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Understanding Common Record Types: Charters & letters patent

Guide to understanding common types of archive documents: abstracts of title, accounts, annual reports, charters & letters patent, constitutions, diaries, household books, land deeds, letters, manorial records, maps & plans, minutes, photographs, & wills.

“Equality and freedom are not luxuries to lightly cast aside. Without them, order cannot long endure before approaching depths beyond imagining”

Alan Moore, V for Vendetta 

Introduction to charters and letters patent

Legal documents outlining rights, customs, privileges and pardons granted to a particular legal entity.

Why they were created

Created to record and authorise royal grants made under the Great Seal.

Who might have created them

Created by office holders responsible for the Great Seal on behalf of the Crown.

Where you might find them

Usually found with deeds and legal documents. Commonly found in the following collections:

  • Municipal Corporations
  • Local authorities
  • Landed families
  • Estates
  • Charities and trusts

Period from which they most commonly survive

Common in the Medieval and Early Modern periods, but examples exist up to the present day.

Key features

Physical features

  • Parchment
  • Royal copies sewn together as rolls
  • Copies issued to relevant bodies as individual membranes
  • Wax impression of the Great Seal affixed to the foot of the document on a cord, ribbon or parchment strip

Informational content

  • Name of monarch under whose authority the grant is made
  • Name of party to whom the grant is being made, whether this is an individual, a group of individuals, or a community
  • Details of what is being granted, i.e. an appointment to office or commission, land, rights upon a piece of land, legal rights and privileges, pardons, etc.
  • Date of grant
  • Details of pre-existing grants upon which the grant in question builds
  • Design of the Great Seal of individual monarchs

C BRC/1a

Charter of Edward I granting various lands, rights and privileges to the Mayor and Burgesses of the Borough of Kingston-upon-Hull, with wax pendant seal, 1299

U DDCA2/29/119

Letters Patent exempting the prior of St Andrew from dissolution with other lesser monasteries, 9 Sep 1536

U DDHA/18/32

Letters Patent appointing John Liseman to the office of sergeant in the court at Hexham, Northumberland, 21 Dec 1579

U DDLA/32/4

Letters Patent granting a General Pardon to Jordan Langdale, 21 Mar 1737

Note on critical analysis

Things to consider:

  • Charters are records of the expression of royal power, however, the granting of a charter or letters patent, may be the result of hidden lobbying by an individual or group with the ear of the monarch, thus the context of the grant is important when assessing the extent of royal power being exercised
  • Illustrations of and references to the monarch responsible for granting a particular charter might contain subtle devices designed to emphasise or bolster the power of that monarch

Potential research uses

Charters and letters patent can be useful when undertaking research into the following areas:

  • Royal prerogative
  • Legality of claims to land ownership, rights, privileges and position
  • Development of rights enjoyed by municipal corporations and local authorities
  • Official appointments and commissions
  • Visual representations of the monarchy

Specialist skills and knowledge

Further reading in the following areas will help researchers when using these sources:

  • Latin - prior to the 16th century, charters and letters patent were usually written in Latin, with English only becoming standard during the 1650s and after 1733
  • Medieval and Early Modern palaeography, specifically writing styles used by central government

Resources at Hull History Centre

Search for further examples of charters and letters patent using our online catalogue. Try using search terms such as charter, letters patent, commission, etc.

Alternatively, if you prefer to browse, the file below contains a list of charters and letters patent held at Hull History Centre. Please note that this list is not comprehensive, but represents key examples of the document type.