(Latin, carta, “written document”) A legal document from a ruler or government, conferring rights or laying down a constitution. Charters in England date from the 7th century, when they were used to confirm grants of land, usually recorded in Latin. Borough charters granting towns specific privileges, which could include self-government and freedom from certain fiscal burdens, were regularly awarded by English kings between 1066 and 1216 (over 300 were issued). Magna Carta (1215) was a charter which sought to regularize the feudal contract between the crown and its barons.
The commercial and colonial expansion of England from the 16th century led to the use of charters to authorize the trading ventures of companies (chartered company) and to form the first constitutions of the English colonies in America. Such colonial charters were in the form of a grant to a company (Virginia Company 1606), or gave recognition to the self-governing status of existing colonies (as with Connecticut in 1662). The importance of these charters was recognized by the Americans during the War of Independence.
Subjects: Bibliography — History.