Freemen of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Armorial bearings of the Incorporated Companies
Armorial bearings of the Incorporated Companies

The following article was placed in the ‘City of London & Dockland Times’ 20 March 1991.  Produced by my very good friend and collaborator, Raymond C. Jorden (dec) former learned Clerk to our livery, the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths.  This article was published in support of my office at that time as Deputy President of the Freemen of England & Wales.

Guilds of Freemen in the major Cities of England

Links between London and the Cities of England through Freemen
By Special Correspondent

The Guild of Freemen of the City of London is well known in the Capital; the Association of Freemen of England and Wales is less well-known in London but is better known throughout the major cities of the country.

Where do they fit in or co-relate one with the other and how many liverymen in London are aware that their Arms of which they themselves are so proud, are as well known in Chester, York, Newcastle and many other of our historic cities?

On a recent visit to Newcastle where Freemen have a strong following, it was apparent that they are a force to be reckoned with.  Thanks to their efforts the large open area in the centre of Newcastle, which is bounded by main roads filled with heavy traffic and known as The Town Moor, has not been taken over by the developers.  Freemen are still permitted to graze cattle there – and still do!

In 1972 the Freemen of the Guilds of Newcastle decided to form “The Gild of Freemen of the City of Newcastle-upon-Tyne” to bring into active participation those Freemen who are still barred from membership of certain Companies by reason of their forebears not being “Company Keepers”.

In the Guildhall they maintain the old Magistrates Court, which is combined with the Banqueting Hall (to seat less than one hundred people).  The Banqueting Hall Ceiling consists of ten panels of Abura timber ribs interspersed between the windows, with red hide lined recesses, from which are suspended eight crystal chandeliers.  The design of the ceiling contributed to a strong affinity with the traditional character of Northumbria’s baronial halls.

The ceiling to the Banqueting Hall has been further enriched by the inclusion of the Armorial Bearings in heraldic colours of the Incorporated Companies of Freemen of the City and County of Newcastle upon Tyne.  The origin of the Companies of Freemen is lost in the mists of history prior to the Norman Conquest, but in 1215 King John granted a Charter to the Society of Free Merchants, whilst various other trades and crafts were organised into Guilds in 1342.  These craft Guilds of the Middle Ages were in effect the equivalent of the modern Trade Unions and the members agreed in and controlled conditions of labour, standards of work, admission to the trade after apprenticeship and kindred matters.

Of these Guilds or Companies the Arms of 48 are known and displayed on roundels attached to the transverse timber ribs forming a dominant part of the ceiling to the Hall.  These 48 Arms are shown in the illustration accompanying this article.

The interesting thing to note is the date under the Arms, some of which will date before the Livery Company was formed in London.  No doubt investigation will unravel how this has happened, but it is cause for thought.  How many Companies knew of the existence of these Guilds and have they any link with them in the various cities?

The Arms numbered 1-14 were Companies called Mysteries.
The Arms numbered 15-32 were Companies with By-Trades.
The Arms numbered 33-41 were Companies not of By-Trades.
The Arms numbered 42-48 were extinct even in 1789! and included the seal of the Hostmen who had no Grant of Arms.

In the years of Elizabeth I the Freemen were charged with the proper Government of the City and in Newcastle to this day all new Freemen are sworn before the Lord Mayor to defend the City.  All new Freemen cannot buy their way in to the Freedom – it is only handed down through Patrimony.

This means of course that many of the Guilds have died and of the 48 shown with Arms only 28 of them survive.  The two remaining links with the past are in the Blackfriars area of Newcastle where many of the Guilds had their Halls.  The only two remaining are the Cordwainers’ and the Blacksmiths’.  The former no longer exists as a Hall but has converted to form part of a museum although the Arms are there for all to see, carved in the masonry over the original door.  The Blacksmiths’ Hall similarly has the Arms over the door and various other plaques showing the number of times it has been renovated since it was built in 1679.  The inside still has the original Court and displays the Arms of that Company throughout.  It is now called the Freemens’ Court and is used as a meeting of Stewards of the various Companies remaining.

There is a lot more to tell and someone must be more knowledgeable than this reporter.  The Freemen have had the strength in the past and with the way things are going today they should acquire more strength for the future.  It can only be obtained by knowing about our past and building on it.  We in London are not as insular as we may think – there is a big wide world in tradition out there and most of us know nothing about it.

RCJ, March 1991

Ps Note a distant link of some interest in common between Newcastle and Sudbury Freemen is that their shared Lord, prior to the Norman Conquest was Morcar, Earl of Northumbria, brother of Edwin, Earl of Mercia and son of Ælfgar.
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