Borough Freemen

Borough Freemen

York Guildhall
York Guildhall

‘Borough Freemen’ describes a representative body of individuals connected with historic ‘borough’ towns.  Also known as ‘free burgesses’ in reference to the burgage properties that once made up the old boroughs.

Up until 1835 (Municipal Corporations Act) and the establishment of elected Councils, towns and cities were governed by Corporations of Freemen.

Borough Freemen have a proud history as descendants of artisan tradesmen.  Their forebears were mercantile businessmen that formed the backbone of the British economy.

A freeman is a description of the individual man or woman who is credited by birthright or having been bestowed with the ‘freedom’ of a given place or organisation.  Freemen are sometimes to be recognised wearing colourful robes that represent their community or guild (association of artisans or merchants).

Please read further to gain a better understanding of the background leading to the ‘freedom’ and the guilds of today.

‘Freedom’ is, in itself, a consequence of the Anglo-Saxon culture of ‘kinship’ and is based upon folkright.  Tribal in origin, it is the birthright of those born free.  At maturity a youth ceremoniously received his freedom.  With their freedom came certain duties and responsibilities.  An un-free serf was able to obtain freedom through service, purchase or by residence following an agreement by an authority.

A Borough

The early boroughs were small towns that had expanded from the 9th and 10th century defensive forts constructed against Viking attacks.  As they became enlarged as safe havens to a local populace they would develop markets, tradesmen/craftsmen and a mint and became in effect independent lordships.  The denizens had certain rights and civic duties within the feudal system.  As individuals they were generally ‘free’ of manorial obligations.  In fact they could exercise what were effectually the manorial rights of a ‘lord’.

The early members of a borough or burh were the burgesses (burh members) who were ‘freemen’ that dispensed the local justice.  The customary law developed from the early Anglo-Saxon procedure of the frið-borh.  This was the ‘peace-oath’, which required all freemen (members of the society) to pledge by oath to uphold the peace of the realm.  They did this by binding each other in mutual cognisance, usually in an assembly of a tenth part, a tything of a hundred (subdivision of a shire with a taxable value of a hundred hides).  This procedure prefigured in King Alfred’s law codes by arrangement of the gegilden (that eventually became the tenth century frith guilds.

Gegilden was an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘to pay’ the guilds set up to regulate standards.  It also has the narrower meaning of illegal distraint.  Gegilda = membership of the gild. This word is found in the code laws of Kings’ Ine and Alfred.  Gegilden members together pay the wergeld [the value placed on every human being and piece of property].  The wergeld was applied to value compensation to be paid when a man was killed.

Frith guilds (gilds) of the tenth century = frith a word meaning peace (freedom).  Friðu (Scandinavian fred or frid).  Fred = state of no war and frid was a state of no disturbance.  Frid-silver was a term applied in the Middle Ages for feudal payments.  Frith was also used as an expression of fealty (relationship between a lord and his people)’ We can see that the term ‘frith’ in Old English had the meaning of ‘friend and free’.  The frith guilds became religious gatherings that would lead to the more specialist ‘craft and trades guilds’ of more modern times.

Christianity, Danelaw and the Burghal System

In the period we call the ‘dark-ages’, after 407 AD when the Roman soldiers had left Britain, Christianity was initially fairly widespread.  The subsequent influence by the influx of Angles, Saxons and Jutes over the next century or so meant that Christianity gave way to Paganism.  The Augustine mission in 597 from Rome to King Æthelbert of Kent set the re-emergence of Christianity on a large scale.  King Edwin of Northumbria was baptised in 627 but only a relatively short while later in 632 he was killed in battle at Hatfield and the kingdom reverted to paganism.  However there were isolated, deeply religious communities such as at the Lindisfarne Priory, which was targeted for its wealth and sacked by Vikings in 793.

A further sacking of Lindisfarne by the Vikings in 871 marked a concerted attack and plundering of the churches and monasteries.  Spasmodic raids eventually developed into large-scale Viking invasions. In 865 after many coastal attacks by Viking parties, England saw the first Viking settlers.  Danish brothers Halfdan Ragnarsson and Ivor the Boneless spent winter in East Anglia and within five years had taken over Northumbria and all of East Anglia.  They took Nottingham from Mercia in return for leaving Mercia in peace.  Even so, by the end of 874 they had taken command of all of Mercia.

The Danish leader Guthrum invaded Wessex in 876 but was later forced back into Mercia.  When he unsuccessfully attacked again (battle of Edington in 878) he was forced to come to terms with King Alfred.  The “Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum”, 888 agreed a settlement defining boundaries of their kingdoms.  It was also agreed that the whole country should be Christian and that Guthrum would be baptised and adopt the Christian faith.  Guthrum was then christened Æthelstan, King of the Danes in the Danelaw, he died c 890.

England was made up of seven major Anglo-Saxon regions known later as ‘the Heptachy’ comprising the seven kingdoms of East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex.  Each kingdom had an army and they each had their own rules, customs and traditions.

The Danelaw

The Danelaw is the historical name given to the areas of England subject to Danish rather than Mercian or West Saxon law.  In 876 part of a great army of the Danish Vikings settled to become farmers.  This was followed similarly in 885 by another great invasion of settlers.  The ‘Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum in 888 clearly defined territories.  Danelaw amounted to cover approximately 15 counties including Yorkshire, the ‘Five Boroughs’ of Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Stamford and Lincoln.  It included Essex, East Anglia (Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk) the East Midlands (Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Middlesex and Buckinghamshire).  In total the area amounted to more than a third of all England.

It was recognised that the Danish areas had distinctive customary laws that differed from those of the West Saxons and Mercian laws in the west.  In the Danish areas the language changed for the assessment of military service and taxation.  The common measures, the Hundred, hide and virgate of the south and west became the Wapentake, carucute and bovate of the north and east.

The peasant classes appear to have had much greater liberty in the areas under the Danelaw.  Not only were there more sokemen (a class of personally free peasant attached to a lord rather than to the land) and liberi hominess than elsewhere, but there were also fewer bondari, cotteri and slaves in the Danelaw.  In other ways much of the legal system and concepts were the same as that in the English territories.  Danelaw continued to appear within legislation until as late as the twelfth century with the Henrici Prime.

Freemen met at the ‘Thing’ (Viking assembly) in the open air to settle problems, land settlements, animals and the punishment of crimes.  Revenge could lead to ‘blood money’.  Weregild or wergeld was a value placed on every human being and every piece of property – criminal guilt would be met by restitution payment of wergeld to the victim’s family.  Alternatively blood revenge was a life for a life.  Viking laws and customs had been passed down generations by word of mouth.  Family loyalty was paramount.  Women were important a wife would keep the family valuables, run the home and the farm when a husband was trading or fighting.

Danegeld was the Danish taxation paid as a tribute to Viking raiders to save land and property from being ravaged.  It was also a stipendiary to the defensive forces.  A payment of 10,000 Roman pounds (in silver) was made in 991 following the Viking victory at the Battle of Maldon.

In the Danelaw people spoke the same and lived much the same as in Scandinavia.  Danish and English terms were interchangeable.  The languages of Old East Norse and Old English were mutually comprehensive.  The Danish place names ending howe refer to village and those ending thorp mean hamlet.  Names ending ‘by’ such as Kirby or Kirkby are typically of Norse origin.

Danish influence over England later continued under the Danish Kings of England, with Sweyn Forkbeard from 1013 to 1014, the son of Harold Bluetooth King of Denmark whom he succeeded around 986.  Sweyn successfully invaded England and wrested the kingdom from Ethelred II.  Followed by Canute the Great 1016-1035, younger son of Sweyn who was chosen king by the Danish fleet on Sweyn’s death.  At first he secured Mercia and the ‘Danelaw’ and was crowned Jan. 1017.  In 1019, on the death of his brother he also became King of Denmark (his ‘North Sea Empire’ included Norway and part of Sweden).  His sons Harold and Hardicanute ruled England in turn, until 1042 when the throne reverted to the English monarch Edward the Confessor.  A strong Danish influence remained well beyond the Norman Conquest

The English Burghal (Borough) System

The burghality really began under Edward the Elder (King Alfred’s son) and his sister Æthelfræd ‘the Lady of the Mercians’ as they regained the Danish territories in a series of campaigns in the 910s when some of the Danish Jarls, who submitted, were allowed to retain rule over specific lands.  Viking rule virtually ended when Eric Bloodaxe was driven from Northumbria in 954.

Small towns, termed burhs or burghs (boroughs) were fortified to defend the populations that surrounded them.  The earliest uses of the word burgagium refer to the rights of the borough in general.  In the mid-twelfth century the term was used as a reference to a tenement.  The ‘Burghal Hidage’ was a military list of the burghs.  Many burghs (civil defences) were eventually founded amounting to more than 610 and stretching well after the Norman Conquest and into the 13th century.  Occupants of the burgages were the burgesses that we now call the borough ‘Freemen’.

The Anglo/Danish Boroughs and the Feudal System

The initial 36 burghs of the Wessex ‘Burghal Hide’ quickly grew in numbers to meet the central defences required for military purposes under the feudal system.  Domesday Book usefully uses the terms borough or port to clearly determine the burghality.  Likewise the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles provide detail where required.  A small number of burhs referred to in the Chronicles will refer to temporary places of refuge as forts (never reaching borough status) in times of trouble.  Where ‘port’ is mentioned this is more indicative of a market town.  Other expressions include burgus, burgagium and burgensis.

In Athelstan’s (924-939) Laws there is clear information of particular towns, their inhabitants, rights and dues.  They recognise the new class of inhabitant in a community of burgesses and townsmen.  In Anglo-Saxon society each person had his or her place and social status.  The Danish Vikings had two attributes, skill in attacking and the building of fortifications (each for employment as a centre) and that they were born traders who extended their commerce over much of Europe.  The line between trading and piracy (opportunism) was a narrow one.

Edward the Elder’s burghs were typically created on a large area (20 acres plus) enclosed with a ditch, an earthen rampart and a stockade, normally cut by four gates.  Danish centres, created or recreated for Guthrum, included Norwich, Colchester, Ipswich, London and probably Thetford.

After the Norman Conquest, the chief instruments of the king’s government were the shire reeves (who became Sheriffs) with advanced powers and duties.  They collected the taxes and fee ferms of the borough towns.  They also controlled the considerable income from the profits of justice along with their military responsibilities for the Shire in general.

At Domesday the county towns were quite small, Gloucester, Chester or Leicester were only equal to other market towns of 3,000 to 4,000 people.  An ongoing law of Edward the Elder required that all buying and selling must take place before a portreeve in a port (trading centre).  The port-reeve was of course a fully authorised representative of the King.

In addition to land outside a town being owned by individual burgesses the town itself would also own a further large amount.  Some towns such as Colchester, York, Exeter and Cambridge had a great amount while others, such as Oxford, Maldon and Dorchester, had very little.

Although the towns that started as burhs (for military purposes) were at first a liability to the Crown, they eventually became considerable financial assets to the King.  Quite early in their history, the majority of the Royal towns obtained the right to their own borough court – at first presided over by the king’s representative the Port-reeve.

Anglo-Saxon society was strongly aristocratic and the agricultural population was organised to support the monarchy and nobility both lay and clerical.  Caste nobility, the eorleund, had been present in the Germanic tribes that settled Britain in the fifth century and it appeared again in the Scandinavian occupation in the ninth century.  Thegns were in origin servants, who owed personal and military service.  At one end of the scale were men who possessed estates even in several shires acquired through generations of royal service.  At the other were men indistinguishable from land holding freemen except by rank.  Ordinary freemen could rise to thegnage in royal service and even a merchant who ventured thrice across the North Sea using his own capital could acquire the rank with its privileges.  Above the thegns were the eorls.  Their number was small in the eleventh century and their estates vast.  Their position was almost hereditary – but they remained servants of the king.  From the King came grants of almost everything.

The monarch was the ruler who owned the nation; this was the essential feature of feudalism.  In this basic institution two independent strands were joined, a personal bond between two free men – a superior (lord) and an inferior (vassal).  Land tenure was by a vassal holding a benefice of his lord.  His lord thereby protects the vassal.  Thegn and cniht were of similar meaning and the Celtic gwas as vassus (Latin vassal).  Solemn contracts and swearing of fealty would oblige a man to serve and obey his lord while the lord would be obliged to protect and maintain the man in return.

The founders of the boroughs came under three categories of royal lay seigniorial and ecclesiastical.  Royal includes queens and princes but not earls (or dukes) of Cornwall, Chester and Lancaster before the union of these estates with the Crown.  Ecclesiastical takes in monastic houses and the estates of archbishops, bishops and cathedral chapters.  A small group (around 3%) had joint founders.

A common denominator of boroughs was the possession of burgage tenure.  Free tenure, distinct from the mass of villein tenures, marked out the burgess from the non-burgess as the name burgage marked out his place of living and work from the tofts and crofts, the messuages and cartilages of unprivileged contemporaries.  The grant of burgage tenure was the basis of the economic fortunes of the majority of English medieval towns.

The national ‘Feudal System’ of vassal and superior where the former held land of the latter on condition of homage, military service or labour began to break down during the thirteenth century – even though ‘Feudal Tenure’ was not abolished before 1666.  A ‘fief’ was an area of land held by grant (usually on condition of military service).

The English towns of the eleventh century were rudimentary and formless compared with the self governing, privileged urban republics of the high Middle Ages.  But the towns of most importance under Edward the Confessor were still pre-eminent under Edward I and the reasons that had made them great in the eleventh century were those that made them even greater with time.  Foreign trade enhanced a lively internal market transforming the more favourably situated Anglo-Danish boroughs into urban trading communities.

Complete feudalisation under the Normans unified and simplified the land law.  All free holdings were assimilated to the fief.  The great fiefs created by William for his more important vassals out of the confiscated estates of the ‘traitor’ thegns were all held by military service (even those by the bishops and abbots).

The logic and symmetry of Anglo-Norman feudalism were due to its imposition on a conquered country by a strong king.  William made sure he was unassailable.  Feudal tenure provided the king with a garrison for his castles and a field force when required.

While villains were rightless, free socmen were customary freeholders who had obtained their position by traditions of free stock and possession without grant and feoffment.

Freedom and Privilege

Freedom is a condition and a status, meaning not bound nor constrained but at liberty to operate freely.  For us freemen it is a commodity that has carried with it privilege.

The term ‘freeman’ meaning someone, who enjoys particular privileges, is of very ancient origin.  In Anglo-Saxon and early medieval times the population of England and Wales consisted of the nobility, freemen and serfs.  The country was divided up into estates and manors held under the crown by a lord of the manor, or by an abbey or priory, and it was income from the manors that the nobility and the church derived much of their wealth.

An intrinsic part of the villages and hamlets on a manor were those inhabitants known variously as serfs, bondsmen, villeins, thralls or peasants.  Although slavery was prohibited, and the buying of medieval serfs was illegal, if the manor changed hands the serfs went with it as part of the goods and chattels.  The burden of serfdom could be benign or tyrannical and varied considerably from manor to manor according to local custom and lord.  In principle a serf owned nothing, could do nothing and go nowhere except with the consent of his feudal lord.

Serf-tenant families supported themselves by growing their food and crops on the strips of the ‘common’ fields on the manorial land and by keeping some allowed livestock in return for which they worked the land and provided duties for the lord without wages.  In addition the lord was able, by law and custom, to extract taxations in the form of selected serf crops or livestock.  At the death of a serf, the lord was entitled to the deceased best animal and a fine was paid by a serf on the marriage of his daughter.  Other taxes could be demanded at will.  There were some opportunities occasionally for a serf to earn money even working on another manor.  Such money, if saved, could buy his freedom, allowing him to rent or buy a few acres of land.  Such a ‘free man’ was little different than a tied serf, often remaining within the manor, working the lord’s land as well as his own.  As a free man he would have gained some rights and privileges and no longer be the property of the feudal lord.

Protection by Charter

Freedom from servitude could be achieved by running away from the feudal manor, usually to a town or city where the situation was more favourable.  In time, some lords realised it would be in their best interest to turn their manors into ‘free’ towns and boroughs.  The development of these towns, with fairs, markets and tolls would more than compensate the loss of serf-service and would require less administration.  Many town dwellers became ‘free’ but were subjected to taxation for the protection provided by charters.

His lord could not recapture a runaway serf who made it to a chartered town or city and stayed within its walls for a year and a day.  His status as a ‘free man’ would much depend upon local custom and charters.  In London, where it was comparatively easy to gain this form of personal freedom, it gave no right of protection.  By the 14th century, serf origins were strongly discriminated against.  It was ruled that no person born outside the City could be bound as an apprentice unless he first swore that he was the son of a free man.  A serf remained defined as the child of a man who was a serf at the time of the child’s birth.  Children born after the serf became free would be eligible for membership to an apprenticeship and to a guild.

As the serfs everywhere strove for freedom, the manorial system declined.  The Black Death severely reduced the workers remaining on the land and in 1350 only half the population of serfs were remaining on the land.  By 1600 there were no unfree serfs still working on the manors.  Of course, as copyhold tenants of a manor, all workers would have been expected to perform customary duties for their lord as a part of their tenancy, and this in return for the protection given by their lord.

Town Government

In early times Rome governed and introduced her civilization but never allowed the conquered Britons any share in government apart from local affairs.  The Romans built and laid out towns and encouraged their ways of living within them.  Those towns which were tribal centres became seats of local government and the natives were encouraged to adopt Roman habits.  Trading activities were considerable during those times.

When the Roman legions left Britain the towns were in no condition to take active measures against invaders and only their massive walls prevented their complete destruction.  For some considerable time Britain, bereft of central leadership and of trained armies could do little in defence of the invading Anglo-Saxons.  The majority of the Roman cities were abandoned.

The Anglo-Saxons built no towns in Britain until long after they had control and were comfortably settled in.  In fact it was not before the accession of King Alfred in 871 that Saxon towns and burghs were developed.  Reoccupied Roman cities were materially different under the Saxons.  The medieval towns which occupied the Roman cities were to some extent military centres and others were essentially trading places.  They were no longer centres of administration.

By the time of Athelstan (924-939) town records indicate a new class in the community, the burgess-townsman.  In early Anglo-Saxon society the social status was confined within the town’s community, often assessed on a monetary basis.  Failure to perform services due (scot and lot) or damage to another person were assessed on his wergild.  If someone was engaged in trade it would be a sideline and his position and monetary value alone determined his status in what was an agricultural community.

At the coming of the Vikings (mostly Danes) there were distinct trading towns namely the ports and the vics or wicks.  Such places as Norwich, Dunwich, Harwich, Ipswich and Sandwich were of strategic importance and it is of my opinion that this word forms the origination of ‘Viking’.  This would have been the Saxon expression for an early merchant adventurer.  The Vikings were great traders, although they were also opportunists and likely to take what they could with the least resistance, their brutality is renowned.

Fortified Saxon towns were known as burhs or burghs.  These sites were selected by Alfred’s son Edward the Elder and his sister Æthelflæda to a document known as the Burghal Hidege.  These became the Borough towns.

In Anglo-Saxon times the traditional method of settling problems of local government was in folk-moots held in Shires and Hundreds.  Customs varied considerably in different districts.  Under the Normans and the Angevin Kings every effort was made to remove provincialisms.  This altered the military importance of many towns such as York, Wallingford and Wareham.  It became the King’s peace that promoted trade.  Trade was stimulated by the new continental connections.  The feudal system introduced additional types of law court.

The creation of many baronial towns brought different methods of control from the old royal towns and included the systematic building of castles, usually sited within the towns.  Sheriffs were endowed with great powers.  Henry I had to clip their wings and Henry II extended control to itinerant justices.  Under Edward II we find central interference with trade shown by the ‘Ordinance of the Staple’ (1313) and control over the wool trade which was greatly extended by Edward III.

The complications of medieval government, central and local, continued to be confusing beyond the Tudor period.  From a much earlier law by Edward the Elder, it was required that ‘all buying and selling must take place before a portreeve in a port’.  The burh (fort) changed to a port, a trading centre.  A reeve as King’s representative changed from burhreeve, military head, to a portreeve.

Within the town the burgess would have a house and for this he paid rent to an owner of the land.  The burgesses fell into two groups, those with land and more than one house and those with only their house and dependency on trade.  Landowners would have some liability for the repair of the town walls.  Land outside the town was partially owned by individual burgesses but the majority belonged to the town as ‘common’ fields.

In the Royal towns the burgess was essentially a free man, only liable for payment for his own tenement, his trade dues and special taxes.  Quite early in their history the majority of the Royal towns obtained the right to their own borough court, but this in the first place was presided over by the Portreeve who was representative of the King, usually under the sheriff and not under the town.  A town assessment consolidated a payment required by the Crown called the fee farm of the borough (Firma Burgi).  This was usually paid through the sheriff.  The issue of town charters marked the beginnings of ‘privilege’.  Liberties and free customs formed a set of civic by-laws of the town.  These varied a good deal in their detail although there was a general uniformity in their effect.

A bailiff, as chief officer was elected yearly and charged with the defense of the town, a steward of learning was appointed to assist and give judgment in court and a town clerk was to keep the writings.  Trade was limited to free citizens and to members of the Merchants Gild.  There were regulations as to thieves and the control of trades such as bakers and brewers.  In general the ‘customs’ of the towns are confined to trade control, the appointment of officials, the setting of taxes, duties as watch and word, repair town walls and paying an amount toward the town fee farm.  With regard to the term ‘borough’, there was no legal definition available before the 1835, Municipal Corporations Act.

Freedom of the Borough

Surrounded for defence by their old town walls or by rivers and banks, the medieval cities and boroughs were insular by nature.  Their locations may determine a predominant trade.  The individuality of towns produced customs that would apply to their individual circumstances.  In most towns the procedure to gaining freedom was similar.  The majority were made free by patrimony.  On gaining maturity (designated as aged 21) young men born in the town, whose father’s were free, would take an oath to support the officials and to apply the regulations.

Freedom was required to trade or for any form of business within the town, could be purchased by a ‘foreigner’ provided they met criteria and swore an oath of obedience.  A third method of receiving freedom, to allow access to work and trade was by apprenticeship, usually of seven years, to a master craftsman.  A less formal method was that of gifted freedom.  This was intended as a method for paupers to have access to charitable funds, although it was sometimes misappropriated at election time when a lord of a manor interfered and abused the system.

Privileges enjoyed by the freemen would vary a little from town to town.  Some freemen may have had access to the facilities within the town and were free from tolls, but be prevented from access to the pastures.  Those freemen who had inherited their freedom were more likely to have the complete freedom of the town and town-lands along with a range of customary privileges.  Without doubt, the greatest of importance to a freeman was his unique ability to vote, both for the local government and for a representative in parliament.  This became a bone of contention that could and did lead to wide scale corruption.  In 1833 a Royal Commission was set up to examine and reform the voting system.

The resulting Municipal Corporations Act, 1835 was based upon the Commission’s recommendations and by these, freedom by gift and purchase disappeared.  We were left with patrimony and servitude (apprenticeship) and a limited number of cases acquired by marriage.  An exception was made regarding London, who is not governed by national regulation and who has been allowed to continue providing freedom through purchase.

The reform took away freemen’s advantage and privileges jealously valued for centuries.  However, much of the freemen’s property and rights over pasturelands that had been accrued over many years, were allowed to remain, for the benefit of the freemen and their ‘free’ descendants.

A new and more democratic system of local government, imposed upon the towns, brought voting to a wider public and elected Councils replaced the old Corporations.  An almost final blow came to the status of freedom occurred under the Local Government Act, 1972, that abolished the boroughs and ordained the disappearance of most local legislation.  However, although this Act was destructive, it again preserved the principle status and basic rights of the freemen and allows them to continue, in there now rather less privileged, tradition.


The old boroughs and cities were mainly trading centres, they developed in an insular way and their citizens banded together for economic protection.  Local government systems required that the residents shared in providing services and were allocated duties to perform.  Freedom of the borough provided a means of regulation that would ensure standards were met and that the quality of products and services was controlled.  Craftsmen jealously guarded their skills and their systems of apprenticeship.  The requirements of ‘freedom’ ensured that there was no unfair competition.

Freemen of the borough shared the common goals of their fellow freemen.  They would vote for officials from amongst themselves.  They were free to enjoy the ‘liberties, laws and customs only granted to freemen’.  Civic events and festival dinners were especially held by and for the freemen.  A definition of a freeman was one partaking in the rights and privileges, laws and customs of the town.  He would be quit of toll, passage, pickage, pannage and stallage and various other forms of taxation.  Property such as the Moot Hall and the town pasture was exclusively for use by the freemen.  Such were the privileges denied to a relatively large proportion of the local unfree population.

The 1832 Reform Act had every intention of changing the system of government and abolishing the freedom outright.  Nevertheless, the freemen survived and even after the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, they were able to continue in their customary succession.

Freemen and freedom is in substance the same thing.  In the past, freedom conferred and ordained by a borough charter, provided the freemen with freedom from taxes and dues even throughout the realm.  It brought power to monopolise trade in the Borough.  Freedom could be clearly seen, in its origin, as a commercial asset, long since lost within our modern democratic world today.

The relevant rule or practice [of freedom] requires that it must be ancient.  In the language of the law, the custom must have existed from time immemorial [beyond the accession of Richard 1 in 1189].  It is a requirement in law that the rule [concerning freedom] must be ‘reasonable’ to be recognised as customary.  The effect of a borough charter was to formalise the legal personality of a town, which had previously rested upon custom.  Charters and Town Acts allow provisions for revision and modification to enact new measures that may be necessary for good government.  This has been employed to allow admission of daughters and to open boundaries where residence within the town had previously been a requirement.

In former times freedom carried with it privileges such as the valuable and exclusive right of pasturage, monopoly of trade, parliamentary vote and the freedom from various tolls and taxes.  While only few privileges may exist today, the legal basis of the freedom still remains.

The people who developed the towns of England and Wales were mainly traders who banded themselves together to enhance their protection and provide a competitive force with which to do business.  Traders formed guilds, in a similar way that trade unions are in operation today.  Guilds governed the towns, regulated the trades and the local government was controlled by the power of a settled class of residents namely the freemen burgesses, the citizens of the borough.

Boroughs were trading enterprises where competition between crafts was significantly important.  Patrimony and servitude were the main channels to freedom.  Hereditary privilege and freedom are born of self-interest.  It was the people known as ‘freemen’ who by residence and status exercised power within the borough.

How should we view the Freedom and Privilege today?

Wishing to belong to a specific group is a tribal instinct within human society.  In today’s burgeoning modern society there has been an increasing interest in family history, ‘Who do you think you are?’ that makes the unique nature of inherited freedom a particularly desirable privilege.  Being a ‘freeman’, with historic family connections to particular town, induces pride and pleasure that undoubtedly, would be the envy of many.

The Gilds and the Craft Companies

‘Protecting trade and maintaining standards of workmanship’

Side by side with recognition by the burgesses of their corporate liability for the raising of their farm payment and the control of justice in their borough court, another type of grouping of the townspeople came into being in a great many towns.  This was in the form of various gilds and in particular the ‘Gild Merchant’.  The gild merchant played a material part in the development of towns and especially in their types of government.  There was some variation in different towns but in most there was first the gild merchant and then later the trade gilds developed.

It was a post-Conquest development associated with the expansion of trade arising when there was trade to protect.  Gilds were in conformity with the pattern of early English society, i.e. a community of effort in which the individual was subordinate to the society and worked within its framework, just as in the agricultural communities outside the towns.

King John’s charter to Ipswich in 1200 includes “they may have a Gild Merchant and their Hanse”.  Likewise, in the same year, a charter of Ranulph III, 6th Earl of Chester, confirmed the grants of Gilda Mercatoria (gild merchant).  Only members of the Gild could merchandise, except with the consent of the burgesses.

The Gild Merchant is an association of burgesses, who as traders were required to nourish and monopolise trade.  Business was excluded from those not qualified by membership of the gild.  This extended beyond the town and gave freedom from the universal tolls and dues.  For their extensive privileges the members had to pay yearly dues.  The gild met, not in the port-moot but in their own gild-hall in which the gild would be highly organised with its own seal, officers, steward, sergeants, clerks of the market and governed by a head alderman.

There was always a fraternal and religious side to the gilds, which particularly includes the subsequent craft gilds (or companies) that arose in the 14th century.  The gilds celebrated festivals, held religious plays and processed on their Saints day.  They were charitable and looked after the poor and infirmed.  Owing to their religious nature, any actions brought against members were normally dealt within an ecclesiastical court.

In Summary

An essential nature of the gilds was their ‘free’ fellowship.  As I have previously alluded, the human tribal instinct is to band together, for protective purposes, into groups.  This leads to fraternal mutual association to meet collective needs.  Such was the early formation into ‘gilds’.  Similar organisations were in existence even before the Norman invasion.  The incorporations, by charter, began to take place in London during the 12th century and it was in the 14th century that there was a period of climax when other large communities began to assert their rights.

The origins of gilds may well have stemmed from the constitution and customs of the Germanic tribes, we have no certain evidence.  Anglo-Saxon gilds were in existence in the ninth century and references to gild brethren (gegildan) are in the Laws of Ine (c 690).  The earliest gilds, the frith (or peace) gilds, protected the interests of their brethren and in some places such as London the cnihten gild is thought to have been a union of the frith gilds.  The cnihten-gild was dissolved in 1125 as the other gilds were emerging.

Social-religious fraternities are known to have been flourishing in the first half of the 11th century at Cambridge, Abbotsbury, Exeter and Woodbury.  A Gild, in its body, is synonymous with lordship and carries similar strengths of position.  They were akin with and countered the legal powers of the aristocratic landowning lords; their communion also gave them considerable political strength.

During this early period there was a problem with unlicensed or ‘adulterine’ gilds.  These fraternities existed mainly for religious and social purposes and while providing goodwill and religious intent they pursued a variety of causes that were not approved of by the Crown.  In 1180 an oligarchic rule required that the fraternities be approved and registered in a form of chartered incorporation.

Gilds were formed throughout Europe and across the globe even as far as China and they operated in a very similar manner to our own  They were fraternities with religious connections and common interests that held courts, in gild-halls, very similar in nature to our own

Soon after the Norman Conquest, the ‘Gild Merchant’ appeared as a local adaptation of the gild idea to control the newly developing trade.  It may well have been imported from Normandy where similar gilds were in existence.  The gild became the department of town administration, which maintained and regulated a monopoly over trade.  It controlled the actions of the plebeian class of the craftsmen and it is the ‘Gild Merchant’ that is credited, in local government, as being the source of municipality.

The Gild Merchant, in its early form embraced all the crafts, regarding every master craftsman as a merchant.  Early gild merchant rolls indicate the specific craft against each burgess’ name.  A major purpose of the gild was to make regulations for securing honest trading and for the examination of goods to keep them up to standard quality, to test weights and measures and to control trade malpractices.  This control was mainly by fines and in severe cases would lead to expulsion from the gild.  Such an action would almost certainly result in the ex member’s financial ruin.

The Fraternities of Crafts

The gilds in the medieval cities, in London and in the provinces, became a powerful economic, social and political force.  Many of the gilds have shadowy beginnings without proper authorisation to regulate their trades.  In time they claimed prescriptive rights by charter.  Eventually, their powers were destroyed by the huge growth in population preventing their ability to exert authority upon so many competing craftsmen who set up without gild membership

Revolution was affected by the growth of private associations.  The fraternities sought protection under the Church, which was the only practicable form in the Middle Ages.  Much later, from the twelfth century, they adapted to various social and political purposes.  Very little is known about the inner life of the fraternities before the fourteenth century.  The craft fraternities appear in records, almost entirely on their secular side.  Earliest records of Weavers, Bakers and the Fishmongers gilds give no indication of any religious affiliation.  The Weavers gild of Lincoln, like that of London, received a charter from Henry II.  Nearly all the craft gilds, of which there are any records in England before the 13th century, were weaver’s gilds.  Most of the provincial gilds, as far as is known, were constituted in the same way as at Lincoln.  The Fishmongers appear to have been the most orthodox of the trades.  In London in 1293, to celebrate a victory obtained by Edward I against the Scots, several trades made a show, and especially the Fishmongers with a very solemn procession, presented on St Magnus’ day.

Very early forms of craft gilds, unchartered, appear on record in London, as the Saddlers fraternity, the Goldsmiths (1272) the Tailors fraternity of St John the Baptist, whose Gild received an early charter in1300.  The Mercers, known early, mentioned in deeds of the 13th century.  In London, the Grocers fraternity of St Anthony and the Drapers fraternity of St Mary of Bethlehem were in existence before receiving their charters and there is a strong presumption that the same is true of the Skinners fraternity of Corpus Christi.  The Skinners acquired a royal charter in 1327.

In most towns where craft gilds emerged, the Gild Merchant had disappeared by the 15th century.  The craft gilds included most if not all the specific skills within the designated trade.  Within the smaller towns several trades may be grouped together under fewer gilds.

Trade control by the gilds was finally abolished by the 1835 Reform Act.

FOOTNOTE:  It is interesting to be aware, not only of the great importance of a gild’s charter but also of its every day practicality.  The charter would regularly be introduced into trading matters, when for example there might be an argument by a port gild over shipping and cargoes being delivered to wrong docks to avoid taxes (as was often the case at Dunwich).  The charter of liberties would be carried by a gild representative from town to market-situation as required.  It was not a document to be held under lock and key but a political instrument.


The system of apprenticeship came into popular use during the 14th century although it must have been in existence in earlier times.  It was necessary to gain the required standard of training in a craft to meet membership (and freedom) of a gild.  Membership of the gild required the status of master craftsman.  In order to gain the required standard of training necessitated a regulated apprenticeship.

A minimum of a seven-year period of training was a legal requirement under the Statute of Apprentices of Queen Elizabeth I, 1563.  The requirement was eventually abolished in 1814 by Statute of George III.  Normally an apprenticeship would begin at an age of 14 years and have been completed by the apprentice’s maturity at 21 years, thus allowing him/her to gain the freedom of their gild.

Admission to the gild by an apprentice was achieved by ‘servitude’ (service) and this would normally have provided the means of freedom to the city/borough with all the inherent privileges applying to a master craftsman.  Several cities and towns have, from early times, freely admitted women apprentices into the freedom.  Even so, in later years there appears to have been restrictions applied which today, resulting from the Local Democracy Act 2009, no longer apply.

Freedom, and the inherent monopoly of controls, gave rise in the 18th century to the accusation of the ‘rotten boroughs’.  Reform leading to the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 brought many of the freemen’s traditional practices to an end.  Admission by servitude has continued, although on a minimal scale.  Apprenticeship no longer requires the same rigid demands previously required by the gilds.  The age of maturity has been reduced from 21 years to 18 years and the period has been reduced, in some cases to levels as low as only two years.

It is worthy of mention that apprenticeship today can provide a means of admission ‘by servitude’ to those towns where there are depleting numbers of freemen.  Here is an ability to improve their position for the future.  Perhaps freemen engaged in trade or a suitable business may be persuaded to lend their support.  Apprenticeship could be provided in a (freeman’s) firm, trade, business or profession where training may be included within a potential apprentices’ employment.  Care must be taken to record and endorse a proper document that covers the initiation and completion of the apprenticeship.  Of course, before entering into such a scheme, it would initially require the approval of the authorizing body of the city or borough.  Also, it would only be possible to reapply this scheme in towns where it could be argued as a resurrection of an earlier custom.

On this subject, Charles Sparrow QC our late counsellor has quoted from the ‘Law Relating to Apprentices’ that Austin observed firmly: “The notion which prevails that the ancient apprenticeship is dead, is erroneous”.  He also made reference to the ‘Family Allowances Act 1965’ that defined the expression ‘Apprentice’ being applied to “training for any trade, business, profession, office, employment or vocation”.  In conclusion, apprenticeship can exist and function (as a learner in any field of employment or business re ‘Black’s Law Dictionary’) in the world of today.  The apprentice must be, as defined in Wharton’s Law Lexicon as “A person bound by indentures of apprenticeship to a tradesman or artificer, who covenants to teach him his trade or mystery”.

Charles Sparrow claimed that in essence, apprenticeship is an educational contract.  The essentials of such a contract were indicated in the case of Edmonds v Lawson where the apprentice was simply obliged “to follow reasonable instructions”.  The payment of a premium by the apprentice would be the deduction of a contract.

Gilds Today

In some towns, such as Coventry, it would appear that the master craftsmen remained under their Merchant Gild and in the case of Coventry, the fraternal Guilds of St George and of St Catherine eventually came together to form an all powerful Trinity Guild.  At Alnwick, fifteen companies were recorded in 1611 and seven are remaining today: the Cordwainers, Tanners, Black and White Smiths, Merchants, Skinners & Glovers, Butchers and the Carpenters & Joiners.

The craft companies at Chester hail from the mid 14th century, the Tanners in 1361 and the Weavers in 1399.  Today there are 23 companies in operation at Chester.  At Durham companies were created and eight are in existence today, Barbers, Butchers, Cordwainers, Curriers, Drapers, Joiners, Masons and Plumbers.  At Haverfordwest, trade guilds were incorporated by authority of the Mayor and the borough corporation.  Grants were made for each craft to have their own master and wardens.  Any disagreement that could not be settled within the craft gild would be dealt with by the Mayor and the common council.

At Newcastle upon Tyne there are 28 companies still in existence, each controlling their own affairs.  Apprentices are still being admitted by the Butchers, the Scriveners and the Master Mariners.  At Shrewsbury, during the 14th and 15th centuries, tradesmen left the Gild Merchant to form their own specific trade companies and in the region of 14 trade gilds had received charters of incorporation by the end of the 15th century.  Regrettably, with the repeal of all authority over the control of trade by the Reform Act of 1835, the Shrewsbury gilds were dissolved, but an active gild of hereditary freemen enhances the history of their borough alive today

The gilds (and companies) have generally survived as social organisations whose members have become increasingly unconnected with their particular trade, and now operate as charitable bodies that are often able to dispense monies toward education and for cultural purposes.

Gilds still own halls, schools, almshouses, investments, land and substantial charity funds.  They have proud histories, traditions, records and in some cases magnificent treasures.  The survival of the gilds will be achieved by the fostering of traditional beliefs, trades and customs, serving their communities and developing a modern approach to the requirements of skills and professions necessary in today’s society.

I should not conclude on the subject of craft gilds without mentioning the Worshipful Companies of the City of London, generally referred to as the Livery Companies.  Most of the ancient companies acquired royal charters and many have more than one, the earliest granted during the 12th century.  By comparison to the dwindling situation with many provincial craft guilds, the London companies are positively dynamic.  An increasing number of new companies, covering new trades, have recently been created.  In the modern world membership of the guilds, as in the past, continues uniquely to provide business people with a social outlet and a valuable source of networking.

The social and economic conditions which gave birth to the medieval gilds have long been overtaken by the development of industry and commerce, but in spite of this the gilds have survived and flourished.  Clearly this indicates a fraternity that encourages our ancient tradition and improves the future concept of Freedom.

The Freeman’s Oath at Exeter c1496-97

“I shall truly serve our sovereign lord king Henry VII, King of England and France and Lord of Ireland, and his heirs kings of England, and the mayor, bailiffs and commonalty of the city of Exeter, and their successors for the time being as a franchised man of the same.  Also I shall be justiciable[1] and gildable[2] to all manner of tax, tallage[3] or any other common charge of the said city as oft times as I shall be thereto duly required, and then and there to give my best mind and counsel for the wealth of the said city, according after such wit and cunning as God has given me, and all such counsel as shall then happen to be disclosed and showed, not to disclose nor show it to any such other person or persons to the hurt or prejudice of the said city.  Also I shall colour no man his goods being no franchised man of the said city in my name to the hurt and prejudice of the said city.[4]  Also I shall not sue any franchised man of the said city for any matter determinable here in the court but only in this court except it be for lack of right here.  Also I shall support, sustain and maintain the liberties of the said city in every rightful cause against all other persons.  Also, I shall truly come to the election of every new mayor of the said city and then and there truly give my voice to the same (except he may have a reasonable let[5]), and all other things that concern a franchised man etc.”

Messrs Rowe & Jackson (eds) ‘Exeter Freemen’ from Devon Records (1973).

[1] Subject to civic jurisdiction
[2] Liable to be taxed
[3] Tax
[4] Not to disguise outsiders’ goods as his own
[5] Excuse

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