creation to perhaps the year 855. Since the entry for the year 855 includes an account of the genealogy of Alfred back to Adam, it would have "formed an impressive and appropriate conclusion", according to Michael Swanton.
The most notable thing about the work was that it was written in Old English, and represents in the opinion of Michael Swanton "the first continous national history of any western people in their own language". Other European 'nations' also compiled similar annals, but these they wrote in Latin; England was perhaps unique in its use of the vernacular in such offical documents.
As the Anglo-Saxon kings were in the habit of making multiple copies of important documents and storing them at separate monastic centres. (Presumably to ensure the survival of at least one copy in an age when Viking raids were a common occurence.) It is therefore suggested that the same happened to the Chronicle; copies were despatched to different monastic centres and subsequently updated by issuing regular bulletins from the centre.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle therefore does not consist of one one text but rather a variety of texts all derived from the common archetype but which later diverged and incorporated additional information.
The surviving texts are as follows:
- A1 - The Parker or Winchester Chronicle (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS. 173)
- A2 - The Cottonian Fragment (British Museum, Cotton MS. Otho B xi, 2)
- B - The Abingdon Chronicle I (British Museum, Cotton MS. Tiberius A vi.)
- C - The Abingdon Chronicle II (British Museum, Cotton MS. Tiberius B i.)
- D - The Worcester Chronicle (British Museum, Cotton MS.Tiberius B iv.)
- E - The Laud or Peterborough Chronicle (Bodleian, MS.Laud 636)
- F - The Canterbury Bi-Lingual Epitome (British Museum, Cotton MS. Domitian A viii.)
- H - (British Museum, Cotton MS. Domitian Aix,f.9)
Some sources also quote the following as an additional version;
The oldest of these is the Winchester Chronicle, which is considered to the the closest to the original version, and was most likely a copy of the archetype, made by a single scribe sometime towards the end of the ninth century and extended to the year 891. Later other hands added further entries down to the year 1070. It is sometimes known as the Parker Chronicle because it was once in the possession of Matthew Parker, the Archbishop of Canterbury between 1559 and 1575.
The 'Cottonian fragment' was a copy of the Winchester Chronicle made sometime in the years 1001-1013. This manuscript was later burnt in the fire at the Cotton Library in 1731, leaving only a few fragments behind. Its contents however are known from a transcript made by Laurence Nowell which appeared in a printed version of 1643.
As regards the Abingdon Manuscripts - Manuscript B was first composed sometime between 977 and 979 and was at Abingdon sometime in the mid eleventh century when it was used as the basis for C. It subsequently ended up in Christ Church, Canterbury and was continued until the year 1095. Manuscript C was based on B but also drew on other sources as well. Most importantly it incorporates what is known as the Mercian Register, a short list of entries that cover the period 902-924 and focus on the activities of Aethelflaed the Lady of the Mercians. It was later continued down to the fateful year of 1066.
The Worcester chronicle was composed sometime in the mid eleventh century using as its basis the now lost 'northern version' of the Chronicle. (The sees of Worcester and York were typically held by the same individual at the time and hence the connection with the north.) This manuscript appears particularly well informed therefore regarding events in the north and Scotland but is however incomplete as the entries for the years 262-633 have now been lost.
In the year 1116 there was a fire which destoyed the records at Peterborough, and so the monks were forced to make a new copy of the Chronicle, probably from the copy held at Canterbury which they subsequently continued and updated until the year 1131. Later additional entries were made covering the years to 1154, but these were in Middle English rather than Old English. The Peterborough chronicle is also known as the Laud Chronicle having once been in the possession of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury between 1633 and 1645.
The Canterbury Bi-Lingual Epitome was created in about the year 1100 using as its basis the same Canterbury version as was used in creating the Peterborough Chronicle. It is unusual in that the text is rendered in both Old English and Latin; it appears that the scriptorium at Canterbury had a healthy trade going in producing parallel Old English and Latin copies of legal documents.
Manuscript H consists of a single leaf of text containing entres for the years 1113 and 1114 and was probably composed in Winchester.
(Note that there is no 'G', as 'G' is simply a previous and alternative designation for what is now known as A2.)
The most modern and accessible print translation available is that of Michael Swanton, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (JM Dent 1996), and also available in a paperback edition (Phoenix Press 2000).
Online version are available which are all based on the
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Everyman Press, London, 1912) which was itself a translation by Rev. James Ingram (London, 1823), with additional readings from the translation of Dr. J.A. Giles (London, 1847).
See for example;
Transcription of versions A to E in the original Old English are at
Scholarly editions of the individual chronicles exist and work on a collaborative edition of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles is currently in progess in the hands of David Dumville and Simon Keynes.