In our blog post in September 2016, on the refurbishment of the King’s Lynn Borough Archives, we mentioned one of the oldest records in the archive: the King John Charter of 1204. The charter granted Lynn the right to be a free borough forever and was a milestone in the history of Lynn; providing the legal and economic framework for an already thriving town to continue to develop successfully as an urban community and a commercial centre. Lynn celebrated the 800th anniversary of this charter in 2004, a charter that evidences the status and privileges of the borough which it created.
The text is a grant by King John to the burgesses of Lynn, at the request of John de Gray, Bishop of Norwich, that the borough of Lynn should be a free borough for ever, with rights of local jurisdiction, freedom from tolls except in London, and a merchant gild. They were to follow the law and custom of Oxford, and in the event of their being in doubt or contention as to how to resolve a question they were to send messengers to Oxford and abide by the decision of the burgesses there. The existing liberties and customs in Lynn of the Bishop of Norwich and the Earl of Arundel were to continue unchanged.
The charter is written in Latin, the language of administration in medieval western Europe. The form and wording of charters developed continually: the phrase ‘a free borough for ever’, for example, first appeared in charters issued in the reign of King John. Many towns acquired borough status during his reign (1199-1216), when a period of urban growth coincided with a royal need for funds.
The charter was never signed by the king: instead, he authorized the application to it of his great seal, which was attached to the parchment by a plaited cord. At a time when very few people other than the clergy could read or write, the great seal, bearing the image of the king, was visible evidence of the document’s authenticity.
Only part of the seal has survived on the Lynn borough charter. On the obverse (front) King John is depicted in state on a throne. The legend has been lost, but would have read Johannes Dei Gracia Rex Anglie Dominus Hibernie (John by the grace of God King of England and Lord of Ireland). On the reverse (back) the King was depicted riding into battle. The image was impressed on beeswax coloured green with verdigris.
John, by the grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Acquitaine, and Count of Anjou, to the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justices, sheriffs, reeves, ministers and all his bailiffs and faithful men, greeting.
Know that we, at the request and petition of our venerable father John, the second [of that name], Bishop of Norwich, have granted and by this present charter confirmed to the burgesses of Lenn, that the borough of Lenn may be a free borough for ever, and they may have soke and sake, toll and team, infangenthief and outfangenthief. And that throughout all our land and through all sea ports they may be free of toll, lastage, passage, payage, pontage, stallage and of leve and of Danegeld and of all other customs, saving the liberty of the city of London. And that they make no suit of counties or hundreds for tenures within the borough of Lenn. We have granted, however, to the same burgesses and by this charter have confirmed that none of them shall plead outside the borough of Lenn in any plea except for pleas concerning foreign tenures. We have granted also to them quittance of murder within the borough of Lenn and that none of them shall perform trial by combat. And that concerning pleas belonging to the crown they may prosecute their suit according to the law and custom of Oxford. And that within the aforesaid borough no one may take lodging by force, nor by livery of the marshals. And that in that borough in no plea may there be miskenning. And that a husting court shall be held once a week only. We have granted also to them a gild merchant and that they may have all their lands and tenures, securities and debts justly, whatever is due to them, and concerning their rights and tenures which are within the aforesaid borough, it is to be right for them to hold them according to the law and custom of the borough of Oxford. And concerning all their debts which shall be arranged at Lenn, and concerning securities made there the pleas may be held at Lenn. And if anyone in the whole of England should take toll or custom from the burgesses of Lenn, except, as above, in the city of London, and shall have made default in right, the reeve of Lenn may distrain in respect thereof at Lenn.
In addition, for the improvement of the borough of Lenn we have granted that whichever merchants shall go to the borough of Lenn with their merchandise from whatever place they be, whether foreign or others who are at peace with us, or those have come by our leave into our land, they may come, stay and depart in our safety and peace having paid the just customs of the borough. And we forbid anyone doing injury or damage or annoyance to the aforesaid burgesses, under forfeit of ten pounds.
Moreover, we have granted to the same burgesses that if in any judgement they should be in doubt or contention as to what they ought to do they may send their messengers to Oxford and what the burgesses of Oxford decide shall be valid and firm. Saving for ever to the aforesaid John, Bishop of Norwich, and to his successors and to William, Earl of Arundel, and to his heirs the liberties and customs just as they have had of old and ought to have in the aforesaid town of Lenn.
Wherefore we do will and firmly order that the aforesaid burgesses of Lenn and their heirs may have and hold all the aforesaid things by inheritance for ever, well and peacefully, freely and quietly, wholly fully and honourably, as aforesaid.
Witnesses: Geoffrey Fitz Peter Earl of Essex, William Earl of Salisbury, William Briwerr, Simon de Pateshill, William de Cantilupe, James de Poterna, John de Stoke, Andrew de Beauchamp, Thomas Basset.
Given by the hand of Hugh of Wells, Archdeacon of Wells, at Lutegareshall the 14th day of September in the sixth year of our reign.
A facsimile of the King John charter can be seen in the Stories of Lynn exhibition in King’s Lynn Town Hall, but the original is stored in the King’s Lynn Borough Archives.
Those interested in the history of Lynn may be interested in our online exhibition guide ‘King’s Lynn 1204-2004‘ which shows a selection of records from the holdings of the Norfolk Record Office and King’s Lynn Borough Archives.