Ipswich Icons: Richard The Lion Heart’s legacy gave town a Royal Charter

Granting a charter to Ipswich was a win-win situation for us and two kings, as John Norman, of The Ipswich Society, explains.

We’ll start this story not with the subject, King John, but with his predecessor (and brother) Richard I (born 1157, reigned 1189-1199).

Richard spent most of his reign fighting the crusades, or the French – hence his nickname, Richard the Lion Heart.

Throughout the 12th century the economy had done very well, and the English had won a number of battles in the wars with France. The English could lay claim to Normandy, Brittany, Aquitaine and Gascony.

King Richard I enjoyed France and was frequently resident in Poitou, Aquitaine. In fact, he spent only some six months of his reign in England.

In the last few years of the century, however, it became clear that warmongering had depleted the Treasury and Richard explored ways of increasing his income. Opportunity would be brought about by granting a charter to certain English towns, thus increasing the amounts they paid to the Crown. The quid-pro-quo was that the towns, having been granted a charter, could trade without toll (taxes), hold markets and fairs (events where labour was hired for the coming year) and administer the law.

The burgesses could set up guilds (trade cartels) and keep the fines and forfeits imposed by the courts for the benefit of the town.

Most Read

The burgesses of Ipswich had caught wind of this potential opportunity and immediately set sail for France to put Ipswich’s case to the King. It was potentially a win-win situation and the King granted leave for Ipswich to put together a bid for a charter. But on April 6, 1199, the King died.

This didn’t deter the burgesses of Ipswich and they continued with their preparations.

On Richard’s death his brother John succeeded as King and, given the financial advantages, he didn’t take much persuading to continue with Ipswich’s charter.

The charter was sealed on May 25, 1200, and “proclaimed” before the great and good of Ipswich in St Mary le Tower churchyard on June 29, 1200.

In exchange for these rights and privileges, the town had to pay an annual “fee-farm rent” to the Crown of £40. We should note that references to courts and the fines accrued indicate that Ipswich was well governed, administering laws and customs, both civil and criminal, in the 13th century.

The rights to hold markets included limitations on the types of goods sold in each location, the enforcement of honest trading, and matters such as the wholesomeness of the food.

Ipswich enjoyed, at various times, markets for many products. Butter (and dairy products) were obviously sold in the Butter Market, and there were markets for timber, cloth, wool, leather, corn, poultry, fish and meat, as well as the provisions market which still exists (just) and the cattle market (closed in the mid 20th century).

The very foundations of the administration of the town were established by King John’s charter and he is commemorated above the entrance to the town hall as one of three heads carved in stone – the others being King Richard and Thomas Wolsey.

King John is also depicted on the Charter Hangings, currently in St Peter’s by the Waterfront.

In the ensuing years the charter was amended, rescinded and adapted by succeeding monarchs, but the outcome remained true to the original.

The first monarch to rescind and amend the charter (1283) was Edward I (1272-1307), returning it in 1291 when Ipswich provided men for the King’s Navy.

Governance of the town was vested in the hands of bailiffs, chosen by the Great Court, and by the four coroners (law officers) whose first duty was to act as a check on the bailiffs.

This didn’t quite happen as the bailiffs immediately appointed themselves as coroners. Under the coroners were twelve “portmen”, three from each of the four leets or wards.

The portmen enjoyed a number of privileges, including grazing rights on the town’s marshes. Thus their horses could enjoy the freedom of open fields at the end of a working day and their cattle would get a little fatter prior to slaughter and market. The portmen’s marshes are today the home of the football club and Alderman Road recreation ground.