CONSTITUTION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Northampton charter rights judicial administration tolls customs self-government
Subject: Charter granted by Richard I to Northampton
Original source: Copy in borough archives
Transcription in: Christopher Markham, ed. The Records of the Borough of Northampton, (Northampton, 1898), vol.1, 25-26.
Original language: Latin
Location: Northampton
Date: 1189


Richard, by the grace of God King of England, Duke of Normandy [and] Aquitaine, Count of Anjou, to his archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justices, sheriffs, and all officers and loyal subjects, French and English, greetings. Know that we have granted to our burgesses of Northampton that none of them – except our officers and money-minters – need answer any plea [introduced in any court] outside the walls of the borough of Northampton, except pleas concerning lands held outside [the town]. We have granted to them freedom from murdrum within the borough and in the portsoken, that none of them need undertake [trial by] battle, that in pleas within the jurisdiction of the Crown they may defend themselves according to the custom of the city of London, and that within the walls of the town no-one may take lodging by force or through command of the Marshal. We have also granted this: that all burgesses of Northampton are exempt from toll and lastage throughout England and the seaports. And that none of them receive judgement of [paying] an amercement except as determined by the law which our citizens of London have. Miskenning is not to be [applicable] in any plea [tried] in the borough. And that a husting may be held once a week; and that they have a legal right to their lands and tenures and to their pledges and debts, regardless of who is answerable to them [for the same]. With regard to those lands and tenures that are within the borough, justice shall be done to them according to the [legal] customs of the borough; and for all debts incurred or pledges made at Northampton, the pleas shall be held in Northampton. If anyone anywhere in England takes toll or custom from Northampton men and afterwards fails to rectify this, the reeve of Northampton may take retribution for the same at Northampton. Furthermore, to improve things in the borough, we have granted that they are exempt from brudtol, childwite, heresgive and scot-ale; the reeve of Northampton, nor any other bailiff, may not make any scotale. These aforementioned customs we have granted them along with all other liberties and free customs which our citizens of London had or have, when they had them best or most freely according to the liberties of London and laws of the borough of Northampton. It is our will and firm command that they and their heirs have and hold all these aforesaid things hereditarily of us and our heirs, in return for £120 by tale from the town of Northampton and all its appurtenances [i.e. the portsoken], paid at our Exchequer at Michaelmas term by the hands of the reeve of Northampton. The burgesses of Northampton may appoint as reeve for the year whomever they want from among themselves, so long as he is suitable to us and them. Witnesses: Hugh bishop of Durham, John bishop of Norwich, Hubert bishop of Salisbury, Earl Alber', William earl of Arundel, Richard earl of Clare, Hamelin earl of Warenne, Walter fitz Rodbert. Given at [Bury] St. Edmunds on 18 November 1189, by the hands of our Chancellor, William bishop Elect of Ely.


Hamtun was a settlement of increasing consequence in Mercia, the Danelaw, and then as one of Edward the Elder's burhs; after the unification of England it was capital of a shire. Its fortunes rose even higher after the Conquest, in part due to its strategic midway position between England's capital, Winchester, and the effective capital of the north, York; a castle and a parallel community of Norman settlers were established there. The king himself was often at Northampton, and had residences in the vicinity; he shared lordship of the borough with the earl of Northampton. Four years before the grant of Richard's charter, with its earl recently dead, Northampton's burgesses had successfully negotiated with Henry II (whom ten years earlier they had supported when his son rebelled) to take away from royal officials control of collecting their farm; almost every year thereafter to about the end of the century two men, almost certainly reeves, are found accounting at the Exchequer for the farm, on behalf of the burgesses, although whether elected or appointed by the king we cannot say. Richard I's charter made this a permanent state of affairs, acknowledging the burgesses right to choose at least one, if not both, of the reeves.

In contrast to Henry II's reticence to grant too much self-government to boroughs, his sons – in need of money or support, for one reason or another – were more open to persuasion (whereas Henry III, more assertive of monarchic power, reverted to the policy of confirmation only). That this charter of 1189 was the first royal grant of liberties to Northampton is evident from the fact that subsequent inspections and confirmations of the borough liberties by later kings, repeating the terms of their predecessors' grants, always begin with the charter of Richard I, which itself makes no reference to any grant of liberties by his predecessors, although his charter is very similar to that granted by Henry II to London ca.1155. Northampton's first custumal was compiled at about the same time as the charter grant, raising the possibility that the town may have responded to the grant with a process of setting up mechanisms of government similar to that which fortuitously has left a detailed record for Ipswich.

This was a fairly standard set of royal concessions for the initial period of introduction of urban self-government. For example, Colchester's royal charter of the same year had a number of the same clauses, alongside provisions more specific to Colchester's needs, while an even more similar charter was granted to Norwich in 1194. The burgesses obtained what was essentially a confirmation of the same terms by Richard's successor, John, the most notable alteration being that the right to elect a reeve was qualified so that the townsmen would agree ("by common counsel") on two of the more law-abiding and sensible of their number, to be presented to the Chief Justice as reeves, and not to be removed from office (within the term for which elected) while they conducted themselves properly, except by a communal decision; evidence from the Pipe Rolls suggests that the reference to two reeves was not an amendment but a clarification of what had for some years been the actual situation in Northampton. Four coroners were also to be elected, to keep an eye on the good government of the reeves. Those same additions were part of the royal charter to Ipswich in the same year. The Pipe Rolls indicate that Northampton was paying a farm to the Exchequer, through reeves (possibly elected), for several years before the grant of this charter – in fact the burgesses were farming the borough from the sheriff at the time of Domesday; the main changes that Richard's charter made was, it is believed, to make the farm a perpetual right of the borough and to give royal blessing to community election of reeves.



A murder-fine, a penalty imposed on the entire community when a murder could not be solved; the Leges Henrici Primi prescribed a fine of 46 marks if the guilty party was not captured within a week. See Medieval Sourcebook.

The portsoken – the soke (or area of jurisdiction) of the port – comprised the lands outside the walls whose residents were answerable in Nottingham's court.

"trial by battle"
Trial by combat was a judicial duel, in which accused and accuser fought with weapons until one was killed or surrendered. If the defeated party was the accused, he stood convicted of the crime; if the accuser, the accused was judged innocent. Exemptions from this mode of trial were common features of early royal charters to towns; the exemption may have applied particularly to cases under the jurisdiction of royal courts, with local custom perhaps already excluding battle as an option (e.g. the Ipswich custumal, although we cannot be certain of the antiquity of its prohibition).

"take lodging by force"
This refers to billeting; the king's marshals were officers who had to arrange lodgings for the royal court, when it travelled around the country. The aim with this clause may have been to ensure that burgesses could refuse to provide billets, unless they were compensated financially to their satisfaction.

"toll and lastage"
These were levies on merchandize, the latter being on ship cargoes, perhaps derived from a quantity called a "last".

"judgement of paying an amercement"
The reference to this judicial penalty relates to the limitation of the fine to an amount within the means of the convicted party to pay.

Miskenning was making a mistake in the correct formula necessary for stating a plea in court, or in the facts given when stating a plea; such a mistake might forfeit the case for the pleader, or at least result in a fine. It is probably the payment of the fine that the king is waiving here.

Use of the term husting likely shows the influence of a London model. Conventional translations of this clause imply that the holding of the husting was to be limited to no more than once a week, and James Tait accepted this interpretation in his important study of borough constitutional development. However, in my opinion the intent of this clause was to sanction a weekly court (on a par with the London husting), as opposed to having borough judicial administration rely on the hundred court, which convened monthly. The placement after the husting clause of the clause relating to lands and debts may be deliberate – hence I have gramatically connected them in my translation – since the intent was to confirm the burgesses' right to sue anyone, lord or commoner, for property (real or moveable) being illegally withheld from them, and this was in most cases (as the charter goes on to detail) a jurisdiction of the borough court. What I have here translated as "pledges" (vadia) most probably refers to contractual agreements made between burgesses.

Consuetudines is being used in the document in two senses: the customary payments imposed on merchandize brought into the town for sale (i.e. tolls), and the customary laws developed or applied at the local level of government.

The financial "retribution" that the Northampton authorities could exact from anyone associated with those (mainly referring to other jurisdictions) who demanded the payment of tolls from Northampton men – who had earlier in the charter been exempted from such exactions – is expressed in the charter by the term namium (distraint), referring to the process of withernam (actually a counter-distraint). Before this could be done, however, the authorities representing the injured townsman had to advise their counterparts of the offending town of their privilege of freedom of toll, in the hope of obtaining compensation. The borough copy of the charter of 1189 was used – as an endorsement by the London authorities in 1361 indicates – to prove to other towns Northampton burgesses' exemption from toll.

"brudtol, childwite, heresgive and scot-ale"
Although Markham defined brudtol as a toll for crossing a bridge (later known as pontage), I prefer an alternative explanation: a fee payable to the lord of a bond-woman when a freeman married her, which better fits this context (dealing with freedom from feudal dues). Childwite was compensation due a lord for impregnating his bond-woman without his permission. Heresgive (or yeresgive in John's confirmation charter) is less certain. According to Markham it was "a compulsory new year's gift to the sovereign"; Bishop Stubbs defined it as a payment made by burgesses to a royal official (although probably only on the basis of seeing the term in borough charters, without actually knowing what it meant), while Ballard interpreted it simply as a new year's gift without attempting to identify a recipient. Another possibility is that it may have been a compulsory gift to one's lord when his first son was born. Scot-ale is a term whose meaning is obscure – or, rather, it appears to have been applied in diverse ways. In its most fundamental sense it appears to be some kind of a tax (as in scot and lot) on the selling or brewing of ale. However, it was also – as in the case here – a fund-raising device used by a lord or by his officers and taking the form of a traditional drinking party in which the "guests" invited – attendance being compulsory – had to make contributions, perhaps as an inflated price for their ale, with the proceeds being used by officials for their own purposes. Although there is evidence from London that urban authorities might licence scot-ales for approved purposes, the populace considered such forms of exaction extortionate and it was probably popular protest that led to their abolition.

"by tale"
A method of calculating a financial amount, as opposed to the method called "blank".

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: January 8, 2019 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2019