A document that was written just a year after William the Conquer did his conquering has gone on display in the City of London. It’s dated from 1067, and is the oldest document owned by the City of London, as it confirms the rights of the City after the new King was crowned in Westminster Abbey.

When William invaded England, he was faced with the daunting task of attacking a very well defended London. Knowing both that the city would be very difficult to attack, but also that having an intact city would be good for his finances, William did a deal with the city authorities.

In exchange for preserving their privileges and rights, the city would accept William as King. That is one of the reasons why the City of London retained so many of its ancient traditions over the centuries.

The charter that was approved by King William as he was by then, is unusual for the time for being written in Old English, as opposed to the King’s native Norman French. It’s also the earliest known document to guarantee the collective rights of everyone living in a town, rather than specific rights for named individuals.

It’s pretty small for such an important document, and rather aged as you would expect. A translation is provided above the display to explain what it means.

William, king, greets William bishop and Geoffrey portreeve and all the burgers within London, French and English, friendlily and I inform you  that I will that ye-two be of all the laws worthy which ye-two were on Edward the king’s day and I will that each child be is father’s inheritance taker after his father’s day and I will not suffer that any man to you any wrong offer. God you keep.

City of London historians point out that one of the citizens’ primary concerns, as expressed by the words – “And I grant that every child shall be his father’s heir, after his father’s days” – was to ensure that their property was handed down to the son and heir, rather than attracting the interest of the Crown.

Apart from its age, it’s the legal importance of the document that is so interesting, upholding the rights of citizens when that was rare, and an acceptance by a monarch to temper their power, which was even rarer.

The display is in the Guildhall Art Gallery’s heritage centre, which has two other displays at the moment.

Bread

Also on display is a large book recording laws and customs regarding the baking and selling of bread. Dating from 1284, the book records the cost of a loaf of bread when sold in London. In possibly the earliest example of shrinkflation, the cost of a loaf of bread never changed, but the size of the loaf would shrink if the cost of wheat rose.

The book also records the fate of people who broke the regulations, such as the person who was found to have sold underweight bread, and was dragged through the city on a hurdle with a loaf of his bread hung around his neck.

Although the regulations changed over time, they were still in effect until the 20th century, and there’s a poster on display from 1905 warning that loafs of bread could only be sold by weight.

Interestingly, the regulations only applied to loaves of bread, and bread rolls were exempted, as they were considered “fancy”.

Peabody

There’s also a painting of the Peabody housing estate in Clapham Junction, along with a history of the Peabody housing association.

Visiting the exhibition

The exhibition in the Heritage Gallery at Guildhall Art Gallery is open until 19th January 2023.

The Heritage Gallery is open during the art gallery’s admission times (Daily 10.30am to 4pm) with free entry. It can be found in the basement – follow the signs to the cloakroom. While you’re there, there is also the Inspired exhibition which is open until Christmas (paid entry), and also for free is the permanent art display and the Roman Amphitheatre.

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3 comments
  1. Geoffrey Bryson says:

    Extremely Interesting and confirmation of the prime importance of the City of London which was also evident at the Proclamation of King Charles III at Mansion House in the City an hour after the Proclamation following the Accession Council at St James’s Palace and the day before any proclamation in Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast.
    I hope that Guildhall Library will produce a copy to buy which I would love to add to the framed Certificates of my father’s and my Freedom of the City of London.
    Geoffrey — Banker, Citizen & Freeman

  2. Erik says:

    Such a rich history. Would also be good to learn more about the London Stone which is even older.

  3. Robert M F Choi says:

    The Roman Amphitheatre at the basement is also worth a visit. I have been there several times and every time fund “new” things.

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