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1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Charter

CHARTER (Lat. charta, carta, from Gr. χάρτης, originally for papyrus, material for writing, thence transferred to paper and from this material to the document, in O. Eng. boc, book), a written instrument, contract or convention by which cessions of sales of property or of rights and privileges are confirmed and held, and which may be produced by the grantees in proof of lawful possession. The use of the word for any written document is obsolete in England, but is preserved in France, e.g. the École des Chartes at Paris. In feudal times charters of privileges were granted, not only by the crown, but by mesne lords both lay and ecclesiastical, as well to communities, such as boroughs, gilds and religious foundations, as to individuals. In modern usage grants by charter have become all but obsolete, though in England this form is still used in the incorporation by the crown of such societies as the British Academy.

The grant of the Great Charter by King John in 1215 (see Magna Carta), which guaranteed the preservation of English liberties, led to a special association of the word with constitutional privileges, and so in modern times it has been applied to constitutions granted by sovereigns to their subjects, in contradistinction to those based on “the will of the people.” Such was the Charter (Charte) granted by Louis XVIII. to France in 1814. In Portugal the constitution granted by Dom Pedro in 1826 was called by the French party the “Charter,” while that devised by the Cortes in 1821 was known as the “Constitution.” Magna Carta also suggested to the English radicals in 1838 the name “People’s Charter,” which they gave to their published programme of reforms (see Chartism). This association of the idea of liberty with the word charter led to its figurative use in the sense of freedom or licence. This is, however, rare; the most common use being in the phrase “chartered libertine” (Shakespeare, Henry V. Act i. Sc. 1) from the derivative verb “to charter,” e.g. to grant a charter. The common colloquialism “to charter,” in the sense of to take, or hire, is derived from the special use of “to charter” as to hire (a ship) by charter-party.