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Doncaster Borough Charters 1194-1836

1467 Borough Charter. Digital image of the 1467 Doncaster Borough CharterThe Doncaster borough charters are amongst the finest documents in Doncaster's documentary heritage. There are ten surviving charters from a total of thirteen and they range in date over seven hundred years from 1194 to 1836. The charters record the rights granted to the borough of Doncaster by the kings of England from Richard I to William IV. Details of these documents can be downloaded via the links in the Borough Charters column to the left.

The oldest, the charter of Richard I, of 22 May 1194, has been handed down from generation to generation of careful custodians until now, more than eight centuries after its creation, it is to be found, along with its successors, in the safekeeping of Doncaster Archives.

So what are the charters? What was their purpose? Why were they granted? What do they represent? How do they reflect the changing times, in Doncaster and in the wider world? In this webpage and documentation, we can only outline the answers to these questions. Those who want to investigate matters thoroughly can turn to an important book by G. H. Martin and others, Doncaster: A Borough and its Charters, published in 1994. This is available for purchase at Doncaster Archives and Doncaster Central Library.

Each of the charters has a separate document, so that you can follow the commentaries in order, or look at the information given about any particular charter without reading about them all.

What is immediately obvious to anyone looking at the charters for the first time is how different they are in appearance from any kind of official document that we encounter today. A modern document is written, or more likely, printed, on paper. The charters, in contrast, are hand written on parchment, which is made of animal skins (usually sheep or goat) specially prepared for writing. We generally see documents which are a standard size, and usually easy to handle. Whilst the charter of 1194 is only seven inches wide and ten inches long, the later ones are much larger: most are over two feet (0.75 metres) square.

An official document today consists of words alone. The Doncaster charters, however, like all others of their time, are decorated with images and elaborate penmanship. These images include symbols of heraldry, like the lion holding a banner and the sun bursting through the clouds, both on the charter of King Edward IV of 1467. The charter issued by the pious King Henry VI included an image of the columbine flower, whose dove-like shape made it a religious symbol in medieval art. More obvious in relevance are the portraits of the royal grantors of the charters. There is a portrait of Elizabeth I at the beginning of her charter to the borough of 1559, and portraits of Charles II and James II on their charters of 1664, 1685 and 1688 and William IV (and his consort, Queen Adelaide) on the charter of 1836.

Modern documents are in our own language, English, but all the Doncaster charters, except that of 1836, are in Latin. This was the language of official business all over Europe from the days of the Roman Empire down to only a few centuries ago. Only from 1733 were documents like borough charters written in English. The Doncaster borough council first commissioned a full translation of its charters in 1771 (which is now to be found at Doncaster Archives) and transcriptions of the Latin and translations were made again in the 1940s, produced by an archivist at the British Museum Library.

Finally, important official documents, like the charters, were not signed by the kings and queens who granted them. They were shown to be genuine not by having the monarch’s signature, but by having a copy of the monarch’s Great Seal attached to them, suspended on silk cords from the end of the document. This was a visual symbol - a double sided disc of strengthened beeswax with designs imprinted on both sides - intended to impress the many who, in past ages, would see a document but be unable to read it.

You may be surprised to know that charters are still granted today and still take their traditional form. For example, towns raised to the status of cities receive the royal grant in the time-honoured way: a royal charter hand written on an outsized piece of (imitation) parchment with the Great Seal of Queen Elizabeth II suspended from its foot.

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