With the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund and Hull 2017, Hull History Centre’s first exhibition of 2017 seeks to tell the story of Hull through its charters.
Hull’s earliest charter is that of King Edward I and dates from 1299. However this was at least a hundred years into the story of our City. During the twelfth century a transhipment point and associated settlement grew up at the confluence of the River Hull and the Humber estuary on the property of nearby Meaux Abbey. This was Wyke-upon-Hull, often referred to just as Hull, and it prospered as a result of the wool export trade to the extent that its potential as a source of revenue and a strategic port became clear to the acquisitive King Edward. Taking shameless advantage of the poverty stricken monks of Meaux, he acquired Wyke, named it Kingston-upon-Hull, and granted it the status of a Free Borough on 1 April 1299.
|C BRC/1 - Charter of King Edward I, 1299|
From 1299 onwards, the citizens of Hull received many more charters. Sometimes existing grants were confirmed when regimes changed. Having benefitted from the generosity of the Lancastrian Henry VI, a charter was obtained from the new Yorkist King Edward IV in 1462 confirming the grants of his deposed predecessor. In 1553, when the Roman Catholic Queen Mary I succeeded her Protestant brother, Hull had his grants confirmed and paid for a very elaborate charter indeed to emphasise Hull’s loyalty to the new, religiously uncongenial regime.
|C BRC/22 Illuminated letter from the charter of Queen Mary I, 1553|
Other charters made new grants of rights and privileges. Over the course of three centuries, Hull was gradually freed from the control of central government and became a self-governing community of free citizens – ‘burgesses’. Hull obtained the right to elect a Mayor; to defend itself with walls; to monopolise trade in the port to its own burgesses; and to have markets and a fair (now of course Hull Fair). In 1440 it became a county of itself, independent of Yorkshire, and in 1447 the County of Kingston upon Hull was extended to take in Willerby, Kirkella and Hessle.
Charters didn’t come for free. Although the preamble to many of them states that the Crown was recognising the poverty of the port of Hull, damaged by tidal surges and slumps in trade, we have evidence of the expenses paid out for at least two charters. In 1532, a new charter from Henry VIII cost Hull £31.19s.4d, a considerable sum which included a purse of gold coins and a whole sturgeon for Henry’s notorious adviser Thomas Cromwell.
The Charters’ legal status was largely repealed by the 1834 Municipal Corporations Act. However they remain of crucial significance for what they represent: the development of a great City, the rules by which its citizens lived, and the rights and privileges they enjoyed.
|C BRC Illuminated letter from a 1975 charter|
The Hull Charters’ exhibition is at Hull History Centre from 3 January to 24 February 2017. Hull History Centre is open to the public Tuesday - Friday 9.30am - 5.30pm and the first and third Saturday of each month 9am - 4.30pm.
Martin Taylor, City Archivist