Charters were documents recording grants, usually of land, but sometimes of other property or rights. They were thus the medieval equivalent of what we now call deeds. Records of royal charters - the most famous of which is, of course, Magna Carta - are mostly to be found among the chancery rolls at the Public Record Office. This section deals with charters issued by private individuals.

Private charters are potentially an excellent source of contemporary information about medieval genealogy. Family relationships are frequently mentioned. For example, transactions by other members of the grantor's family may be recited or confirmed; if the grant is in favour of a religious house, provision may even be made for prayers for the souls of the grantor's dead relatives, or for the grantor's burial. In some cases the charter may record a marriage gift to a daughter, or provision for a younger son. In later medieval times, land was often conveyed to feoffees in trust, and many of these were related to the grantor (although the relationships are not usually specified). Wives (or husbands!) and children also appear, sometimes as witnesses to express their assent to the grant. Alternatively, a member of the family with a perceived claim on the property in question might relinquish their rights in a separate quitclaim. Lists of witnesses, numerous compared with modern practice, are given. Charters were usually sealed, and where they survive the seals can also be useful, especially if they are heraldic.

Only a small proportion of private medieval charters have survived as originals. Though they are not public records, for various reasons many have ended up at the Public Record Office. There is also a large collection at the British Library, and others are in local record offices or still in private hands.

Fortunately, a large number of other charters have survived as transcripts. For the earlier period, many are preserved in the cartularies of religious houses, into which charters and other documents would be copied, as evidence of their rights to land and other privileges. These have survived in large numbers - over a thousand on a generous interpretation - and many have been printed. Lay cartularies are also to be found, though in smaller numbers. In the late medieval period, it became common for private charters to be enrolled among the public records for greater safety - many on the Close Rolls of the Chancery, but others on the rolls of the Exchequer and those of the courts of common law. (Note that most of the feet of fines also record private conveyances, albeit in a different form.) Yet more charters - many since lost - were later copied, in the 16th century and later, by heralds and antiquaries.

Some problems

If a relevant charter can be found, there are potentially the usual problems of handwriting and language. Of course, handwriting should not be a problem in a printed edition, although language may still be, as many charters have been printed in their original language, Latin (or occasionally French). However, charters are even more formulaic than most medieval documents, and a straightforward example should not be too difficult to decipher.

Dating may also present problems. Where charters are dated, the commonest form is by giving the day of the week, the nearest church feast-day and the regnal year. Given a little care, these dates are not too hard to translate into modern terms (see chronology and dating). More serious problems arise if, as for many early charters, no date at all is given. In these cases, the date has to be estimated from the handwriting (if the charter is original), from the phraseology, and from what is known about other people mentioned in the document (see section on chronology and dating for some online resources). These are largely matters for the expert, although in printed editions they will often already have been addressed.

There is, sadly, one other danger to bear in mind when using charter evidence. Although evidence in legal disputes often has to be taken with a pinch of salt, and Tudor genealogists have been known to be over-enthusiastic in providing their clients with illustrious ancestry, out-and-out forgery is not a problem with most other classes of records discussed here. But many medieval charters are known to be forgeries, particularly in cases where they survive as copies in monastic cartularies rather than as originals. Forgery is usually detected by the same methods used to date charters - anachronistic phrases may be present, or the list of witnesses may be chronologically impossible. The purpose of these forgeries was not always fraudulent - they may have been undertaken to provide 'evidence' for grants that were made orally, or to replace documents that had been lost. Often, they are believed to contain fragments of genuine documents, so that they may incorporate accurate information. But obviously, fine judgment is required in using such evidence. Fortunately, spurious charters are usually identified in printed editions.

Links and bibliography for charters

For source material on the internet, click here

The following general information is available online:

A comprehensive catalogue of medieval cartularies, both monastic and secular, including details of published editions, is given in:

The Public Record Office has a large collection of medieval charters. The P.R.O. online catalogue includes brief details for:

(Where available, relevant details can be found either by using the "search the catalogue" option, or by clicking "browse". In browsing mode, type the series name ("E40", for example) into the "Browse from reference" text box and click "go", then select the "View by ... Reference" option. Details of individual documents should now be visible.)

The coverage of the following printed calendars is similar, but not identical:

Some other useful published editions are listed below. Many more charters have been printed, either in editions of cartularies or in local collections.