28th November 1384
Grants of town charters in medieval times came from the crown, bishops, religious houses and local nobles. The primary objective of these charters was the creation of a measure of local government, as well as markets and fairs, thus easing collection of tolls. Therefore any trade taking place outside prescribed charters was met with fines.
It thus resulted in conflict as seen Today in 1384, when the burgesses of the borough of Stafford alleged that their market was being damaged by the unlicensed Sunday market at Burton-on-Trent.(1)
A Royal Charter was the first form of legal document granted by the Saxon kings, a use widened under the Normans to include the nobles, as well as a powerful church keen to assert its rights over territory.
Written in Latin, many charters often a confirmed previous rights. For instance Chichester in Sussex, has the earliest extant Charter from King Stephen confirming rights of borough and gild merchants, from the time of his grandfather.
Most charters came in the 13th century, when King John granted a market and fair to Burton-on-Trent, in Staffordshire in 120o, and Edward I to Whitwick, Leicestershire in 1293.
Many a noble lord followed monarchical practice, as did a member of the de Ferrers Family, now 4th Earl of Derby, who granted a borough charter in 1225 to Uttoxeter in Staffordshire. Later in 1253, William the 5th Earl, was to grant Bolton, Lancashire, borough status, and right to operate a market.(2)
Many boroughs in the 12th and 13th centuries, had seigneurial or burgage tenure, thus enjoying a measure of independence from the local lord, where burgesses as freemen, were involved in local trade and elections. They inhabited burgess strips down the main streets, paid cash rents to the overlord, who controlled manorial courts and tolls as in Skipton, Yorkshire whilst Beverley had a full charter,
It was also the time, the Church asserting its status, via the Archbishop of York and Bishop of Durham, granted charters to seven towns in the north, as well as to the monastery at Whitby, whose original borough charter of 1175-1185, was revoked in 1201, and vested in the local abbey.
However though it is difficult to generalise about the granting of local rights and freedoms in the growing urban centres in Britain at this time, there is no doubt that from the 1200’s certain towns had been granted market and borough status with many sending members to the early institution of parliament. Freedoms included right to buy and sell property, self government and to a borough court and imposition of tolls.
Many Charters were forged in an attempt to prove rights of ownership of the endowments of benefactors previously granted to found monastic institutions in perpetuity, which in practice lasted until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.
However the granting of a charter didn’t ensure the future prosperity of a town for various reasons: Hedon declined as the principal port on the Humber owing to silting of the Haven, and as nearby Hull expanded. Many other towns in Yorkshire didn’t survive, including Skipsea, Ravenserodd, Harewood, Drax, Brough and Almonbury.
(1) CPR p.505-6, CPR is the Calendar of Patent Rolls at PRO 1232-1509 in 52 Volumes, London 1891-1916.
(2) It is debatable how much initiative lay with merchants, to acquire borough status, though the inhabitants of Wakefield did appear to have paid Earl of Warenne 120 shillings to obtain a charter of free burgage c 1188-1202.
Ref: Farrar and Clay. Early Yorkshire Charters Cambridge 1949.
Ref: Medieval Yorkshire Towns and People, Buildings, Spaces, George Sheeran. 1998/(google.co.uk/books).
Ref: Gazatteer of Markets and Fairs to 1516.
Ref: British Borough Charters (1042-1216). edited Adolphus Ballard. (google.co.uk 2010).