Research guide - the lost charter project

Recreating the lost charter by Glenn Martin James

Recreating the lost charter

By Glenn Martin James

(Extract from his work 'Rewriting History'© Glenn Martin James 2023)

The year 2023 has seen a magnificent occasion for the ancient and Loyal Borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme, celebrating its 850th anniversary of the founding of the town in 1173 by King Henry II, when he granted the community borough status, and issued a Royal charter - the birth certificate of the town - to confirm this most royal decree. Sadly, it has been lost for some centuries (the first official notice of its absence being in the reign of King Charles II, during the Restoration), and my part in the celebrations has been to track down the contents of this important historical document and create a fitting charter for the anniversary. No small task, I can assure you!

The granting of this founding charter was historic in many ways. The issuing of an official charter at this time was a radical new thing, a genuine innovation by a monarch who loved the law and who would do much to give England much of its founding legal code during his reign.

Previous charters of this kind had been granted by an oral agreement, or based on observed (or ignored) tradition down the centuries, and King Henry's innovation of setting these charters down as a document which could be read, consulted, and kept safely for future reference was very new, and actually slightly distrusted at this time. But Newcastle had been granted a royal charter, none the less, and its merchants now held the celebrated status of Liber Burgess: The merchants of the town were now free-men, Burgesses in point of fact, and following a payment to the king for their Charter, Newcastle was freed from any control by the church or local lords – they were not obliged to till the land for the Augustinian Priory at Trentham so many days a week, and free from being obliged to fight for a local lord in any skirmishes, battles or wars. They were free to generate their own wealth, from their own industry, and with this important consideration in mind, Newcastle grew, and prospered solidly.

The important starting point therefore in recreating the charter, was to be able to consult an authority on the origins of the town: I could do this in two important ways – one was to speak to Jim Worgan, a wonderfully charming and well-informed gentleman, who is not merely an historian of Newcastle and the surrounding area, but a living repository of the town's history. I took lots of notes, and when a man like Jim speaks to you, if you have a grain of sense, you listen!

The next was to consult the best authority available in terms of authors who have written about the town and its history and consult their work.

We are very fortunate in Newcastle-under-Lyme, in that any student of history delving into the town's past will almost immediately come upon the books of Thomas Pape.

This extremely authoritative and accessible author published three books on the history of the town, and his work on the Medieval period and the town's origins was invaluable in my research.

The book covers the origins of our lost and much-lamented castle, whose construction and location here was very much the origin of the town, as well as having had an obvious baring on the town's name. He indeed discusses the significance of 'Lyme' in the town's name, and also, crucially, the founding charter of 1173, and its contents.

Papes book is stocked in most of the region's libraries and is easily available to buy online from eBay or other online booksellers. I recommend it as a solid and indispensable authority on Newcastle's history. The full details of the book are as follows. As you will see below, I have annotated the page numbers concerning the relevant sections.      

Medieval Newcastle-under-Lyme

By T. Pape, M.A., F.S.A, (Historical series No. L), Publications of the University of Manchester 1928             

The origin of the castle, pages 1 – 6 

The Lyme, Page 4 – 5

Origins of the borough (and the 1173 charter) pages 12 – 15

The second indispensable book on the subject is the famous 'silver' book, the excellent volume produced in 1973 for the town's 800th anniversary, by John Briggs. This publication gives a marvellous accessible account of Newcastle's history, and as before, please find below the details for tracking it down. This is a valuable addition to the library of any student of Newcastle's history, and it is again easy to get a copy from the library or online. I have noted the page numbers of the relevant sequences.

Newcastle-under-Lyme 1173-1973 (The 'Silver' Book)

By John Briggs, Publications of North Staffordshire Polytechnic, 1973

A Town is Born, (Origin of the castle, growth of the town and the granting of the 1173 charter) pages 2- 11.

Consulting the parliamentary archive

So much for delving into the origins of the town, which gives us an excellent grounding on the charter and its contents. The next thing was to examine exactly how a charter of this period was created, and this was venturing into a much more specialist field of inquiry.

Going to the fountainhead, so to speak, of English records, I contacted the Parliamentary Archives and asked their advice; Could they recommend an author whose work had treated on this subject and perhaps advise me of their book's details?

They were enormously helpful, and I strongly recommend contacting them with enquiries. They could not help with any records on our original charter, they said, "because the Newcastle-under-Lyme charter of 1173 predates parliament" (!!) (what a venerable observation for our anniversary year!), but they could recommend a book which treated on the subject, and which would be perfect for reconstructing the charter.

I have to say they were as good as their word, and they also suggested that I contact Stafford Archives to check the recommendation with them. When I did so, they, too, recommended the same author and volume to consult on the matter.

This book, which proved to be the Rosetta Stone for recreating the charter, was 'British Borough Charters 1042 -1216,' by Adolphus Ballard.

An extremely accessible and easy-to-use work, this could have been written yesterday, and could have been expressly written for my requirements. Notably, it has the sequence 'On the contents of a charter', which provided the framework for reassembling the document, and this gave me the framework I needed to recreate the lost charter. I could then phrase the grants we know from Pape and Newcastle's' traditions as closely as I could to his examples for the period. We will never know the exact wording of the original lost charter, but this gave me as close a window as possible into how it would have been constructed when I was recreating it.

I have provided the details for Ballard's work:

British Borough Charters 1216-1307

By Adolphus Ballard and James Tait, Cambridge University Press, 1923, ISBN 352.042

With these works, and the information from Jim Worgan, the silver book, and Thomas Pape, I could recreate the charter. I will be publishing my research more fully in due course under the title 'Rewriting History' online.

The completed charter was presented to the Lord-Lieutenant of Staffordshire in July 2023, representing King Charles III, and copies reside in Newcastle Guildhall and the Mayor's parlour, on permanent display. It is a dual document, one version being in English (so everyone may read it) and one being in Latin, honouring the noble heritage of the original. Copies of my research reside in the William Salt Library of Staffordshire Archive for consultation.

 Glenn Martin James, October 2023