Charter (Gr.parchment; Lat. harta), the name given in the middle ages to every kind of written convention. Among the principal kinds were chartce juratce or sacra-mentales, by which an engagement was contracted with an oath; chartae de mundeburde, by which kings, lords, or bishops granted their protection to corporations, churches, or monasteries; chartce apennes, or pantochartm, by which titles to property were confirmed; chartce bcnejiciarice, by which kings and emperors bestowed donations; and chartce partita or indentatae, which were common in England and France, and were marked with indentations or cut asunder, as English bank notes are now, in order to guard against counterfeits. The term came gradually to be limited to its modern sense, meaning an instrument by which a king or other sovereign power conferred or confirmed rights and privileges. Thus many of the early colonies in America had charters from the king of England, by which they were permitted to establish a government and make laws for their own regulation, which was therefore called a charter government.
Among the charters of greatest historical importance are the Magna Charta, the basis of English liberty, which was signed by King John in 1215, and was frequently violated and confirmed by subsequent kings (see Magna Charta); the charter of peace, which Philip Augustus of France signed in 1222 at Melun, and which settled the relations between the royal officers and the officers of the bishop and chapter of Paris; the Norman charter, granted by Louis X. in 1315, to confirm the rights and privileges which Normandy had enjoyed under its ancient dukes, and which was not abolished till 1789; the constitutional charter, which was the fundamental law of the French realm under the restoration, promulgated by Louis XVIII. in 1814, and which made all authority and executive power reside in the person of the king, and gave legislative power to two chambers; and the French charter of 1830, by which the national sovereignty was proclaimed, which was voted by the chamber of deputies, Aug. 7, 1830, and accepted by King Louis Philippe on the following day.
In England corporations formerly owed their franchises to the king's charter, and the right in boroughs of sending members to parliament had or was supposed to have the same origin; but these franchises are now conferred by act of parliament. - In the United States acts of legislatures creating municipal and other corporations are commonly called charters. In the case of Dartmouth College v. Woodward (4 Wheaton's Reports, 518), it was decided by the supreme court of the United States that the charter of a private corporation was to be regarded as a contract, to which the state granting it was one party and the corporators the other; and consequently the provision in the constitution of the United States which forbids the states to pass laws impairing the obligation of contracts, would preclude its alteration or repeal by legislative action without the consent of the corporators. In consequence of this decision, the right to alter, amend, or repeal is usually reserved in such charters; and in some states by constitutional provision it is only subject to such right that they can be granted.
The charters of public corporations, however, are at all times subject to legislative authority. (See Corporation.)