CONSTITUTION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Oxford charter liberties customs merchant guild models self-government
Subject: Charter granted by Henry II to Oxford
Original source: Inspeximus of Elizabeth I
Transcription in: William Stubbs, ed. Select Charters and Other Illustrations of English Constitutional History, 9th ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913, 198-99.
Original language: Latin
Location: Oxford
Date: ca. 1154-57


Henry, by the grace of God King of England, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, etc. Know that I have granted and confirmed to my citizens of Oxford their liberties, customs, laws and immunities which they had in the time of my grandfather, King Henry. Namely, a merchant gild with all liberties and customs, in lands, woods, pastures and other appurtenances; with the condition that anyone not belonging to their gild may not trade in any merchandize in the city or its suburb, unless he was accustomed to in the time of my grandfather, King Henry. Furthermore, I have granted and confirmed that they may be quit of tolls, passage and all customs throughout England and Normandy, [whether] by land, by river, by seashore, "by land and by strand". And they may have all other customs, liberties, and laws which the community and citizens of London have. And that at my feast they may serve me with staff of my butlery, and may act jointly with them concerning merchandizing inside London, and outside, and in all places. And if they have any doubts or differences of opinion concerning any judgement that they have to render, they may send messengers to London on the matter and whatever the Londoners judge to be correct they may take as established. If any charge is brought against them outside the city they need not answer it there; no matter what plea is made against them, they may prove their case according to the laws and customs of London, and not otherwise, for they and the citizens of London are of one and the same custom, law and liberty. It is therefore my wish etc. that they have and hold the aforesaid liberties, laws and customs, and their tenures, properly and peacefully etc., with sac and soc, tol and theam, infangenetheof, and with all other liberties, customs and immunities as best they ever had them in the time of my grandfather, King Henry, and just as my citizens of London have them. Witnesses: Thomas the chancellor, Reginald earl of Cornwall, H. earl of Norfolk etc.


This charter predates by over forty years the community acquiring the town in fee farm. As one of the earlier grants to boroughs it, like Richard I's charter to Northampton in 1189 (and yet unlike Henry's charter to Nottingham, further afield), prescribed London as the model on which to draft new laws, or even to alter existing local customs. Oxford in turn served as a model for other towns, such as Lynn. In fact, even as early as ca.1088/1107 Oxford was acting as a model, for Burford's lord granted the little Oxfordshire town a gild with the same privileges as the merchant gild of Oxford.

Further confirmation that Oxford's merchant gild existed prior to Henry's charter comes from a deed of ca.1147 in which "the community of the city and the gild of merchants" made a grant to Oseney abbey; the deed also refers to the portmanmoot (where the decision to make the grant was taken), although this has no mention in Henry II's charter, and to the alderman – presumably the merchant gild alderman – who appears to be a leader of the community; the alderman identified happened to be a powerful local landowner and keeper of Oxford's castle, rather than a merchant, although this choice of leadership may have been prompted by the civil war. Reeves of Oxford are likewise heard of in the first half of the 12th century (although this does not mean they were chosen by the community). It is evident then that we cannot rely solely on royal charters to fully portray the state of local organization or government, nor should we expect to. Nor should too much emphasis be placed on the acquisition of the fee farm as a defining step in local self-government. In 1191, eight years before the fee farm was acquired, another grant by the the community and merchant gild had affixed to it a seal inscribed "the common seal of all the citizens of the city of Oxford" (something evidently not possessed in 1147); among the initial witnesses were two aldermen and two reeves.



The reference is to beaching or anchoring off the beach (strand), for which a toll was payable; see Customs charged on imports to and exports from London.

"my feast"
The king's "feast" refers to the state dinner preceding the day of coronation; since the king could not grant this privilege for himself, only for his successors, it may be that other state dinners are also intended. The clause that follows appears to be grammatically connected with the coronation clause; its meaning is not evident, however, unless the citizens not only served at the feast but helped provision it as well – although such a role is not evidenced anywhere. Possibly it was originally a separate clause from which one or more words were accidentally omitted during the process of making later copies. Evidence of the Oxford community's role, shared with the citizens of London, of taking over the duties of the butler at the coronation feast is given in a document of 1461, which narrates how the mayor, accompanied by six other townsmen, claimed from the High Steward to right to so serve at the coronation of Edward IV, with the result that "the butler delivered an apron to each of the burgesses and instructed them well in performing the duties, and told them to give him or any of his staff commands and they would be obeyed; and so they were." [my modernization, from H.E. Salter, ed. Munimenta Civitatis Oxonie, (1920), 223]. Curiously, however, a detailed account (in London's Liber Custumarum) of the ceremonials surrounding the coronation of Richard II, which records numerous claims – most by nobles – to perform some role during the ceremony, includes a grant to London to aid the Chief Butler in serving at the feast, but makes no mention of any similar claim by Oxford. The men of the Cinque Ports also had a role, by holding a canopy over the king during the coronation.

"sac and soc" "tol and theam" "infangenetheof"
Sac and soc were different kinds of jurisdiction, incorporating the right to hold courts to try cases and to take the revenues resulting from the same. For tol and team and infangthef, see the notes to Henry II's charter to Nottingham.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: January 7, 2019 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-20193