The historical significance of charters is manifold.
They seldom provide enough information to establish fully the contexts in which they were issued, but the data that remains can have immense value.
Some reconstructed passenger lists have been published. Wollmershäuser, a German genealogist, has an index to these lists. Germans also used Scandinavian ports (especially Copenhagen), British ports (Queenstown, Glasgow, Liverpool, Hull, Newcastle, and Edinburgh), and other French and Northern Italian ports.
In its classic form—as found in the tenth century, before a tendency to abbreviate takes over in the later eleventh and twelfth centuries—the English royal charter typically had most of the following components: Seals—impressions set in a mixture of bees-wax and resin made using a metal matrix—were used to close letters (especially official correspondence) in Anglo-Saxon England, but not, it seems, to validate charters.
The only documents to survive from before 1066 with seals attached are writs of Edward the Confessor (1042–65), and Gervase of Canterbury says that he was ‘the first of the kings of England who appended pressed wax on his charters as a testimony of the truth’ (, ed. A little doubt must remain as to whether Edward was the first to issue charters as well as writs in this way, but the practice was certainly well established by the end of Willliam the Conqueror’s reign, and it soon became widespread for lords of all kinds when it had not previously been the norm in either England or Normandy.
They record acts of authority and had considerable force as records that might be used in court or to obtain further confirmations of the rights they record; but they did not, in the earliest period, constitute legal instruments in themselves even though they often drawn up by clerks present at the ‘issuing’ authority’s court.
It was the oral transaction and the sacred rituals that accompanied it—the utterances of the king or authority who made or confirmed the grant, the oaths offered and the gesture of the cross—which constituted the legal act.
Having received them in these forms their recipients (or those who later gained possession of the rights or properties to which they pertained) might and often did subsequently copy them into books or registers known after the nature of their contents as ‘cartularies’.
Indeed, many texts are known only from the later copies found in these books, and sometimes only from the great registers which record the findings of the royal clerks who surveyed the landholdings of England in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
They can be used, for example, to establish land-holding patterns in a particular region or within the estates of a particular family, they can be used to construct a picture of individual or familial piety, and their witness lists can be used to identify the persons attached to the issuing authority’s court and that circle’s evolution over time.
They can sometimes even be used to identify those in the circle of the donor.
Some collections of charters were illustrated or decorated, reflecting the wealth and pretensions of the persons or institutions for whom they were produced.
Some imitate the layout and script of the originals, reproducing the rotas of papal privileges and other authenticating symbols.
The ports in Antwerp, Belgium and le Havre, France were also used. The only actual ships' lists known to exist are crew lists.