The oldest document in the City of London, dating back to the time of William the Conqueror is currently on display in the Guildhall.

The charter was given to the City by William the Conqueror soon after he was crowned at Westminster, but before he entered the City of London. It is key to how William won the support of London and how the City itself began to gain its special autonomy.

Don’t however expect a vast document with lots of illuminations and grandiose text — it’s a tiny slip of velum that’s barely legible.

Following his victory at Hastings, William subdued the South-East of England before turning his eye towards London, which was under siege. It was their surrender, without fighting that then also won them their charter of rights, and the new King’s support from the rich city’s traders.

What is notable is that it was written in Old English, rather than in William’s own native Norman French.

Translated into modern English, it reads:

“William King greets William the Bishop and Geoffrey the Portreeve and all the citizens in London, French and English, in friendly fashion; and I inform you that it is my will that your laws and customs be preserved as they were in King Edward’s day, that every son shall be his father’s heir after his father’s death; and that I will not that any man do wrong to you. God yield you”.

The charter didn’t grant any new rights, just reaffirmed existing rights, and also that the King won’t arbitrarily seize lands from their owners.

A small slip of a document, but exceptionally important in the transition of power from Anglo-Saxon to Norman rule over England.

The charter is on display in the Guildhall Art Gallery’s Heritage Gallery (lower basement), until 27th April.


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