Early English culture is classically symbolised at ceremonial events. Much developed in the 17th century and greatly enhanced by the 19th. At festival meals the silver services of guilds and livery companies can be truly magnificent (even awesome). Attendees of such festival events participate in actions of respect to their historic traditions.
Ceremonially the mace and the macebearer represent ‘protection and defence’ and in a similar role a sword-bearer represents ‘peace and justice’. Constables likewise carry decorated truncheons that indicate ‘law and order. Weaponry has symbolic ‘communal’ importance as does the celebratory ‘Loving Cup’ and toasting/firing glasses.
Ceremony for freemen begins with initiation, the origins of which are very ancient relating to early civilization. A distinction is known to exist between the free and the un-free with the early Phoenicians and Rome had its citizenship.*
In primitive Germanic tribal society, (Nordic & Celtic) the ‘coming of age’ ceremony for the male members had a great significance. Freedom was a powerful inheritance that signified maturity and responsibility for their communal kin. (The system of kinship)
The occasion was probably marked in a dramatic way – rather as a novice foxhunter is ‘blooded’ on their first outing. I suspect it was usually a screened event held before the leading members of the tribal family. From these beginnings we now commonly celebrate 18th birthdays when a youth becomes a man.
It has been suggested that during the days of King Alfred, freedom was conferred by the presentation of a sword and spear at an appointed crossroads. An interesting local tradition dating back to Alfred’s grandson is as follows: “Twigg and turf I give to thee as King Æthelstan gave to me and a good brother thou will be”. Such is the oath recited by the Steward of the Common at Malmesbury when he strikes an initiate becoming a ‘Commoner of Malmesbury’. (Freemen-commoners of Malmesbury).
Probably the most significant part of any ‘freedom ceremony’ is the oath sworn by the initiate to keep the peace, the laws, regulations and to respect the mayoral administration of the borough, town or city. (Civic duty)
There are a great number of ceremonial events throughout Britain. They are symbolic representations of our customary traditions. For a brief and limited overview we can only point to some of those associated with Freedom. Much of this revolves around ‘regalia’ and pageantry enhanced in the 17th century rising to prominence with related societies in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Most distinctive are the robes worn by freemen’s gild/guild members that indicate their various associations. Expensive fur trims and gold chained medallions signify the mayors, masters, prime wardens and aldermen to authenticate their higher ranks. There are many occasions when the pageantry of a civic procession will provide a unique attraction to the visiting tourist. They bring pride and encouragement to the local society and preserve valuable communal unity. (Tradition)
An ancient tradition in Sudbury (18th Century)
The presentation of leather fire buckets to the Moot Hall was an old ceremonial custom in respect of new admissions to the freedom of the old Corporation. Charges for admittance in 1748 were expensive and varied between £8 and £15 with two fire buckets. Clearly the constant danger from fires to the timber framed structures in the 17th and the 18th centuries put considerable pressures on the Corporation.
At a court action 18th September 1813, an execution levied on the Corporation property caused the sales of the Mayor’s robe and other accoutrements included 260 fire buckets removed from the Moot Hall. It having been a custom (according to Hodson) “from time immemorial, that every person on taking up his freedom should present a bucket [or two] to the Hall”.
W.W. Hodson was the Borough (19th century) Historian and is the major source of original facts about the customs of the old town. Many hundreds of buckets were stored in the churches before being sold off in the 19th century. One is now on show in the Sudbury Heritage Centre.
Generally the burgesses (freemen) of a borough town had their rights, privileges and duties stipulated in charters granted by the sovereign or feudal lord. Norman charters were confirmed through the ages. In 1071, William confirmed the “laws of London” that were claimed from Roman times. This was followed from c1200 with charters to Nottingham and others before the Magna Carta of 1215 then instigated wider authorisation of chartered ‘free’ boroughs. Freemen continue to be admitted in at least 58 towns and cities throughout England and Wales.