Front Page Titles (by Subject) London\'s Charter of Self-Government - Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1981, vol. 4, No. 3
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
London's Charter of Self-Government - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1981, vol. 4, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
London's Charter of Self-Government
“London's First Charter of Liberties: Is It Genuine?” Journal of Medieval History 6 (September 1980): 289–306
Henry I's (1100–1135) charter for London, one of the most celeberated of English medieval documents, has been the subject of numerous scholarly studies over the past century. Historians' interest in the charter derives from the fact that it represents, in James Tait's words, “the first great landmark in the development of self-government in the English boroughs.” London's self-government made possible independent agitation for more liberties in later history.
Nonetheless, the charter's authenticity has been questioned in recent years. In 1973, Christopher Brooke, Gillian Keir, and Susan Reynolds concluded, in a closely reasoned article, that it was probably a forgery from Stephen's reign (1135–1154) or a genuine charter of Stephen's misattributed to Henry I. Their views have influenced subsequent literature on medieval English urban history which has called the document into question. Contrary to this current of opinion, Prof. Hollister holds that the charter is, in all likelihood, genuine—that the history of London's autonomy does indeed begin in the reign of Henry I and by his mandate.
Hollister's article follows more or less the organization of Brooke, Keir, and Reynolds who examined (1) the manuscript tradition, (2) the protocol, (3) the witness list, and (4) the historical context.
The manuscript tradition of the London charter is complex, especially since the original is no longer extant. Hollister, however, concentrates his attention on one particular copy, which was included as part of the early fourteenth-century Liber Horn. This manuscript bears a series of marginal and interlineated emendations. The emendations create a more plausible text and protocol that reflects Anglo-Norman chancery practice much more closely than any fourteenth-century scribe could have produced. Accordingly, they can only have resulted from an emendor who had the original charter before him, or an early and quite accurate copy no longer extant. Therefore, at least some existing copies show evidence of being based on documents originating in Henry I's time.
Scrutiny of the “witness list” reveals that seven or eight of them were active in Henry's court or administration. Several were linked by bonds of kinship or service. Significantly, the list includes men who were in all probability the lords or keepers of London's three major fortifications in the latter years of Henry I's reign. The relative obscurity of some of the other witnesses (Alfred fitz Joel, Robert fitz Siward, John Belet, etc.) combined with their singular appropriateness to a London charter of liberties of about 1131–33, clearly bespeaks the document's authenticity. Although plausible for 1130–33, the witness list raises the most serious difficulties if one argues that the charter was a product of King Stephen's reign.
It is above all on the grounds of the London charter's historical context that Brooke, Keir, and Reynolds contest its authenticity. They find if difficult to believe, for example, that the powerful, tightfisted Henry I would have granted such generous privileges as local election of sheriffs and the lowering of the land tax (ferm) from .525 to 300 pounds.
Hollister, however, places the concessions of the charter within the economic context of the early 1130s. Concerning the election of sheriffs, one can reason analogously from records concerning the city of Lincoln that London paid dearly for this measure of self-government. The concession of such a privilege profited the crown substantially. Thus, it is not at all surprising that the money-conscious Henry should grant election rights to the city.
The reduction of the ferm may be traced first of all to the growing number of arrears, as Londoners found it increasingly difficult to pay the onerous tax. The situation was aggravated by a great fire in mid-May 1133. The fire destroyed most of London, including St. Paul's Cathedral. In all probability, therefore, Henry reduced the ferm after a realistic evaluation of the reduced revenue potential of his London subjects.
Evidence from existing manuscripts as well as historical circumstances, thus, point to the authenticity of Henry's charter. Those same circumstances also strongly indicate that the document was issued either in June or July of 1133.