The First Charter

Written c. 1920.

It is an interesting occupation to delve into the history of our old town. There is so much fiction, overlaid with so much legend, that it is difficult to discover the exact amount of truth at the bottom layer. Fortunately, in the case of Doncaster, we have invaluable records, and we shall find in these that we are able to piece together the story of Doncaster’s growth into a municipal borough in complete and convincing fashion.

Doncaster today is a municipal borough. That is to say, it is governed by a mayor and corporation. They sit together, and may be described as our local parliament. They look after our health and sanitation; they provide us with water, gas, electricity, and tramway cars; they make by-laws for the good government of the town, and when the by-laws have been sanctioned by parliament in London, they have all the force and authority as Acts of Parliament themselves. Moreover, the local town council has power to levy rates to pay for the upkeep of the town’s institutions, to pay the wages of municipal officials, policemen and other public servants; and once these rates are laid by the town council, or levied as the phrase puts it, and are confirmed by the magistrates, burgesses are compelled to pay them, and may be summoned to the police court if they refuse.

These, then, are the powers of a town council. Where do they get these powers from? Who gave the people of Doncaster the right and liberty to elect a mayor and councillors? In other words, when did Doncaster become a self-governing borough?

The answer is interesting. Doncaster is one of the very oldest bouroughs in the whole of England. We have seen that it was a town in Saxon days, and that the Normans continued it as such. In the reigns of the early Norman kings, the two Williams, Stephen, and the two Henrys, the Doncaster burgesses held their town from the king for the annual fee of £60. That is a rough-and-ready way of describing the fact that one Adam Fitz Swein is known to have paid the king a sum of £60 a year on account of Doncaster; and one receipt shows us that on one occasion, at any rate, he and others paid this rental in quarterly sums of £15. This Adam Fitz Swein was one of the lords of the honours of Pontefract and Tickhill, and it is easy to imagine that Doncaster had, by lease or other means, come into his scheme of ownership.

The importance of this fact is that it definitely places Doncaster in the list of Norman towns. It was no village, no cluster of cottages, to be valued at £60 a year in the money of those days. If the Fitz Swein family paid this rental to the throne, we may be sure that they got it back again out of the pockets of the burgesses. Thus Doncaster was no mean place when the Plantagenet kings sat upon Englands throne.

But what fixes Doncaster position even more definitely than this rental to the king, is the first charter granted to the burgesses by Richard I, or Cœur de Lion, as every scholar likes to call him, who took the throne in 1189. In the fifth year of his reign he granted Doncaster its first charter which gave us the royal permission to be called a town. We put the date at 1194 and now (in 1920) Doncaster has been a borough for at least 726 years.

This places us amongst the oldest boroughs in the United Kingdom. Our mayors are proud of that fact. Every year great municipal banquets are held in London and the big cities of England, such as Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester and so forth. Very often the mayors of Doncaster are invited, and when they come back they relay with pride how they were treated – not because of themselves, but because they represented a borough which stretches right bck through the centuries to the great days of the brilliant crusading king, Richard I, Cœur de Lion, Richard the Lionheart.

Now, this charter is not a very long one but is so very important. It surely and firmly establishes our position.

” Richard, by the grace of God, King of England, Duke of Normandy and Aquitain, Earl of Anjou, to the Archbishops, Bishops, Abbots, Earls, Barons, Justices, Sheriffs, Stewards, Governors, and Headboroughs; and all his ministers, and faithful subjects, GREETING”.

“Know Ye, that we have granted, and by our present Charter have confirmed to our burgesses of Danecastre, their Sco, Soke, or Soak of Danecastre, to have and to hold of us and our heirs by the ancient rent, which at the time was rendered to us, and over and besides, twenty five marks of silver, to be paid us annually, with the ancient rent, that they may answer the marks to us at our Exchequer. And, for this our grant, they have given us fifty marks of silver. Wherefore, we will and firmly command, that the said, our burgesses of Danecastre, may have and hold their aforesaid soke, with the town of Danecastre, in manner aforesaid, effectually, and peaceably; freely and quietly; fully and honourably, with all the Liberties and Free Customs to the same appertaining; so that none hereupon may them disturb. These persons being witnesses. – H. Archbishop of Canterbury, R. Archdeacon of Hereford, William de Warren, Osbert the son of Hervey, Simon de Pateshelle, Ric Barre, Simon de Kimbe, and very many others. Given by the land of Master Eustecius, Dean of Salisbury, then officiating in the place of Chancellor, the twenty second day of May, at Toke, or Tuke, in the fifth year of our reign”.

This document is a landmark in Doncaster’s history as a borough. The burgesses paid fifty marks of silver for it. We have seen that Adam Fitz Swein paid £60 a year rental to the king for Doncaster. In future, the burgesses were to pay that sum directly to the throne, with the addition of another five marks of silver. For this they held the liberties and free customs of the town; and in order that none should question their right, this charter contains the Royal command, “So that none hereupon may them disturb”.

Thus Doncaster, as we say, has been a town by Royal Charter for at least 726 years. As charters go, it is not a very long one, and it does not contain the grant of many privelages. There is no record of a Mayor, or ‘Headborough’, or any other public official; and it says nothing about markets, or common rights, or any other privelages held by the burgesses. But it must be distinctly noticed that its effect is to confirm anything of the sort already held by the town. That is to say, Doncaster was a town before this charter was granted. It was rented from the town at £60 a year. In return for that sum it undoubtedly possessed many of the privelages of a town. All that Richard’s charter does is this – it makes the payment of the rental direct from the burgesses to the king; and that the rental had been long paid is proved by the fact that the charter speaks of it as an ‘ancient rent’.

We are justified, therefore, in assuming:

  1. that Doncaster was an old and honoured town when Richard came to the throne in 1189
  2. that it was already paying  rent which had so long continued as to be spoken of as ‘ancient’
  3. that it enjoyed ‘liberties and free customs’ which were confirmed and ratified by this charter

In other words, Doncaster was not made a town even by Richard I, he recognised it as a town and confirmed it in lawful possession of its liberties, its privelages and its customs.

Nowadays, when a town receives a charter from the monarch, or its ancient rights are ammended or enlarged, it makes for great rejoicing. In 1914 Doncaster’s old borough was enlarged to take in a great deal of suburban territory. These things are usually the occasion of a great scheme of public rejoicing – banquets, processions, fireworks, speeches, and so forth. How interesting it would be if we could look through the ages that hide the past and see what the burgesses of Doncaster did when Richard’s charter was received in the town! Did special envoys bring it to the town? Was it met at the gate by the headmen of the borough? Did they pace the streets in solemn state? Did the bells ring out as the precious parchment was carried to the town-house and curiously inspected by the city father, as they handled its seal and tried to read its crabbed writing?

We shall never know. But one thing we do know – that Richard I by his charter, confirmed Doncaster’s position amongst the eldest boroughs of our land, and for that reason Doncaster people should always hold his memory in high regard.

It will be news to many Doncaster readers that this charter is still in existence. It is a sheet of parchment about 8 inches wide and 10 inches long. It is written in Normandy-French, in a clear clerkly hand; and though the penmanship is 726 years old, every word is still distinct. It is kept in the strong-room of the town clerks office, along with all the other charters in the possession of the local authorities.

We are entitled to ask: How many towns in England are able to produce an original charter older than this, or even as old?

For further reading on this charter and the others that Doncaster recieved you can purchase the following book from my ebay shop in aid for Aurora Cancer Charity, Doncaster. Click the book below.