The impressive document pictured above is notable for its large size and the quality of its calligraphy. It is written in Latin, as was the convention for English legal documents up until the 1730s, and produced on parchment (treated animal hide), a much more durable material than paper - these intrinsic features were important in authenticating such documents, as an imitation would have required a great deal of skill, not to mention costly materials. In this vein, it also boasts a large wax pendant seal and includes an ornate depiction (now somewhat faded) of a young enthroned figure (see picture below).
The lavish quality and the need for durability are not unwarranted as this is a very important document indeed. It is a Royal Charter, a form of document issued by a Sovereign in order to grant rights, privileges or property in perpetuity. On 28 June 1553, a decade before Shakespeare’s birth, Stratford-upon-Avon was granted a Royal Charter of Incorporation by King Edward VI, the young heir of Henry VIII.
This document marked a turning point for the town, in a time of national social and religious upheaval, as well as local crop failures, fires and epidemics. The town had been relatively prosperous and can date its foundation to a previous Royal Charter issued by King Richard I (‘Richard the Lion Heart’) in 1196. This gave the town the right to hold weekly markets and established Stratford as local trade centre. However, the town was left in perilous situation in 1547, when the Crown suppressed the Guild of the Holy Cross and appropriated its lands. The Guild, a religious house, had been founded by the Bishop of Worcester and administered education of local children, maintenance of the Clopton Bridge (a crucial trade route) and maintained the almshouses (provision for the poor). The suppression of the Guild left the townspeople in a municipal limbo, and the upheaval continued when the Bishopric of Worcester lost control of the local manor in 1549. Stratford no longer had the benefit of the influence and assets of the Church and the Guild. This must have been a difficult time for the townsfolk; consequently, the 1553 Royal Charter would have brought great relief to the community. It granted Stratford further rights to hold markets, and also gave it the power to set bye-laws and nominate 14 aldermen, who could act on behalf of the townspeople. It also gifted to the town the property that had been appropriated from the Guild, and thus both empowered Stratford to govern itself and provided it with the means to develop and prosper. In this way, it created the town that Shakespeare grew up in (where his father was one of the first alderman), and that he returned to and invested in as a wealthy Elizabethan gentleman.
Given the importance of this document in shaping the town, it is intriguing to know that the Charter might never have been produced because of national royal and religious struggles for dominance. It was issued only a week before the death of the sickly young King Edward VI, the ardent protestant reformer. His premature death led to a succession crisis, which Stratford-upon-Avon was intimately connected to, for it was John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland and Earl of Warwick, who had originally taken control of its local manor in 1549, who conspired to settle the accession of the throne on his daughter, Lady Jane Grey (‘the 9 day Queen’). As Lady Grey’s alias suggests, the reign was brief and John Dudley and his daughter were executed for treason. What followed was the notorious reign of Queen Mary, who sought to re-establish a catholic realm. We might speculate that Mary may have been less favourable to granting Stratford seized episcopal property.
The 1553 Charter granted privileges and lands, which provided Stratford-upon-Avon with a basis for civic stability and prosperity. Without this document, the town would have been quite a different place from the one that shaped the young Shakespeare. Again we see that royal favour, and national politics, can greatly influence the fate of small towns. Sometimes monarchy isn’t just in the archives, it makes them!