Skip to Main Content

Colonial Records & Topics

What is the Warwick Patent?

Prior to 1628, Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick, became president of the Council for New England, the company authorized to develop "Northern Virginia." On March 19, 1631 ("Old Style" calendar ), Rich purportedly prepared a document that has somewhat inaccurately come to be known as the "Warwick Patent," the "Old Patent," or "Connecticut’s First Charter." However, the existing versions of that document are neither a charter from the King nor a patent from the Council for New England and include no provisions for the creation of a corporation or a government with legal status. Rather, the document is a deed of conveyance from Warwick to certain "Lords and Gentlemen" (including Lord Saye and Sele and Lord Brooke, for whom Saybrook was named) for "All that part of New England in America which lies and extends itselfe from a River there called Narraghensett River … to the South Sea."

Although Warwick’s conveyance to the "Lords and Gentlemen" should have been covered by an actual grant or patent from the Council for New England, it remains unclear even today whether Warwick actually had title to the land described or the authority to transfer it to the "Lords and Gentlemen." Frank Thistlethwaite notes in Dorset Pilgrims that "there is doubt whether the patent was ever properly executed (p. 23)." R. V. Coleman indicates that Warwick’s conveyance "rested on no evident title to the land granted (p. 9)" and that although on June 21, 1632 the secretary of the Council for New England was "instructed to bring in a ‘rough draught’ of a patent to Warwick (p. 10)," there is "no evidence that such a patent passed, and much that it did not (p. 11)." Further, even Warwick’s deed to the "Lords and Gentlemen" had what Coleman terms "a very shadowy existence (p. 9)." Richard S. Dunn goes so far as to state that the "Warwick patent of 1632 has never since been seen, and was probably a fiction (p. 74)." Recent scholarship by English historian Christopher Thompson makes a compelling argument for the Old Patent's authenticity. His paper "The 'Old Patent' of Connecticut Re-Considered" can be read in Volume 50, Number II (Fall 2011) of "Connecticut History Review" the Journal of the Association for the Study of Connecticut History.

In 1660, following the restoration of Charles II to the throne, Connecticut’s leaders felt it necessary to justify the colony’s legal status. They were in an awkward position, as Connecticut did not have a charter from the Crown. The basis of Connecticut’s government was derived from a March 3, 1635/6 commission from the Massachusetts Bay Colony authorizing groups from that colony to settle in Connecticut, and its claims to land were largely based on the "Patent," a copy of which they were unable to locate. In 1661, Governor Winthrop was sent to England with instructions from the General Court to use "all due meanes to procure a Coppy of the Patent"or to secure a new patent with "al ye rights, provilidges, authority and imunities that are granted in ye Massachuset Colonyes Pattent."

Winthrop returned to Connecticut with a document which he termed the "copye of the Patent for Connecticutt / being ye copy of that copy wch was shewed/ to ye people there by Mr. Georg Fenwick." However, Governor Winthrop was also able to secure a document with more substantive legal status, the famous Charter of 1662 which not only incorporated but extended the territory described in the "copye of the Patent," providing Connecticut with boundaries extending from the Narragansett River to the South Sea (Pacific Ocean).

The historical significance of the "Warwick Patent" is not what it actually provided but what Connecticut’s early leaders believed or claimed it provided. In 1635, the "Warwick Patent" was used to justify the establishment of a colony and the erection of a fort at Saybrook, a claim to lands in Matianuck (later Windsor, Connecticut) by a party led by Francis Stiles, and the establishment of John Winthrop, Jr. as the "governor of the river Connecticut." The "Patent" was subsequently invoked to help legitimize Connecticut’s legal status. By 1662, what John Winthrop, Jr. described as the lost "Originall Pattent" but which historian R.V. Coleman calls "the non-existent Warwick title, grown to limits probably unthought-of in 1632 (p. 53)" was used to help secure the Charter providing legal bounds and a basis for government that lasted until the Constitution of 1818. Even after the Charter was obtained, the "Old Patent" was cited to support Connecticut’s position in boundary disputes with neighboring colonies.

Connecticut State Library | 231 Capitol Avenue, Hartford, CT 06106 | 860-757-6500 * Toll-free 866-886-4478
Disclaimers & Permissions | Privacy Policy | State of Connecticut Home Page

The State of Connecticut is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer and strongly encourages the applications of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities.