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The London Charter of Liberties, 1066

​The William Charter - the London Charter of Liberties. Ref: COL/CH/01/001/A


The First Civil Rights Act

It is 950 years since William the Conqueror defeated King Harold and the London garrison at the Battle of Hastings and marched on London. London's citizen brigades bravely held out under siege for weeks, but ultimately they accepted an offer of urban liberties in exchange for acquiescence to King William's rule. Soon after his consecration in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066 the Norman king enacted a charter for the benefit of London's citizenry. Historian Kathleen Tyson takes a fresh look at the City of London's "William Charter" - the London Charter of Liberties – and argues that it may have laid the foundation for the parliamentary democracy we have today and created a model that the British Empire made global.

The London Charter of Liberties

The first legislative enactment to cede crown prerogatives - liberties, privileges, franchises and protections - directly to a citizenry is the City of London's "William Charter" - the London Charter of Liberties. Its four and a half lines of workmanlike Old English script read in translation:

'William the king amicably greets William the bishop, Godfrey the portreeve and all the citizenry in London, French and English, and I declare that I grant that you are all to be law-worthy, as you were in the days of King Edward, and I grant that each child is to be his father's heir after his father's days, and I will not suffer any man to do you any wrong. God keep you.'

These few lines may have laid the foundation for the parliamentary democracy we have today and created a model for cantonal governance that the British Empire made global. Before this charter English kings had only ceded crown prerogatives to religious foundations such as minsters, churches, episcopal sees, abbeys, monasteries and nunneries. After this charter other citizens of towns and cities, followed soon by the feudal barons serving the king, felt empowered to make demands and negotiate crown prerogatives to limit royal power. The forty-three manuscript reproductions that survive are testament to wider interest in the original charter.

Ultimately London and the barons together secured the Magna Carta - the 'great charter' - just 179 years later. It is no coincidence that article IX of Magna Carta provides for the preservation of London's ancient liberties. Londoners were closely involved in the negotiations between the king and the barons.

Description of the charter

The London Charter of Liberties has been carefully preserved in excellent condition since it was written and delivered. It is now held in London Metropolitan Archives (ref. COL/CH/01/001/A). Print editions of the charter include: Felix Liebermann, ed., 'Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen', 3 vols (Halle, 1903–1916), vol. 1, p. 486, D.A.E. Pelteret, 'Catalogue of English Post-Conquest Vernacular Documents' (Woodbridge, 1990), pp. 47-48, and David Bates, ed., 'The Acta of William I, 1066–1087' (Oxford, 1998), no. 180).

The square-cut parchment appears fairly standard quality, not whitened. It measures 145mm by 35mm. The ink may have been black originally, but now appears dark brown. Two strips have been incised on the lower margin for binding the writ with the Great Seal. The seal itself is a two-sided seal of white wax featuring King William seated on the front and mounted on the reverse. A fourteenth century Latin translation was formerly stitched to the original, providing a further basis for interpretation of the Old English (COL/CH/01/001/B; see London, Corporation of London, 'Municipal Archives', Ch 1b Latin version; s. xiv).

Although the London Charter was the first enactment of a Norman king, its features are common to the writ-charters executed during the reigns of King Cnut, King Harthacnut and King Edward, suggesting some continuity of royal administration. The scribe is unidentified, but the use of the term burgwaru (feminine singular compound noun for 'municipal citizenry') and the spelling of the name gosfregð (Godfrey) are unique to this writ and a second writ for London executed some years later after Lanfranc had become archbishop of Canterbury (see Bates, No. 78; Pelteret No 33). These unique spellings may indicate that the scribe was closely associated with London. One candidate is Bishop William of London, known as William the Norman. He was a royal chaplain to King Edward the Confessor before his ordination to the contested see of London in 1051. Bishop William was familiar with the forms of the royal scriptorium; as bishop of London he was the ecclesiastical magistrate responsible for its protection; and as a native Norman he would be an excellent emissary to King William. Bishop William was long revered for securing London's liberties, and his tomb in Old St Paul's church was the goal of an annual procession with each new mayor for centuries.

A sovereign citizenry

Londoners as a citizenry had a unique status in England almost from the first histories. Writing in the mid-first century Tacitus describes London as ‘thronged with merchants and very great traffic passing back and forth' ('Londinium . . . copia negotiatorum et commeatuum maxime celebre', Tacit. Ann. Lib. XIV:33). When Boudica attacked London tens of thousands were slain by the rebels. London was rebuilt as a civitas or corporate polity and raised in the next century to the status of a Roman colony. Colonists were entitled to Roman citizenship and institutions, whereas citizens of a civitas were urbanised natives allowed limited self-rule through local magistrates and council.

As in Rome, the powers of early London governments were distributed among the magistrates, a select senate, and the assembly of the citizens according to the original model of the Roman constitution. Londoners retained their Rome-inspired institutions of commerce, self-rule and jurisprudence as invasions and civil strife ravaged England after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Londoners paid tribute to kings of Kent, East Anglia and Wessex, but London remained politically distinct from these kingdoms.

The distinction between London and hinterland England was preserved in the early church as well. Bede records that the diocese of London, which incorporated the archdeaconries of London, St Albans (Verulamium), Colchester (Camulodunum), Middlesex and Essex, held a very special status from the time of the Gregorian Mission. A reproduced 691 letter from Pope Gregory the Great to Saint Augustine instructs that the bishop of London was exempt from the authority of the archbishop of Canterbury, the London diocesan college could elect its own bishop when the see fell vacant, and a bishop of London could only receive his pall of office from the pontiff (Bede, 'Ecclesiastical History of the English People', I:27). These supra-national links between London and Rome may have given London the confidence to negotiate with kings until England was unified under Alfred the Great in 886, and to resist foreign conquerors by electing its own kings in defiance of the Danish King Cnut in 1016 and the Norman King William in 1066.

The most detailed account of the 1066 siege of London is the Carmen Widonis, attributed to Bishop Guy d'Amiens and written immediately after the events, probably before the Easter 1067 celebrations in Normandy. The bard description of the deliberations of London's aldermen, senatus in the text, during the siege, has the aldermen approve the decision of the assembled citizenry to repudiate Edgar the Aethling and accept King William's offer of liberties to end the siege, and further has the aldermen assent to King William's consecration during the service at Westminster Abbey (K. Tyson, ed. and trans., 'Carmen de Triumpho Normannico – The Song of the Norman Conquest' (London and Charleston, 2014), Lines 741, 789, 809 and 815). These lines are evidence that London's citizenry and aldermen continued as deliberative bodies until the Norman Conquest. Senatus derives from senex - 'old man' - and is a clear Latin translation of the Old English aldermen - 'older men'.

Londoners secured a measure of continued independence with the London Charter of Liberties, although institutions changed after the Norman Conquest. Magistrates were replaced with mayors and the citizenry were re-organised into hundreds. The guilds and aldermen provided continuity. London's independence finally ended in 1683 when King Charles II revoked London's charter on grounds of sedition. Soon London expanded in all directions outside the walls, becoming a much larger and less unified polity, but it continued to welcome immigrants, as it still does today. The Square Mile of ancient London preserves its traditions, its mayor, its aldermen and its guilds, and still provides England with a mercantile capital trading with the world.

31 January 2017
Last Modified:
22 August 2018