Norwich’s 1345 Charter

Queen’s PhD student at the School of History and Anthropology Robin McCallum discusses the significance of the 1345 charter granted to the city of Norwich

A royal charter was one of the most prized possessions a medieval town could receive from the king. In essence, they granted the townsmen economic, jurisdictional and administrative liberties in return for an annual payment, known as the fee farm. These privileges ranged from exemption from toll throughout the realm to increasing levels of self-government through the appointment of mayors, bailiffs and aldermen.

Given that charters were so lucrative for a town, it made sense for the townsmen to exploit every contact at their disposal to acquire them from the king. It is the raison d’ être of this brief discussion to shed some light on how the townsmen of Norwich received a charter from Edward III in 1345. The charter enabled the bailiffs to extend their jurisdiction to the ditches surrounding the Castle Fee. This was a perennial problem as individuals resided in the areas adjacent to the ditches and were thus exempt from contributing to the fee farm. It also prevented felons from fleeing to the Castle Fee where they could escape punishment as it was outside the bailiff’s jurisdiction.

The charter itself provides us with some clues as to how Norwich acquired the document. It was issued ‘at the request of Isabella Queen of England, our most dear mother’. (1) Why did Norwich petition Isabella, Edward III’s mother, in their pursuit of the charter? Medieval political theorists, such as Giles of Rome, argued that women were the more clement sex as they were able to show mercy and sympathise with the suffering of others. (2) These qualities made them ideal to act as intercessors between aggrieved subjects and the king. Additionally, the image of medieval queenship was dominated by Marian connotations, the most prominent of which emphasised the queen’s role as a secular intercessor. Norwich exploited the patronage of Isabella, no doubt hoping that she could use her contacts and status to improve the likelihood of the town receiving new liberties.

This, however, can only partly explain Isabella’s role. Instead, she was a patron of the town and received assignments from the annual fee farm. On 26 May 1344, only one year before the charter was issued, Edward III granted the privilege of ‘£100 yearly out of the farm of the city of Norwich’ to his mother. (3) In 1344 Norwich’s fee farm was valued at £126 1s 4d, with Isabella being the recipient of £100 (79 per cent). (4) Isabella’s financial interests coincided with Norwich’s desire for a charter because it was to her benefit that the town possessed the necessary administrative apparatus to collect the fee farm, thus easing the payment of the grant to her.

Isabella was staying at Castle Rising in Norfolk throughout 1344. A delegation from Norwich, perhaps led by the bailiffs – Roger Verli, William Butt, William de Blakeneye and Roger de Poole – may have travelled to Castle Rising to acquire her assistance. The influence of William Butt the Younger in the negotiations for the charter must briefly be discussed. Butt was a member of the Norwich mercantile elite, having served as a bailiff, collector of the customs, MP and, in his later years, as a royal financier. Letters patent reveal that Butt, alongside other leading royal financiers, received royal protection for two years for ‘passing to divers parts of England on important business’. (5) We cannot now for sure what this important business was, but it is likely that Butt was involved in attempting to find new financial resources to fund the French campaign. Furthermore, on 30 July 1345, Butt contributed a loan to Edward III worth £100. (6) Given that the charter was issued on 9 August 1345, it is inescapable to draw any other conclusions apart from viewing the loan as a form of patronage designed to ease Norwich’s acquisition of a new charter. Also the payment of the loan occurred before Edward III’s request for loans from merchants in the late 1340s to fund the Hundred Years war, further reinforcing the belief that it was for a charter. Unfortunately, the receipt roll only states that Butt made payment of the loan at the Exchequer. We do not know if it was a personal loan made by Butt or, alternatively, a corporate loan from Norwich for a charter, which Butt lodged at the Exchequer. What is certain, however, is that the loan was never repaid.

Edward III visited Isabella on four separate occasions in 1344 and it must have been on one of these visits that she asked her son to grant Norwich a charter. (7) The discussions probably took place during the king’s visit to Castle Rising from 1-14 November 1344. The king then visited Norwich from 21-7 December 1344 and from 3-5 January 1345. It is unthinkable that the king’s representatives and the bailiffs did not negotiate the terms of a charter during these visits to the town. A royal commission was established acknowledging Norwich’s need for a charter, which was subsequently issued on 9 August 1345.

So, Norwich had a clear strategy based upon his financial ties to a local patron and the king. The townsmen exploited the patronage of Isabella, no doubt reminding her of the importance of the proposed charter and how it would affect the payment of her grant. Norwich also included trusted individuals known to the crown, such as William Butt, in the negotiations with the king’s advisors. The final resort was, of course, to provide the king an incentive to issue the charter. The loan of £100 lodged at the end of July 1345 by Butt has to be viewed as a payment for the charter, with the sole intention of easing the administrative process.


 Robin McCallum




(1) Hudson and Tingey, Records of the city of Norwich, i, p. 24.

(2) S. H. Rigby, Wisdom and chivalry: Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale and medieval political theory (Boston, 2009), p. 141.

(3) CPR, 1343-45, p. 263.

(4) The National Archives (TNA), E372/190.

(5) CPR, 1343-45, p. 225.

(6) TNA, E401/382.

(7) W.M. Ormrod, Edward III, p. 620.

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