CONSTITUTION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval London charter rights self-government judicial administration fee farm tolls
Subject: Charter granted by Henry I to London
Original source: Corporation of London Records Office, Liber Horn, f.362v
Transcription in: C. Brooke, G. Keir and S. Reynolds, "Henry I's charter for the City of London," Journal of the Society of Archivists, vol.4 (1973), 575-76.
Original language: Latin
Location: London
Date: ca. 1131


Henry, by the grace of God King of England and duke of Normandy, to the archbishop of Canterbury, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justices, sheriffs and all his loyal subjects, French or English, throughout England, greetings. Know that I have granted to my citizens of London for themselves and their heirs that they may hold the shrievalty of London and Middlesex of me and my heirs for a farm of £300 by tale. The citizens may appoint as sheriff whomever they want from among themselves and as judge whomever they want from among themselves to take charge pleas of the crown and supervise their conduct; no-one else shall be judge over the men of London. The citizens shall not plead outside the walls of the city in any plea. They are exempted from scot and lot, Danegeld, and murdrum, and none of them need undertake [trial by] battle. If any citizen is accused in a plea of the crown, the Londoner may defend himself by an oath to be adjudicated in the city. Within the walls of the city no-one need be billetted, not [members] of my household nor anyone else, [nor] is any billet to be taken by force. All London men and their goods are to be exempt from and free of toll, passage, lastage, and all other customs, throughout all England and the seaports. The churches, barons, and citizens may have and hold, properly and peacefully, their sokes with all customs, on condition that visitors given hospitality in the sokes pay no customs, except to him whose soke it is or to the officer whom he has appointed there. A Londoner may not be penalized by an amercement greater than his were, that is, 100s; I refer to pleas which [have a penalty that] is pecuniary. Furthermore, miskenning is not to be [applicable] in the husting or the folkmoot, nor in any other pleas within the city. A husting may be held once a week, that is, on Monday. I will ensure my citizens have [justice regarding] their lands, pledges and debts, inside the city and outside. Concerning lands for which they bring a complaint before me, I shall uphold their rights according to the law of the city. If anyone exacts toll or customs from citizens of London, the citizens may in the city recover, from [members of] the borough or town where the toll or customs were taken, the same amount given by a Londoner for toll, and applicable damages. All debtors who owe debts to citizens must repay them, or in [the court of] London offer defence that they are not indebted. If they are unwilling to repay the debt or to come and defend themselves, then the citizens to whom the debts are owed may make distraint within the city, from [any member of] the borough or town or county in which the debtor resides. The citizens may have their hunting rights in the fullest and best form they were had by their ancestors, that is, in the Chilterns, Middlesex and Surrey. Witnesses: bishop of Winchester, Robert fitz Richer, Hugh Bigot, Alfred de Totnes, William de Albini, Hubert the queen's chamberlain, William de Montfichet, Hangulf de Tanei, John Belet, and Robert fitz Siward. [Given] at Westminster.


London's farm (i.e. the estimated total of the various revenues due the king) was £300 at the time of Domesday, but by 1130 had risen to just over £525, a sum whose collection may have required extortionate measures to achieve, particularly in the context of a serious fire in the city which had just occurred and must have reduced the citizens' financial means. The collectors of the revenues that went towards the farm failed substantially to meet the required sum in 1130. These revenues were collected by sheriffs over whose appointment the citizens had no control, until that same year when evidence suggests the Londoners had persuaded the king to turn over responsibility for the farm, with concomitant election of the sheriff, to them temporarily.

Such were the circumstances believed to have produced, within the next year or so (a recent theory on the date favours 1133, in which year a major fire in the city further damaged its ability to pay the farm [C. Warren Hollister "Londonís first charter of liberties : is it genuine?" Journal of Medieval History. vol.6 (1980)]), the charter attributed to Henry I; this restored the farm to its traditional amount, confirmed the grant the farm (of the small county containing London) to the citizens, and gave them the right to elect the collectors as well as a measure of judicial independence in the form of electing a justiciar, a local office which had proliferated during the reign of William Rufus; the Londoners associated this office, rightly or wrongly, with the earlier institution of lawmen, which also involved expert knowledge of, and the ability to interpret, local laws. Henry, who had seized the throne over the claims of an older brother (and has even been suspected of assassinating of his predecessor) and by 1130 was looking for support for the unprecedented succession of a daughter to the throne, was desirous of approval from any quarter. This, together perhaps with a wish to avoid the spectre of the revolutionary commune which had recently plagued Flanders, may have been sufficient motivation for Henry to satisfy some of the ambitions of his kingdom's most important town.

Overall, historians accept that the customs identified in the charter are quite credible for the date represented by the grant. Yet the generous terms of the charter – from a king not renowned for giving something for nothing, and not duplicated for any other town – regarding the substantial reduction of the farm (seemingly in perpetuity), grant of the shrievalty, and the apparently extensive jurisdiction of the justiciar, have given rise to concerns that the charter might be a forgery, or have undergone later interpolations, or even actually be a grant by Stephen later changed to attribute it to the more authoritative Henry I. Careful study of the document has raised the level of doubt by identifying a number of small issues that look suspicious; none of them insuperable, however, and it is probable enough that the Londoners paid Henry a hefty lump sum to have the charter.

No original of the charter has survived for us. The text is known through a large number of copies none of which appears to have avoided corruption. The earliest version – in a rambling collection of twelfth-century laws, national and local, that was compiled during the conflict between King John and his barons, and useful to the latter party in forcing the king to make concessions – is one of the more corrupt. There is evidence that by this time, or shortly afterwards, the charter had already gone missing. This loss need not itself be a major cause of suspicion, given the informality of archival practices in a time when there was no structured urban bureaucracy, given the disruptions of the Anarchy (from which the capital did not emerge unscathed), and given the fact that not a few charters of Henry II refer back to grants of liberties made by Henry I for which no original documentation has survived.

In defence of the authenticity of the charter, the reasons why Henry might have been prepared to conciliate London are indicated above. It may also be noted that many towns had their farms reduced in the decades following Domesday (although London's was not the only one to increase), so a reduction of London's – in the face of possibly strong arguments as to its unreasonably high level – is not incredible. Despite Henry's attempt to garner support for his chosen successor, it was to Stephen that London quickly gave its support in the contest for the throne. Yet neither Stephen nor Matilda appear to have paid any attention to the terms of Henry's charter; both gave the shrievalty of Middlesex to Geoffrey de Mandeville, in an attempt to win his support. In the same year (1141) London resorted to an attempt to create a commune that asserted its rights; this might have created a situation in which Stephen could have issued a charter later attributed to Henry.

Henry II's charter to London of ca.1155, whose authenticity is not questioned, was basically a confirmation of the Henry I charter. A comparison of the two strongly suggests the latter, whether genuine or forgery, was written first. Henry II, however, was not inclined to generosity, and may have had a grudge against London for its actions against his mother. While accepting the authenticity of his grandfather's grants, he reined back on their terms, omitting control of the farm (which, when evidence reappears, shows the farm at a £500+ level) and grant of the elected officers. Among lesser differences is the substitution of exemption from brudtoll, childwite, ieresgive and scot-ale (see Northampton's charter), in place of Danegeld and scot and lot – a credible update, Danegeld (12d per hide per year) having become irrelevant as a tribute to occupying forces.

On the whole, historians are prepared to give Henry I's charter the benefit of the doubt, although some continue to think it a later forgery. The most contentious issue is the level of the farm, which may represent revisionism. It was left for Henry II's sons – the one in need of money for crusading, the other pressured by a new outbreak of the assertive commune in London and baronial opposition throughout the realm – to satisfy the full ambitions reflected in a document which almost certainly was drafted in the second quarter of the twelfth century.



"scot and lot" "Danegeld"
Scot and lot (the "and lot" not appearing in all versions) was a kind of taxation; the term sometimes seems to be used generically in medieval documents, but here it may refer to a particular levy since it is distinguished from Danegeld. The latter was originally raised for tribute to keep the Danes from invading southern England but, after the Danish threat disappeared, the king found other excuses to continue periodic levies of this tax on real estate, up until 1162.

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.

"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). London's is the first known exemption and perhaps set the example for other towns to follow.

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

Collections of jurisdictions, independent in some regards from the main jurisdiction within which they lay. They relate to the "tenurial heterogeneity" of boroughs, whose roots lie partly in the manorial system; different tenants held under different landlords. The tenancies might, or might not, be concentrated in particular areas. Chertsey Abbey, the Cnihtengild, and the queen, for example were among holders of sokes within London at this period.

Under Anglo-Saxon law, the were, or wergild, was the financial compensation due to the kin of a slain man from his slayer. The amount varied according to the social status of the deceased. The wergild of a London citizen was greater than that of the Anglo-Saxon ceorl (free man), but less than that of a thegn. The object of this clause in the charter was to prevent townsmen being fined to ruination.

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, lead to the case being transferred to a higher court, or at least result in a fine. It is probably the payment of the fine that the king is waiving here. The Leges Henrici Primi specifically identify London as a place where miskenning was rank, perhaps because of the large influx of French settlers, who would have had special difficulty with Anglo-Saxon legal formulae.

"Chilterns, Middlesex and Surrey"
FitzStephen's Description of London gives a slightly different list of the territories in which Londoners had hunting rights.

"some continue"
For example, Derek Keene ["Text, visualization and politics: London 1150-1250," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, vol.18, 2008] suspects not only that the charter was compiled in Stephen's reign but that it may have been further elaborated after the time of FitzStephen.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: September 21, 2016 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2016