The Great Charter of Charles I

Charters generally aren’t that interesting to many people. They are large and difficult to read – both in terms of writing style and language. The legal language until the 18th century was Latin, and very few people can read it today. But even then once translated, the style of writing is often long winded and repetitive. You can see from the picture above that this charter has a lot of writing. It’s also quite a large document and a very fragile (I’ll let you into a secret – the picture above is actually a cardboard reprint of the charter, the real one is in a protective covering so it’s quite hard to photograph.) So not the most accessible document in the world. But this one has a bit of a tale to tell.

The actual 17th century charter in it’s special protective case.

Charters are important documents. They give powers, land and rights. In some cases they are the foundation of a council or about a change in status. This charter, issued by Charles I in 1641 is no less interesting. First it reconfirmed all of the old Charters, meaning that Dundee’s status as a Royal Burgh was safe under the recently united crowns. The charter also gave Dundee their own Sheriffs, rather than be under the jurisdiction of the one for Forfarshire. The council was now able to collect money to support the poor, pay for the upkeep of the city churches and minister, keep a weigh house and charge £4 on a tun of wine sold within the burgh. The last of these brought in a lot of money. As Maxwell states in The History of Old Dundee (1884) the people of Dundee were not yet familiar with whisky so wine (and the excellent local ale) was the main drink of choice. In case you were wondering how much a tun was, its around 252 gallons, so about 5455 glasses of wine (175 ml) or 1273 bottles (750 ml). £4 was about £653 in today’s money, so that works out at just over 50p a bottle – at the moment you probably pay about £3 duty on a bottle of wine.

But what is perhaps most interesting about this document is the physical story it tells. Those of you who know your 17th century history will be very aware that 1641 was a significant time period in Britain. Just one year later the civil war broke out in England. The name English Civil War is a bit misleading as the Scots and the Irish were just as involved but for different reasons. In fact Charles had already gone to war in Scotland in 1639 over practices in the Church of Scotland. The War of the Three Kingdoms is a better name. I’m no expert, so I won’t go into great detail about the wars and what they are called.

Charles I bust
Charles I. © Copyright Robin Sones and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

We’ll skip ahead ten years to 1651. Charles I has been executed and his son Charles II was a king in absence. Dundee has held out against Cromwell and his armies, who, after being victorious south of the border, sought to exert his power in the north. General Monck leads his men from Stirling to lay seige at Dundee – one of the last places loyal to the King. The council hastily collected advance rates from the residents to help strengthen the town’s defences. Buildings outside the burgh walls were ordered demolished, so that they could not be used by the advancing enemy forces (the outcry from residents delayed this action and we don’t know if it happened as the records stop at this time). In mid August 1651 General Monck arrived in Dundee with 4000 troops and thereafter followed the last attack on a walled town in Britain.

The Steeple of St Mary’s Church – able to withstand many an attack on Dundee

The siege lasted 2 weeks. On September 1st Monck finally broke the defences. Around 400 soldiers and male inhabitants were killed, as well as 200 women and children (Maxwell, p. 547). Some of the military leaders made their way to the St Mary’s tower (the steeple) to take shelter. They were eventually smoked out of the building. It was probably whilst checking the tower, or the nearby Town House, for hiding soldiers or townspeople that Monck’s men found this Charter, along with others in the council’s charter chest. It is said that upon realising that the charter was issued, signed and sealed by the beheaded Charles I, the Parliamentarians fixed it to a spike and paraded it through the town – as if it was the head of the King itself. The story then goes that it, along with other unique documents, were sold off the the highest bidder. Luckily the Town Clerk was able to buy back many of them, but who knows what else did go missing. We’re not sure if this story is true or if only parts are true. What we do know is that there is a hole in the charter. Its not at a fold in the document (where you might expect to find one), its not been eaten and its not a tear in the vellum. So this tale certainly could be true…


The hole at the bottom of the charter. The Great Seal of Charles I should have been attached to that brown strap, but it too is missing…

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