Historically, they have been used to promulgate public laws, the most famous example being the English Magna Carta (great charter) of 1215, but since the 14th century have only been used in place of private acts to grant a right or power to an individual or a corporate body.
In c. AD 700-715, Wihtred, King of Kent, granted areas of pasture in Romney Marsh to the
nunnery of St Mary’s, Lyminge. A charter of Aethelberht, King of Kent, dated c. AD 741,
granted it fishing rights in the river Limen and land around the oratorium of St Martin
(perhaps St Martin’s church at New Romney) and the fishermen’s houses. The name
‘Romney’, which first appears in a charter of AD 895, and then in a charter of AD 914,
probably refers to the river rather than the settlement (Sawyer 1968, charter nos 76 and 77)
Romney Marsh has had at least three Royal Charters. The first, in 1155, to make New Romney a Cinque Port, and two, in 1252 and 1462, related to the need to protect the low-lying Romney Marsh from flooding, see Watercourses.
Charters of Romney Marsh
King Edward the Confessor's Royal Charter of 1155 established five ports on the south coast to maintain ships ready for the Crown in case of need. These ports – Hastings, Sandwich, Dover, Romney and Hythe – became known as the Cinque Ports (from the French word five, but always pronounced ‘sink’ not ‘sank’).
Queen Elizabeth II Royal Charter
Another two charters related to the drainage of the Marsh. Land drainage has been important to Romney Marsh for hundreds of years. In 1252 the future Henry III granted a charter known as the Charter of Romney Marsh to protect the Jurats of Romney Marsh against interference from the Sheriff or his officers in making proper provisions for the defence of the Marsh against the flooding of the sea and flooding of freshwater.
This Charter was confirmed by other Royal monarchs and by the end of the Middle Ages there was what was known as the “Laws and Constitutions of Romney Marsh”. When Parliament introduced statutory regulation in 1531 with Commissions of Sewers, Romney Marsh was exempted because the system worked so well, being of an area of land almost entirely below high tide level.
From 1252 until 1932, the Bailiff, Jurats and Commonality of the Marsh of Romney levied Scots, or rates, on the occupants of the Marsh for the maintenance of the sea defences and land drainage system.
In 1462 Edward VI granted a second Charter which gave the Corporation of Romney Marsh the power to raise taxes in addition to the scots levied in respect of sea defences and land drainage. The Charter allowed the formation of the body known as The Lords, Bailiff, Jurats and Commonalty of the Level and Liberty of Romney Marsh, the Level being the drainage district.
Following the Land Drainage Act of 1930, responsibilities for sea defence and land drainage were split into Catchment Boards and Internal Drainage Boards. Originally six Boards operated in the area but two amalgamated leaving five Boards: The Romney Marsh Levels, Walland, Denge and Southbrooks, Rother and Pett.
In 1932 the responsibility passed to the Romney and Denge Marsh Main Drains Catchment Board; in 1937 to the Kent Rivers Catchment Board; in 1950 to the Kent River Board and in 1965 to the Kent River Authority, who, with the Romney Marsh Level Internal Drainage Board as the land drainage rating authority, are currently responsible for the well-being of an area of land almost entirely below high tide level.
HENRY by the Grace of God,* King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy, and Earl of Andeg. To all his Bailiffs and faithful Subjects, to whom these present Letters shall come, Greeting. Because by four and twenty lawful men of Romney-Marsh (time out of mind) hereunto chosen and sworn, Distresses ought to be made upon all those which have Lands and Tenements in the said Marsh, To repair the Walls and Watergages of the same Marsh, against the dangers of the Sea. And also upon all those which are bound and charged for the reparation of the said Walls and* Watergages: We have granted to the same four and twenty, that for the safety of the said Marsh, they cause those distresses to be done, so that they be made equal, according to the portions greater and lesser, which men have in the same Marsh, and according to that which some are bound and charged.
And therefore we will and grant, that none of our Sheriffs of*Kent, or any his Bailiffs, do in any wise intermeddle touching those Distresses made by consideration of the same four and twenty Iurors to avoid the same danger. For whosoever shall bring Complaint unto us, of the consideration of those Distresses, we will cause Iustice to be done unto him in our Court, and that Iustice we reserve specially to our self, or our special Com∣mandment. In witness whereof, these Letters we have caused to be made Patents. Witness myself at S. Edmonds, the second day of September, in the six and thirtieth year of our Reign...........cont.
In consideration of the fact that the towns and places near the sea may have been depopulated and laid waste owing to attacks from the king's enemies, and that it is needful that such places should be rebuilt or new places built in the neighbourhood, and provided with liberties that they may more effectually be a resort of people; and seeing that in the Marsh of Romney in the county of Kent there are now but a small supply of inhabitants or labourers, but that, if the liberties were increased, the population would also increase to the better defence of the county of Kent, as the king has learnt from the faithful report of the inhabitants of that part:
now the king, of special grace and at the request of the commonalty of the inhabitants of the Marsh of Romney and for the preservation of the said marsh and adjoining towns, has given and granted to the inhabitants and residents within the bounds of the marsh, that they shall be one body in fact and name and a perpetual commonalty incorporate of a bailiff, twenty-four jurats and commonalty of the marsh of 'Romeney Mersh' in the county of Kent, with a perpetual succession; and they and their successors shall be named by the name of the bailiff, jurats and commonalty of Romney Mersh in the county of Kent …;
the bailiff, jurats and commonalty shall be quit of all tallages and aids of the realm and of scot and geld, hidage, toll with soc (socko') and sac (soca'), thol and them, infangenethef, outfangenethef, gredwite, blodwyte, flitwite, flesewite, hengwite, letherwite, flemenesfrith, hordel, and croft', within time and without, danegeld, horngeld, hosts, lastage, stallage, shires, wards, 'wardepeny,' 'hundred-peny,' 'tething-peny' and of all murages, works of castles, bridges and ways, aids, enclosures, carriages, sumpter service, and 'manige,' and building of king's houses and all works, and also of all contributions for their merchandise, goods, and chattels in all markets and fairs and in all crossing of bridges, ways and sea and on land through all the realm of England;
By K. and of the said date by authority of parliament.
Romney Marsh and the Corporation