Freedom (Association)

Freedom (Association)



What does our Freedom really mean?  It is a subject of liberty and tradition, but how does it relate to present society.  Are we describing a situation, a movement, an archaic institution or perhaps an inclusion into a social club?  In terms of a freemen’s association (guild, court leet etc) it can be more easily understood by recognition of its original purpose and meaning.

  • Freedom is the liberty to exercise a right (while acting responsibly)
  • Freemen have a prerogative to exercise their exclusive right (possessors of that right as a borough freeman).  This is normally an inherited right.  Alternatively there are those freedoms honourably bestowed (including the freedom of a guild, livery company or a court leet).
  • Honorary freedom (as individuals) however, will not normally carry any rights as such.
  • Freedom is a customary folkright that anciently results through the traditional common law, sectioned into the divisional law of Chancery (the law of conscience).

This is an area of English law that includes the regulation of Common Lands and the rules governing Copyright (intellectual property).  It also protects the estates of the vulnerable such as the mentally impaired.

Customs through the ages have been modified or overruled by statutory acts of Parliament, even so and perhaps fortunately, freedom (with responsibility for fair actions and practice) has been safeguarded as the personal property of the freemen.

The Freemen’s Gild/Guild

  • An institution principled on equity, loyalty and friendship – ‘Common amity’
  • A commonality based on collateral responsibility and benefit – ‘Scot and lot’
  • Originating from man’s basic instinct for group security – ‘Protection’
  • Brotherly origins associated with religious fellowship – ‘Fraternity’
  • Protective support and prominent voice by association – ‘Representative’
  • A counter to the powers of the aristocracy – ‘Emancipation’
  • Group insurance and support in needs of poverty, health or funerals – ‘Welfare’
  • Camaraderie and social enjoyment – ‘Companionship’
  • Education and training – ‘Apprenticeship’
  • Quality and regulation control – ‘Compliance’

The following provides some historical background to the customary practices of Freedom: –

Freedom of the Borough

The medieval term freeman traditionally meant someone who was not the property of a feudal lord, but enjoyed privileges such as the right to earn money and own land.  Town dwellers (burgesses) who were protected by the charter of their town or city were often free – hence the term freedom of the Borough (town or city).

Freemen of the Borough

Freemen claim their rights (to participate in customs) through patrimony or apprenticeship.  Once ‘sworn-in’ a freeman may join a gild/guild of freemen who continue to take a participating interest in borough/town affairs.  New admissions are made from time to time at a ceremony held by the mayor.  Likewise a similar such ceremony and an oath taking may admit a new freeman into a Gild Merchant and or into a specific trade/craft gild.  This will often follow the line of a family patronage.

NB There is much more on borough freedom and the gilds within this website.

In conjunction with the systems and role of Borough Freedom are various tribunal courts.

The Court Leet  (Court of Records)

This is a manorial court of civil jurisdiction.  It dates back to the Norman period from which it gets its title Leet from litte (Norman French) meaning list.  The Court activities succeeded the Saxon Doomsmen who maintained similar recordings of the function and proceedings of the manor.

All manors had a Court Baron (a lesser court) to deal with everyday functions, meeting regularly every month.  The activities and importance of a manor court would vary with the size of a manor from a town down to a lowly populated hamlet.

The court had a jury selected from among the leading tenants.  All villeins were required to attend court, although the free tenants were not under such a firm command.  Major functions of the Court were, the resolution of disputes; to record any land transactions; to implement customs*; control charges and to generally regulate the rights and practices of the manor.

Most important in these court proceedings is an understanding of its ‘exercise of the view of frankpledge’ and attendant jurisdiction.  Frankpledge or frith-borh meaning ‘peace-pledge’ is the system of shared responsibility among persons connected with the manor.  This system began in Anglo-Saxon society and is translated in the form of an elected jury from within the freehold tenants of the manor. Bondsmen were unable to give an oath.

*Custumal of a Manor

Here is some typical (modern) wording of a custumal as applied to the Alcester Court Leet:

“To enquire regularly and periodically into the proper condition of watercourses, roads, paths, and ditches; to guard against all manner of encroachments upon public rights, whether by unlawful enclosure or otherwise; to preserve landmarks, to keep watch and ward in the town, and overlook the common lands, adjust the rights over them, and restraining in any case their excessive exercise, as in the pasturage of cattle; to guard against the adulteration of food, to inspect weights and measures, to look in general to the morals of the people, and to find a remedy for each social ill and inconvenience.  To take cognisance of grosser crimes of assault, arson, burglary, larceny, manslaughter, murder, treason, and every felony at common law.”

Heading the Court would normally be the Steward who is representing the lord of the manor.  A Bailiff is responsible for summoning and administering the court proceedings.  In most cases there will be an elected constable to ensure law and order; an ale taster; carnister to check meat and poultry; bread weighers; a searcher of leather and a Hayward responsible for the common enclosures.  Another officer would be responsible for the assessment of amercements (penalty fines).  Other Court appointments may include the mace or sword bearer and the office of the Town Crier.

Several Court Leets remain today even though their legal criminal jurisdiction was abolished by section 23 of the Administration of Justice Act 1977.

Please see Northleach Court Leet for more details.

Manorial Tenure (Background)

Under the Normans all land was property of the sovereign.  Land was allotted in the form of manors to tenants.  The tenant ‘in chief’ was ‘lord of the manor’.  Sub tenants at first and second levels owed payment either in duty, goods or physical work.  Tenure would be for lifetime and could also include dependants.  Alternatively some land could be held ‘by right’ as freehold and was not governed by will of the manor lord.  Such properties were ‘fee simple’ estates usually resulting from a service to the over lord.

Normally the ‘occupiers of the manor’ held their properties by an early form of leasehold known as copyhold tenure, this traditional method derived from feudal law that determined the tenant’s rights on the court rolls (copyhold).  Surveys, maps and terriers were also among the manorial documents generated by the administration of the manor.  Heriots were a customary arrangement paid out to the lord on the death of a tenant, usually the best cow or horse, or some other valuable item.  Under the ‘Law of Property Act 1922, all copyhold land was converted into freehold tenural land.

  1. The villeins (customary tenants) typically had farms of approximately thirty acres (in strips in the ‘open fields’) and access to the common waste of the manor. For further information of typical manorial life, please see Highleadon Enclosures and Ledene a Saxon Estate.



Freemen's Court (Henley in Arden Guildhall)
Freemen’s Court (Henley in Arden Guildhall)

Freemen? and Court Leets (Analysis)

There is some controversy over the classification of ‘freemen’ as a description of members of a court leet or baron.  It is recognised that instances where a Court Leet regulates ‘borough’ (gilded) freemen listed on a regular ‘Freemen’s Roll’ (an ancient continuum) there should be no dispute.  However, where a reformed manorial court leet has constituted a roll of ‘self elected’ members – these may be regarded as ‘unauthorised’.

It would appear that some court leets refer to their members as freemen on the basis that they have ‘adopted’ a continuum from ancient charters, in the belief that this authorises their members as ‘freemen’.

Firstly, there may be confusion over membership of ‘freeholders’ (a basic requirement for officers of a court leet).  And or, with references in a charter to ‘burgesses’ (in a past context) being reinterpreted to apply as ‘freemen’ today.  Secondly, it should be understood that any authority drawn from charters may no longer be viable and that most, if not all have been repealed and finally concluded under the Charities Act, 2011.

Clearly application of the expression ‘freemen’ should not be used by the members of any such ‘self electing’ court leets.

Freedom is a dynamic legacy and F.E.W was set up, not just as a representative and protective body but also, as an institution to educate.  Its purpose has been to perpetuate the traditions of borough customs in an authentic and responsible way, for the benefit of future generations.

‘Dynamic’ may well represent progress but it cannot imply an arbitrary creation of freedom.  The performance of ceremonial play-acting will not provide authority relating to Freedom.  ‘Authentic freedom’ can only be (customarily) bestowed by a legally recognised Mayor with the backing of their elected council.  ‘The Common Council’ makes an exception in London.

Freedom as defined by the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act subsequently permitted the continuity of both title and ownership of property and pasturage rights of the burgesses of provincial municipal boroughs in England and Wales.  Freemen from 1835 onwards are to be directly descended from the burgesses (listed on the burgess roll) of each town by way of patrimony, marriage or apprenticeship.  And allowing only the statutory exception of London.

Honorary freedom is recognised as a qualifying factor in membership of FEW but does not constitute an equal status.  Such freedom does not normally carry any individual/personal rights.  Qualifying members of the FEW Association have been primarily hereditary freemen and those that have entered gilds via apprenticeship.  A qualifying exception has included freemen of the City of London.  The foundation and constitution of the Association was formed to protect the traditions of hereditary freemen and the image of their guilds.  Conformation is a strict requirement of membership.  Any form of self-selecting club membership cannot authenticate proper ‘freedom’.

In support of Court Leets in general, I have no objection whatsoever that they be ‘associated’ with our organisation.  However, I find it very difficult to accept or agree with any description of ‘freemen’ when applied to such groups.  I admire the enthusiasm that many of their members display in relating the historical traditions of their manor.  Clearly Court Leets provide ceremonial entertainment and thereby accumulate sums for charitable funds to support guildhalls and added civic assistance in various ways.

In the past Court Leets and Baron based all towns on the manorial principals of regulation and it is likely that several borough guilds operate similar forms of court regulations in their proceedings today.

Creation of the Boroughs (Background)

Historically there were 609 boroughs.  Of these 66 were Anglo-Saxon plus an additional 52 that appeared on the Doomsday records.  A further 96 were created by 1200, then 135 more between 1201 and 1250, another 126 between 1251 and 1300 and 98 between 1301 and 1500.

Gild (Guild) Merchant (Trade)

From the 12th century the body of gild merchant governed municipal administration.  Chartered trading privileges controlled a town’s commerce.  These towns were empowered to charge fees and taxes (such was a mercate-town).

In England in 1835 there were 160 Royal boroughs, 143 Ecclesiastical boroughs and 232 Lay Seigniorial boroughs.  The Municipal Corporation Act, 1835, reformed local government in England and Wales.  The Act reformed 178 boroughs.  There remained more than 100 ‘unreformed’ boroughs that generally fell into desuetude (disuse) or were replaced later under the terms of the Act.  The last of these was not reformed or abolished until 1886.  The Act did not extend to the City of London (which remains unique).

Unincorporated towns could petition for incorporation and 62 additional boroughs were eventually incorporated.  The 1835 Act was repealed by the Municipal Corporations Act, 1882/3 that allowed more powers of administration and self-funding.  The Municipal Corporations Act 1883 finally abolished any unreformed borough corporation that had not obtained a new charter under the 1882 legislation.

Honorary Freedom.

An Act of 1885 gave municipal boroughs the power to award ‘honorary freedom’.  This Act was repealed by the Local Government Act 1933.  Eventually this was replaced by the Local Government Act 1972 that took effect in 1974.  NB honorary freedom does not carry with it any special individual/personal rights and it cannot be passed on.

The 1835 Municipal Reform Act (and consequent Acts) clearly state that freedom (freemen) cannot be created by gift or by purchase (with the exception of London) from that date.


Freedom can only be conferred by an inherited right (patrimony), or by marriage (according to custom) or by apprenticeship (servitude).  Honorary freedom is bestowed by the prerogative of an authorised local authority and it does not have the same standing as ‘rightful’ freedom.  With the exception of the City of London arrangements any other form of determination would be invalid and the application or assumed term ‘freeman’ cannot be applied.  To use an expression such as “I am a freeman of X Court Leet” would almost certainly be a false premise.  As would be to say ”I am a freeman of England or Wales” without attributing it to a recognised borough/town/city authority.

AS, April 2017

A Caveat to the classification of Freedom

The records of old towns and boroughs after 1066 indicate great diversity and there is much uncertainty in the use of the word “burgus”.  It is an uncertainty that creates an obstacle in discussing the early history of any so-called borough and it is almost impossible to accurately determine the lowest forms of privilege or ranking.

In many areas a misunderstanding of the expression ‘free burgess’ has occurred.  It has been widely used to generally describe townsmen, particularly of old market towns.  It will not, in all instances mean freeman or that ‘freemen’ were automatically burgesses.

From Court Rolls, it is clear that all freemen were not ipso facto burgesses; for the right to act as a burgess was specially granted by the lord in his court.  Study of the admissions of burgesses indicate that they were solely concerned with trading privileges.  For example at Burford in Oxfordshire in 1313, Henry Alured gave a fine of half a mark to the lord to have a share in the Town liberties, “that he might hold a stall [ut sit stalagiarius] following ancient custom”.

Traders would seek privilege as “Mercator” paying a fine to be admitted.  The fine may be arbitrary from 12d to half a mark.  The bailiffs of the borough were ordered to account, to the lord of the borough, the pleas of the market court.  Much of the borough court proceedings were concerned with the transfer of land (held by money and not by services) and the lord took a fine when tenements and lands changed hands.  All encroachments by free tenants were fined.

All unfree tenants owed suit of court.  Free tenants could be summoned to attend by the messor (beadle).  At the ‘general’ (Leet) court, held in November, all burgesses are summoned to elect the capital pledges (head-boroughs) “per advisamentum et corum discrecionem”.

It is not clear that the early burgesses developed any consciousness of their status as a corporate body before the Middle Ages.  Separate dues were still being paid to the overlord for market farm in many cases up until the early 15th century, while the burgesses were in control of their trade by means of the bailiffs in the market courts.  Dues to the overlord included new land, stalls for market, rent of the mill etc.

The all important burghal qualification.  Seignorial boroughs (where the local lord had given a town self-governing independence) did not have full corporate identity until they received Royal chartered approval.  Recognition through a Charter was also most important in order to maintain the freedom of the Gilds.  The Charters were necessarily reconfirmed from time to time by their new overlords.

NB  While ‘Burgess’ (or burgher in Europe) originally referred to freemen of a borough, it came also to mean an ‘official’ (MP) of a municipality, representing the borough town at the House of Commons.

For further Clarification of non borough ‘Freemen’ click below:

Freedmen of the Danelaw (East Anglia)

Domesday Book indicates a very much larger number of freemen in the post Danish territories than in the ‘English’ areas of England and Wales.  The recording of Socmen in East Anglian counties clearly indicates much greater numbers of freemen than elsewhere.

Socmen or Sokemen were the ‘freedmen’ of the Danish lands of the Danegeld.  In my view they appear to have inherited their rights as ‘followers’ and as a result of their loyalties to their Danish leaders.  It seems that they ranked above the other villain classes of tenancy.

The Sokemen (not exactly tenants) paid rent but were free of labouring duties to a lord and had a say in the operations of the manor.  They were a component in law and court procedures.  It would also appear that in their sokelands they held (Landgafol) as ‘geneats’ and paid gafolgelda.  They were taxed similarly to gebur tenant farmers.  The gafolland was outside the mesne and formed a tributary of the wider estate (and was taxable).

Sokemen were a class above the villain peasantry.  Rent and Taxes (Retitudines) including morals/duties and customs were as follows: Landgafol was payable by the geneat.  The cotsetla need not pay landgafol (cottagers held no rights).  Gafolpeningas was the fine payable by the gebur.  The gafolyroe was a defined requirement that the gebur ploughs three acres with seed sown from his own barn.  The gebur may pay gafol in honey, food or ale depending on estate custom.  The gafolswane was the swineherd’s fine subject to gafol.

In those times the gebur or geneat were the highest tenant class (holding geneat land of usually about 20 acres yardland.  The freelands were farmed in common by the sokemen outside of the mesne land

It has been, and still is, the considered opinion of many that the freemen sokemen who figure so prominently in the Domesday survey of northern and eastern counties of England were descendants of the rank-and-file of the Danish armies of the ninth century.  Free socage appears to have been absolutely unknown elsewhere, except among the Danes.  There was a remarkable congestion of small farming ‘freemen’ in the Danish districts.

As I have said many times, the Danish ethos of democracy today is a relic of their distant past and it can be clearly recognised in their approaches to freedom and fairness of government.

Comments are closed.