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charters

charters are grants of privilege. They are of fundamental importance to students of medieval legal, constitutional, and municipal history. They can also be used to establish where the king or lord was at a certain time, and they give some indication of his chief ministers from the frequency names appear as witnesses. But they need to be used with great caution since spurious charters are by no means uncommon, interpolations were frequently made, and contemporary phrases can be difficult to render precisely. Indeed, a number of learned controversies have turned on the exact meaning of charter terms. The oldest charters appear to be grants made to the Church in Kent during the reign of Æthelbert in the 600s and were modelled on private Roman documents. Grants of land to individuals became common and the phrase ‘bookland’ indicated an estate held by charter. Next came charters to towns or cities, giving them the right to hold markets or fairs, to collect tolls, or to elect their own officials. William the Conqueror issued a charter to London, Norwich received one from Stephen, York from Richard I, Bristol from Henry III. Charters as regular instruments of royal policy seem to have been introduced into Scotland from 1095 during the reign of Edgar, who had close connections with the Anglo-Norman court of William Rufus. The ‘coronation charters’ of Henry I, Stephen, and Henry II were rather different in character and more like political manifestos, since they promised good government in accordance with the traditional laws of the realm. Though the promises were not always kept, the charters implied some limitation on royal authority and paved the way for Magna Carta in 1215, itself constantly confirmed. Later came charters to guilds and to trading companies. The Merchant Venturers, having obtained concessions from continental rulers, had their privileges confirmed by Edward III; the Royal College of Physicians of London was incorporated by Henry VIII in 1518; the East India Company was granted its charter by Elizabeth in 1600. The sanctity of charters was regarded as the very bedrock of property. Consequently the campaigns by Charles II and James II after 1681 to call in the charters of parliamentary boroughs and remodel them roused fierce opposition. When the Fox–North coalition in 1783 introduced a bill to reform the East India Company, the opposition had much success with the argument that this was a gross and daring violation of the constitution. In the 19th and 20th cents. charters were granted, under the supervision of the Privy Council, to universities and educational bodies.

J. A. Cannon

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