Virginia Charter of 1606

Much of the settling of the New World by British colonists resulted from the efforts of mercantile companies seeking a profit, and they did so under royal charters. In 1606, King James I issued a charter to the Virginia Company of London, granting it the right to establish colonies between the thirty-fourth and fortyfirst parallels of the new continent. The London Company, as it was called, would have a governor and an advisory council of thirteen, located in London, to direct the colony’s affairs, although it could appoint local councils, also of thirteen men, to actually govern the colonies. The stockholders of the company were to assemble from time to time in a general court.

From the standpoint of liberties, the most important part of the charter declared that the settlers were to enjoy ‘‘all Liberties, Franchises and Immunities... as if they had been abiding and born within this our Realm of England.’’ The idea that colonists would continue to have the rights of Englishmen was not new, however, but had been included in the Letters Patent Elizabeth I had given to Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1578, which held that any person settling in colonies founded by Gilbert ‘‘shall and may have, and enjoy all the privileges of free denizens and persons native of England.’’

The importance of the charter, from the colonial viewpoint, is that at no point had they either given up or had taken from them the rights of Englishmen secured under Magna Carta and other documents of the English constitution. When the colonists rose up in rebellion a little over a century and a half later, they did so as Englishmen claiming the rights of Englishmen.

MELVIN I. UROFSKY

References and Further Reading

  • Quinn, David B. England and the Discovery of America. New York: Knopf, 1974.

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