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   Chapter 7 No.7

The History of London By Walter Besant Characters: 4298

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

When William the Conqueror received the submission of the City he gave the citizens a Charter-their first Charter-of freedom. There can be no doubt that the Charter was the price demanded by the citizens and willingly paid by the Conqueror in return for their submission. The following is the document. Short as it is, the whole future of the City is founded upon these few words:-

'William King greets William Bishop and Gosfrith Portreeve and all the burghers within London, French and English, friendly.

'I do you to wit that I will that ye be all law worthy that were in King Edward's day, and I will that every child be his father's heir after his father's day: and I will not endure that any man offer any wrong to you.

'God keep you.'

The ancient Charter itself is preserved at Guildhall. Many copies of it and translations of it were made from time to time. Let us see what it means.

The citizens were to be 'law worthy' as they had been in the days of King Edward. This meant that they were to be free men in the courts of justice, with the right to be tried by their equals, that is, by jury. 'All who were law worthy in King Edward's day.' Serfs were not law worthy, for instance. That the children should inherit their father's property was, as much as the preceding clause, great security to the freedom of the City, for it protected the people from any feudal claims that might arise. Next, observe that there was never any Earl of London: the City had no Lord but the King: it never would endure any Lord but the King. An attempt was made, but only one, and that was followed by the downfall of the Queen-Matilda-who tried it. Feudal customs arose and flourished and died, but they were unknown in this free city.

But the City with its strong walls, its great multitude of people, and its resources, might prove so independent as to lock out the King. William therefore began to build the Tower, by means of which he could not only keep the enemy out of London but could keep his own strong hand upon the burghers. He took down a piece of the wall and enclosed twelve acres of ground, in which he built his stronghol

d, within a deep and broad ditch. The work was entrusted to Gundulph, Bishop of Rochester, who left it unfinished when he died thirty years after.

The next great Charter of the City was granted by Henry the First. He remitted the payment of the levies for feudal service, of tax called Danegeld, originally imposed for buying off the Danes: of the murder tax: of wager of battle, that is, that form of trial in which the accused and the accuser fought it out, and from certain tolls. He also gave the citizens the county of Middlesex to farm on payment to the Crown of 300l. a year-a payment still made: they were to appoint a Sheriff for the county: and they were to have leave to hunt in the forests of Middlesex, Surrey, and the Chiltern Hills. They were also empowered to elect their own justiciar and allowed to try their own cases within their own limits.


(The battlements are much later.)

This was a very important Charter. No doubt, like the first, it was stipulated as a price for the support of the City. William Rufus was killed on Thursday-Henry was in London on Saturday. He must therefore have ridden hard to get over the hundred and twenty miles of rough bridle track between the New Forest and London. But the City supported him and this was their reward.

We are gradually approaching the modern constitution of the City. The Portreeve or first Magistrate, in the year 1189, in the person of Henry Fitz Aylwin, assumed the title of Mayor-not Lord Mayor: the title came later, a habit or style, never a rank conferred. With him were two Sheriffs, the Sheriff of the City and the Sheriff of the County. There was the Bishop: there was the City Justiciar with his courts. There were also the Aldermen, not yet an elected body.

The Londoners elected Stephen King, and stood by him through all the troubles that followed. The plainest proof of the strength and importance of the City is shown in the fact that when Matilda took revenge on London by depriving the City of its Charters the citizens rose and drove her out of London and made her cause hopeless.

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