Medieval Dunstable©   Webmaster Helen Mortimer  Privacy Policy | Terms of Use          

Charters and Bylaws


Author Joan Curran

Borough Charter

The Borough Charter, given to Dunstable by Henry I soon after he founded the town, was probably drawn up between 1112 and 1117.   The original charter has been lost, but the Latin text was included in a book printed in the 17th century which can still be read.   It consisted of the following three clauses:

1. That the people who came to live in Dunstable should have the same rights and          privileges, throughout the kingdom, as the citizens of London or burgesses of any other town.   

2. That the people of the town should pay twelve pence a year for an acre of land. [12 pence were equal to one shilling, which was equivalent to 5p. in decimal coinage.  The acre was not then a standardised measurement, so the plots were not necessarily what would be an acre today.]  

3. That the people never had to appear in any court outside Dunstable: the King’s justices and other ministers always made a special journey to the town and sitting with 12 burgesses, on oath, with no interference from any outsider,  heard all the cases brought to court.  

An author writing in 1913 wrote that the Dunstable charter was the earliest still in existence, but all recent attempts to trace it have proved unsuccessful.

Monastic Charter

At some time in the years 1131 to 1133 Henry drew up a charter giving his borough of Dunstable to the Priory.  It was signed at Combe (this may have been the Combe in Oxfordshire or the one in Herefordshire) by the Bishops of Hereford and Worcester, the Chancellor and various other dignitaries and was possibly given to the Priory when Henry visited at Christmas 1131.   The original copy of this Charter has also been lost but the text was repeated when it was confirmed by Richard I and Henry III.

    ‘Know ye that I for God and my health and the souls of William my Son and Matilda the         Queen have given to the Church of the Blessed Peter of Dunstable which I have founded in honour of God and of the same Apostle and to the Canons Regular there serving God in perpetual and free alms, the whole Manor and Borough of Dunstable with the lands to the same Vill pertaining , to wit four Cultures around the Vill of Dunstable  and the market of the same Vill and the schools of the  same Vill with all  the liberties and free customs to the same Vill pertaining …    But I retain in my Lordship my houses of the Vill and the gardens where I am accustomed to stay.   And let them have. … common of the wood of Houghton  and the common pastures of  Houghton, Caddington, Kensworth and Totternhoe and the Quarry of the same Vill…’       


Author Joan Curran

When Henry I gave the manor and borough of Dunstable to the canons of the Priory it became responsible for law and order in the town.  A list of rules for the conduct of the market was drawn up which was known as the Custumal of the Manor and is believed to be one of the earliest examples of borough byelaws in England.

1. Every burgess may erect on his plot a windmill and a horsemill, a dovecote, a bakehouse, a handmill and a malt-kiln, a wood-stack and a dungheap, as long as  the two latter do not obstruct the King’s highway or the Prior’s market, in the opinion of the loyal men of the borough.

2. Shopkeepers may not brew in their shops for fear of fire, nor make pigsties outside their doors or drive stakes into the ground without permission from the reeve.

3. Butchers may not throw blood or filth from the animals they kill in front of their house or elsewhere in the street which would be a nuisance to the neighbours or the market.  

4.  Burgesses or people from outside who set up stalls in the market on market days must remove them the same day.

5.  If any man be killed or flees because of a criminal act his goods shall be forfeit to the Prior.

6.  No traders, from this or any other town, may buy food before the first hour or go outside the meet the sellers before they reach the town.

7.   If a purchaser has bought goods by the cartload that are usually sold by number [or weight] he may not lessen the amount or sell them on the same day at a higher price.

8.  Bread made for sale at the price of a farthing may not be refused to anyone who offers a farthing.   The same rule applies to beer on sale at four gallons for a penny.

9.  When a widow resigns her freebench she must release to the heir the fixtures fastened to the ground by nails or pegs – the principal table with stools, the best wine cask, the vat and kneading trough,  basins and hatchet and the best cup, the coulter and share and the well-bucket and rope.  Other things she may dispose of by will or gift and she is not bound to answer for waste unless the waste be created after prohibition by the King.