On Friday 17 May, Prof David Carpenter of Kings College London gave a talk to a full house at the Commemoration Hall, Wadhurst on the subject of the Wadhurst Market Charter.

The Charter was granted on the eighth of May 1253 by King Henry III to Boniface of Savoy, Archbishop of Canterbury, also the Lord of the Manor of Wadhurst.  The Charter itself is now kept in the East Sussex Record Office in Lewes; it is inscribed on vellum and measures about 9” by 6” with a silken thread and the King’s Seal – and is very damaged.  All Charters were also recorded on Charter Rolls, which are kept in the Public Records Office at Kew; unfortunately the copy containing the Wadhurst Charter is also damaged.  However, William Courthope (1807 – 1866) – local resident and Somerset Herald from 1854 – made a manuscript copy and the full text can now be found on the Wadhurst website

Henry III reigned from 1216 to 1272 and gave England a long period of peace, ending in the de Montfort rebellion.  He was a mild and God-fearing man; in Victorian times Dean Stanley wanted to open his coffin but The Queen said “No”.  He married Eleanor of Provence and appointed her uncle Boniface of Savoy as Archbishop of Canterbury – a very cosmopolitan man and almost certainly unfairly characterised by Courthope as “that most rapacious and insolent of prelates”.

Boniface was no ‘yes’ man, standing up to The King and defending the rights of Canterbury, but also sweet talking and smooth; the Dover Chronicles record that “his memory was to be venerated”.  He was a conciliator but “ruled Canterbury strenuously”; he was also an astute business man and freed the Archbishopric from a debt of £16,000 incurred by his predecessors.

The Charter was issued at the Royal Palace of Westminster during an acrimonious Parliament.  Henry wanted to raise money for a Crusade and to send an army to Gascony, then in turmoil, to reassert his authority.  Both the Church and the barons refused, arguing that The King had not observed the provisions of Magna Carta.  A compromise was reached on May 13 and Henry got some money; in return he solemnly confirmed – “my heart will testify to my spirit” - his commitment to Magna Carta in a ceremony in which the assembled bishops vowed to excommunicate all who breached the provisions of Magna Carta.

Boniface played two roles in this: he led a delegation of bishops to the King, setting out their complaints; he also was a member of the Court, taking The King’s message to the world.  The Wadhurst Charter provides evidence not only of the high esteem in which Henry held Boniface but also of The King’s willingness to reward Boniface for his services.  Normally charters were bought for a fee of £3 to £10: Boniface obtained the Wadhurst Charter for free.  Secondly, charters were normally witnessed by ‘the great and good’; the Wadhurst Charter was witnessed by officials of The King’s household – John Mansell a clerk, the Provost of Beverley, Ralph Fitznicholas and other knights and stewards at court.

Charters were needed to set up fairs and markets.  Why was one wanted for Wadhurst?  There was a clear business interest; money could be raised from stallagium – the fee for a plot or stall, and from telonium – a tax on buying and selling.  A charter also gave protection from competition from neighbouring markets and fairs.  This usually implied no other market within a radius of just over six miles – the distance a man could travel in a day and return after spending time at the market.  So Wadhurst must have been a thriving community and it certainly appears in 1248, if in a slightly insalubrious light, in the Sussex Eyre Rolls – a record of a visitation by the King’s judges to examine local juries’ decisions – has details of various local malefactors:

1)       unknown malefactors came to the house of Edith, daughter of Bartholomew of Wadhurst, and killed her; it was found that the vill of Wadhurst did not pursue the malefactors and was ot be fined

2)       John de Curland hit Henry the Catt with a staff and killed him; he was outlawed by the jurors but the vill did not pursue him – ordered to be amerced [fined]

3)       William, son of Walter of Wadhurst, was accused of several thefts…….

So Wadhurst was clearly a prosperous vill in the Hundred of Loxfield by 1253.  Analysis of the Gazeteer of Markets and Fairs shows that the period was one of intense activity in granting new charters – evidence of the general prosperity of the country and of the King’s need for money for a crusade.

The Wadhurst Charter is, however, unique.  The political circumstances surrounding Magna Carta and the role of Boniface is securing an accord between King and Parliament are reflected in the free grant of the Wadhurst market Charter.  And Boniface marked Wadhurst out for special consideration as the first town for which he sought a charter; only later did he secure one for Mayfield.

Not all markets were successful but Courthope records that the Wadhurst market continued in the 19th century on Tuesdays at two inns – The Greyhound and The Queen’s Head;  fairs were held on 29 April and 1 November – when the inhabitants had the privilege of hunting squirrels.  The market closed in the early 1980’s.

The archbishop of Canterbury sold Wadhurst to John Baker in 1615: the Charter was deposited in the Wadhurst Parish Chest, where it certainly remained until 1840; by 1894 it was held in the Parish Church and in 1976 was deposited in the East Sussex Record Office for safer keeping.

[This summary appears by permission of David Carpenter, whose book “The Struggle for Mastery: Britain 1066 – 1284, to be published by Penguin in August, sets out the wider social and political background to our Charter. Copies will be available on publication at Barnett's Bookshop

‘The Story of Wadhurst’ Mrs Rhys Davids & A A Wace Courier Printing & Publishing 1923 [now out of print]

‘It is equally curious that the first mention of Wadhurst in documents of that time should have been found in the Register of another Abbey – Battle – which records that in the reign of Henry II (1154 – 89) “Simon-de-Srimonte and his wife gave to the Abbey of Battel all his land in the Parish of Wadehurst which Henry, Chaplain of Wadehurst held of them”