Restoring the Royal Charter


Portrait of King Charles II. Detail from HBC Charter.

From the time of its granting on May 2nd, 1670 until 1974, when it was sent to HBC’s brand new Head Office on Bloor St. in Toronto, the Royal Charter resided in England. The first members of the “Company of Adventurers” were well aware of the significance of the document which granted their monopoly and constituted HBC’s articles of incorporation – so much so that they had a second copy made.

Sources indicate that early on the Charter passed out of the Company’s control – once in1679 and again in 1681 – both times as security for loans. Afterwards the precious document was kept in a strongbox and a copy was kept for inspection purposes in the Committee Room of the London offices – which, for the next several hundred years, occupied various locations including Scriveners’ Hall, nos. 3 and 4 Fenchurch St. and no. 1 Lime Street.


By 1920 the Charter was kept in the main boardroom at Hudson’s Bay House in London. From 1939 until 1945 it was sent out of the city for safe-keeping, along with the bulk of the Company’s records, to Hexton Manor in Hertfordshire, country home of then Governor, Sir Patrick Ashley Cooper. At this time the Seal, which was very fragile, was removed and stored separately. The two were reunited in 1946 and were kept in the Archives Department at Beaver House. For many years the Charter was kept loose in its strongbox; later, in preparation for a visit of the Queen to Beaver House, it was placed in a special cabinet in the Governor’s office. By the 1980s, having made its way to Toronto, it was sealed under glass in the Company’s boardroom, where it might well have stayed had fate not intervened.


In 1996, Brian C. Grose, then Corporate Secretary of HBC, was asked if the Charter could be sent to Winnipeg to be shown to the visiting Prince of Wales who had specifically asked to see it. His initial reaction was to refuse. But Grose realized that a professional opinion was in order and contacted Dorset Conservation, specialists in the preservation and conservation of works on paper. Dorset’s president, the late Kenneth Lockwood, was consulted and advised HBC that with proper handling the Charter was more than able to travel. And so the Charter was sent off to meet Prince Charles, direct “heir and successor” of his namesake King Charles II who had granted it.


The incident prompted then Governor David E. Mitchell and Grose to champion a project to evaluate the Charter with a view to conserving it and protecting it for the future. Ken Lockwood developed a three-part program: historical analysis of the document and its creation; scientific analysis of its current condition using state-of-the-art technology; and recommendations for preservation and display which would protect the Charter in perpetuity. HBC endorsed the proposed plan which Lockwood subsequently managed.



A conservator from the Canadian Conservation Institute and a scientist examine the charter using a stereomicroscope. © All rights reserved.  Reproduced with the permission of the Canadian Conservation Institute of the Department of Canadian Heritage, 2008.

Thea C. Burns, Professor of Art Conservation at Queen’s University, home of the country’s only post-graduate degree program in conservation, conducted the historical analysis. Burns’ research turned up some fascinating information about the Charter’s creation. One such fact was that the printing block used to create the King’s portrait and opening cursive letter “C” had originally printed the monarch’s name in Latin – Carolus – which was later scraped off and overwritten. In the late 17th c. English was replacing Latin for documents of this type.*


The Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) and the National Research Council (NRC) collaborated on the scientific analysis. The document was taken to CCI’s research laboratories in Ottawa to record its current appearance and state of deterioration. The Charter was photographed using visible and ultraviolet light and close-ups were taken to record scratches, stains, smudges, and erasures. Special X-rays of the Great Seal revealed where pins and nails had been used on three separate occasions to repair breaks. Scientists used state-of-the-art laser-scanning technology developed by NRC to help create a baseline record of the first page and the Great Seal. (At the time the Charter was the largest three-dimensional object NRC had scanned.) Any future images taken of the Charter can be overlaid with the baseline image to record any changes in appearance.



HBC charter in specially designed case.

The report from CCI declared that “the current condition of the Charter reflects well on three centuries of storage.”  Damage was minimal and, as is often the case, was the direct result of previous conservation efforts. However, the choice of parchment and the decision to keep the Charter locked way for most of its life both contributed to its longevity. To ensure that longevity Lockwood designed and built a display case using the latest in aerospace technology. The Charter case is a sealed aluminum box with a tempered glass window on top. It is filled with nitrogen instead of air and kept at a proper humidity level to prevent or slow down any further damage. A wooden case covers the box and its doors can be closed shut to minimize light exposure. The Charter was placed in its new case in April 1997.


Today the Royal Charter of the Hudson’s Bay Company resides at the Company’s Head Office at 401 Bay Street in Toronto. In late 2005 it was reappraised after a period of ten years. In view of its unique national significance it was compared to other documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Canadian Constitution. Suffice it to say that the while the new appraisal value is substantial the Charter is, of course, priceless.


* Read Burns’ findings in Archivaria 45 (Spring, 1998), pp. 170-193.