CONSTITUTION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Coventry charter rights judicial administration burgage tenure mesne boroughs
Subject: Charter of the Earl of Chester to Coventry
Original source: Copy in borough archives
Transcription in: Peter Coss, ed. The Early Records of Medieval Coventry. British Academy, Records of Social and Economic History, new series, vol.11 (1986), 22.
Original language: Latin
Location: Coventry
Date: ca.1199-1204


Ralph earl of Chester to all his barons, constables, bailiffs, officers, liege-men and friends, French and English, both present and future, greetings. Know that I have granted and given, and by this charter confirm, to my burgesses of Coventry all things written down in this charter. That is, that the burgesses and their heirs may hold [their property] properly, honorably, peacefully, and in free burgage of me and my heirs, as well, as securely, and as freely as they held in the time of my father or any of my ancestors. I grant them all free and good laws which the burgesses of Lincoln have, at their best and most free. I prohibit and forbid my constables from bringing them [i.e. burgesses] into the castle to plead a case, but they [i.e. the burgesses] may freely have their portmoot in which to deal justly with all pleas concerning me and them. Furthermore, they may elect on my behalf, [to serve] under me and over them as judge, anyone from among themselves who is familiar with [their] laws and customs, who can govern them reasonably and by my advice without any excuses, and faithfully assure my rights. If it happens that anyone incurs an amercement [payable] to me, the fine assessed by my bailiff and the faithful burgesses of the court should be reasonable. I order that any merchants attracted to the town to trade be treated peacefully and no-one shall do them injury or implead them unjustly. But if any outsider merchant does anything improper in the town he shall be brought before the judge in the portmoot. Witnesses: Roger constable of Chester, Robert de Mohaut steward, Ralph de Meisnilwarin, Peter Rouaat, Simon Thuschet, Thomas Despenser, Joel de Lovin, William Marshal, Joel Berenger, Philip de Horreby, Roger de Camville, Roger de Busservile, Willam Picot, William de Hardredes Hill, Warin de Vernun and many others at Coventry.


Before the Conquest the site of Coventry was part of the estates held by the famous Countess Godiva, and an abbey was founded there ca.1043. It is possible a modest market settlement arose at the monastery gates in the years following; but, if so, it was apparently not significant enough for Domesday to give it the kind of attention paid by that survey to towns proper. Yet by the end of the century the Bishop of Chester had moved his see to Coventry, acquired the abbey from the king and become the titular abbot, with effective leadership of the monastic community being by the prior. At some point, possibly the late eleventh century, the estates of Godiva came into the hands of the earl of Chester, and around the earl's castle a second trading settlement grew up, fostered by the earl's grant of burgage tenure. The abbey later claimed that it was a soke independent from the earl's estates (a response to Earl Ranulph II's attempts to assert his authority over both parts of Coventry), although whether this had real foundation or was based solely on charters now known to be forgeries is uncertain. The division between the "Earl's part" and the "Prior's part" of Coventry, together with Ranulph II's transfer of his principal base of operations to Coventry as a central location from which to consolidate his sphere of influence in the midlands, provide the background to the charter grants above.

Presumably the charter of Ranulph III, grandson of Ranulph II, was granted to the half of the town which lay within his lordship, although there is nothing in it that states so, and it may have been directed at the entire burgess community, part of the policy of ignoring the prior's claims. More important, the charter is essentially – although unacknowledgedly – a renewal of that granted by Ranulph II ca.1140/50, itself known only from the confirmation sought by the burgesses from Henry II in 1182, while Ranulph III was in his minority and the town was under a royal custodian. There are, however, some minor but not insignificant differences.

Ranulph II's charter referred back to a grant of burgage tenure in the time of his own father. It established a town court (portmanmoot) and allowed the burgesses to adopt the local laws of Lincoln. And it aimed at developing the town's economy by offering protection to visiting merchants (as in the above document) and, to any who would establish a residence in the town, a two-year exemption from paying any kind of dues from the time they began to build. That the latter clause was omitted in Ranulph III's charter suggests that the incentive had done its work and was no longer needed. Another difference is that Ranulph II's charter set a 12d. ceiling on amercements assessable in the portmoot, as well as the provision for a reduction in amercement should 12 neighbours testify to the convicted party's inability to pay. The abandonment of these specifications – in favour of the more general statement that amercements should not be unreasonable – in Ranulph III's charter suggests, Professor Coss has argued, that they may have been unwarranted additions (interpolations) to Ranulph II's actual terms, made by the burgesses in 1182, then suppressed once Ranulph III had emerged from his minority. Professor Coss suspects that the clause granting an elected justiciar was also an interpolation by the burgesses, on the grounds that there was virtually no precedent for such an urban officer in the time of Ranulph II – in fact, the only precedent was a London charter whose equivalent clause has itself been suspected as a forgery. However, there were such officers for the earldom, so it may simply have been a case of expressing a concept with a term familiar to the earl (see notes below), while the part of this clause emphasising the officer's responsibility to the earl is not something the burgesses needed, or would have been expected, to fabricate. Whether or not that clause was an interpolation, Ranulph III let it stand; although his revision of the clause concerning limitation on amercements did emphasize the role of the bailiff, we cannot be certain that this was not simply another way of referring to the justiciar (no officer of that name appearing in court witness lists of the thirteenth century).

Ranulph II's charter was one of the earliest granted by mesne lords to their towns, and shows a borough at the initial stage of moving towards self-government, focused around the court – there being no sign of a merchant gild such as that whose existence was recognized in Henry III's charter of 1267 to the prior's half of the town and which later had a strong role in Coventry. The possible fabrications added for an unwitting Henry II's approval – it perhaps being significant that neither original nor copy of the text of Ranulph II's charter has survived – reflect burgess ambitions to improve their situation at a time when their lord was not in a position to object. Ranulph III's renewal demonstrates both some alteration in the situation since mid-twelfth century and also reassertion of lordly authority. The only change he made in favour of the burgesses was to word more strongly the clause disenabling the constable of the castle from trying cases involving burgesses. Thus, in all, the charter and its history offer revealing documentation of the incipience of an urban constitution in the twelfth century.



The selection of Lincoln as a blanket model for the laws allowed to Coventry burgesses was due to the fact that the Earl Ranulph II was also lord of Lincoln. When assigning a model, no specification of the model's laws or liberties was explicitly given; borough authorities are sometimes seen consulting their counterparts in the model town to obtain further information or clarification on a point of law or administration.

The reference to a judge under that name (justicia) is unusual, but is doubtless a generic term intended for a communally elected officer to preside in the borough court; elsewhere such an officer might be called a "bailiff", but here the officer had to be distinguished from the bailiff appointed by the earl.

Besides those witnesses specifically so identified, several were officers of the earl – such as Philip de Orreby and Ralph de Mainwaring – while others were local landholders with Coventry interests (e.g. William de Hartshill, William de Picot, Roger de Camville, Roger de Busherville).

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: March 14, 2012 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2012