On the 25th May this year it will be 811 years to the day since Ipswich was granted its Royal Charter in 1200. It seems appropriate then, to discover what we can about this important event in Ipswich’s history just in time for us all to pop some champagne corks and light some fireworks in celebration of what was really the town’s first light-toed, faltering steps towards a more democratic form of local governing.
It’s hard to understand the importance of a royal charter today when we take for granted all the things that in the distant past would have been novel and liberating. Now royal charters do little more than give a stamp of approval to businesses or institutions, but in the early 1200s they would have been considered far more valuable. Town charters in the Middle Ages usually made the inhabitants ‘free’ by way of lifting them out of the feudal system as opposed to those who lived in the countryside and villages as serfs (a form of bondage close to slavery). Not only this, but Ipswich’s charter gave the men of the town the ability to elect two bailiffs of the town to look after their interests. The charter also led to Ipswich being allowed to set up one of the first merchant’s gilds in the country to organise the town’s trade.
Ipswich’s Royal charter was signed by King John (of Robin Hood fame), and is one of the oldest royal town charters in England’s history, it even precedes the Magna Carta by fifteen years.
The charter’s 800th anniversary celebrations in the year 2000 have fostered a misconception in recent times that King John was present in Ipswich on the day of the signing, but in actual fact he was busy in France at the time he sealed the charter, at Roche d’Orival near Rouen, and the charter would have been brought to Ipswich by a Herald on his behalf and did not arrive in the town until some days later.
After the townspeople received the document, they gathered on the 29th June in the churchyard of St Mary-le-Tower, which remains the civic church of Ipswich today, to elect two town bailiffs and four coroners (government officials). They then met again on 2nd July to choose twelve portmen.
At that second meeting of the townsmen an oath of obedience to the bailiffs, coroners and portsmen was taken by those present. The people then swore to uphold the honour, liberties and free customs of the town while stretching their right hands out towards a Bible that was held aloft.
Ipswich is very uncommon in having a preserved account of what happened when its people received their charter and of how the local people met and decided the way their town should be governed from then on, which is incredibly useful to historians studying the period in detail today.
(Left): A seal created and used in Ipswich a few months after the granting of the town charter by King John.
So, there you have it. It’s not exactly the Declaration of Independence or the Emancipation Proclamation, but I like to think it’s one more small piece of the democratic jigsaw, and even if you disagree we’ve still learnt something new, and that’s the main thing.