Chevrons of De Clare, Earls of Gloucester

‘Glorious Gloucester’

Historic Roman city and county town. There is a Norman cathedral and medieval streets that follow patterns laid down by the Romans. Situated alongside the River Severn close to the Welsh border between the Cotswolds and the Forest of Dean. It was founded in AD 97 by the Romans as Colonia Glevum Nervensis. Gloucester was granted its first charter in 1155 by Henry II.

This city has had an important position in the making of our English society. A favoured location, the Anglo-Saxon tradition of the royal crown wearing was limited to the three centres of Winchester, Westminster and Gloucester. That tradition was also adopted by William the Conqueror who held to most customs of his predecessor Edward the Confessor.

In the pre-Roman Iron Age, the fertile Severn Vale was mainly occupied by the Dobunni tribe. At that time Gloucester was still farmland and wood. It was in the area of the suburb now called Kingsholm that the Romans constructed their camp. A fort was built in the late AD40s, probably at a river crossing.

After a period of time the legion was transferred to a new fortress at Caerleon. In Gloucester the retired veterans were granted land and permitted to govern the town by electing a council of 100 ‘decurions’ who in turn elected four magistrates. This was the Reblica Glevum (City Council). There was a forum (city centre) and basilica (town hall). Fine houses were built, close by the river, for the leading citizens.

A public building with a great hall or portico was known to have survived until its stone was used to build St. Oswald’s Minster 700 years later. The minster was founded by Aethelflaed c900 (she died 918 and may be buried there). In Westgate Street stood the baths and a great exercise hall supported by columns over 30 ft high. In the early second century the town was surrounded by a stone wall refacing the original clay rampart. Massive wooden gates remained in place for the next 900 years.

The townspeople were not ‘Romans’ they were the enlisted citizens of the Roman Empire. A vast town grew up with extensive suburbs. It stimulated trade and industry including pottery. By the end of the fourth century it was a very different place and had begun to lose its Roman identity. The general population had reverted in the main to the indigenous Celtic British.

Anglo-Saxon influx eventually reached the Gloucester area and the Celtic Dobunni were beaten in battle at Deorham in 577. By 584 most of the area had come under the control of Mercia. The name Gloucester has been derived from the Roman Glev and old English ceaster.

The defeat at the battle of Deorham led to the sack of Gloucester. It eventually recovered to become the residence of Alfred in 896 and the deathbed, in 900, of Athelstan, Emperor of all Britain. The town has been rightly called Royal Gloucester. William the Conqueror spent many winters and in 1085-86 the Domesday Survey was started in the Chapter House.

At Gloucester in 1216, the boy king Henry III was crowned by Cardinal Guala, the Papal Legate. Most of the pre-Tudor kings held Parliaments at Gloucester. Things were different when the town took up the Parliamentary cause and withstood a month’s siege in 1643. Charles II at his Restoration had the city walls raised to the ground.

Gloucester Cathedral

The Cathedral of St Peter and the Holy and Indivisible Trinity had been the pre-Dissolution church of the Benedictine Abbey of St Peter founded  during 670s by Osric, king of the Hwicce (Viceroy of King Ethelred in 601). The old Norman Castle had been considered the most impressive in all the land. It was replaced by the county gaol. St Oswald’s priory, founded by Aethelflaed and her husband Ethelred of Mercia, housed the relics of St Oswald (martyr king) of Northumbria.

The Freemen of Gloucester

In a Borough such as Gloucester, the permanent free inhabitants were the burgesses or ‘freemen’. Sometimes called the “King’s Tenants”, they performed their duties, enjoyed their privileges as free inhabitant householders and were presented, sworn and enrolled at the Court Leet. The Freemen’s duties were considerable and their ‘rights’ valuable. These rights were generally confirmed by Charter. Rights (greatly prized) were claimed as a birth-right, by apprenticeship with a Freeman or marriage with his daughter. The free right of inheritance, an important privilege of a Freeman, was recognised by Royal Charter.

Gloucester Day Parade

Various Royal Charters of Liberties, some thirty in number, were granted to the City of Gloucester (held by the Corporation) range from Henry II (1155) to Charles II (1672). The Deed and Indenture dated 6th February 1517 (Henry VIII) gave to the Freemen of Gloucester and their successors the right to common and pasture of their beasts in the common meadows adjoining Westgate. A sum of £600 was paid for a Charter by King Charles II which made Freemen quit of tollage, lastage, pontage and stallage throughout all seaports, Fairs and Markets of England excluding London. Many of the rights were paid for. Among other Freemen’s rights and privileges granted by Charters (included in Endowments and Charities) were :- St. Margaret’s Hospital, London Road, Gloucester, known as United Hospitals.

The foundation of this Hospital originated from a Charter granted by King Henry VIII. According to tradition, a visitation was held in 1580, when the said Charter was delivered to the Mayor of the City, who neglected to return it, and it was in consequence lost. It is recorded in a report of the Charity Commissioners published 1826 that there were then eight men in the Hospital, elected from the Freemen of the City, and that their respective wives were residing with them. Freemen of the City, up to the present day, can claim the right, or preference, to occupy seven places, which includes rooms as living accommodation and a weekly stipend.

Charity of Sir Thomas Rich, formerly known as Blue Coat School:- Under the ‘Will’ dated 16th May 1666, the Mayor of the City received property to be used as a Hospital for educational purposes for 20 poor boys, to be clothed in blue caps and coats according to the usage of Christ’s Church Hospital in London. A sum of money was also set aside for the provision of Scholarships at Sir Thomas Rich’s School for the benefit of Freemen’s sons.

Holliday Charity (Scholarships) – In the year 1623 William Holliday left £500 to be invested in land of the annual value of £30 which was to be applied in premiums of £7 10s 0d in apprenticing four poor boys. It is recorded in a Corporation Minute Book that subsequently the said Corporation would undertake to bestow three sums of £10 each in apprenticing under this Charity. The three scholarships would be tenable for three years at Sir Thomas Rich’s School and each of the yearly value of £10. The Scholarships were to be competed for by sons of Freemen of the City of Gloucester.

Plural Voting:- Freemen were formerly entitled to record their vote, by virtue of their birthright, at Parliamentary Elections in the City of Gloucester. The last registered list of Freemen published by the Corporation was in the year 1914. This privilege has now been abolished.

The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 revolutionised the position of all connected with the old Boroughs. It admitted into the Corporate body others besides the old Burgesses or Freemen. The Courts of Law however decided that the new ‘Statutory’ burgesses created under this Act were not entitled to participate with the ‘old Freemen’ in rights of pasturage, etc., etc.

Under the Gloucester Corporation Act 1894, the Corporation was empowered to enter into agreement with the Freemen and the owners of the freehold for the purpose of extinguishing all or any rights of Common over the Common Meadows, for limiting those rights, or for settling any disputed claims of such rights previously referred to.

It was agreed between the Corporation and the Freemen to appoint an arbitrator to determine what these rights were and what was their monetary value. The award of the arbitrator was that the Freemen were entitled to the sum of £7,095, together with £603 10s 4d interest, for the rights to be surrendered over certain of the Common Meadows. These funds were invested in the name of the Official Trustees of Charitable Funds, and subsequently authority was given by the Charity Commission to purchase with those funds Railway Stock for the benefit of the Charity known as the Freemen’s Compensation Fund. Under this award the rights of the Freemen to pasturage over the Common Meadows, other than St. Catharine’s Meadow, became extinguished.

In the year 1930, negotiations were entered into with the Gloucester Corporation respecting the payment of compensation for extinguishing the Freemen’s rights over approximately 14 acres of St. Catherine’s Meadow land which was required for the purpose of constructing a proposed by-pass road, and it was subsequently agreed to accept £27 10s per acre, or a total sum of £385, which sum has been invested in Trustee  Securities, also in the name of the ‘Official Trustee of Charitable Funds.’ The income arising from these investments provides a Pension Fund under a scheme of the Charity Commissioners, 1906, in accordance with the Compensation Committee elect Freemen or their widows, who are either resident or near the City and have not during a period of two years preceding the time of appointment been in receipt of Poor Law relief, except medical, and are either infirm or not less than 60 years of age, to receive Pensions according to the scale laid down by that scheme.

A sum approaching £7,000 was paid in Pensions to date 1935, and in the year 1934 the sum of £234 was paid to 17 Pensioners. The Freemen’s representatives of the Municipal Charities remain the President and Vice President who hold the appointments of Trustees.

As far as can be ascertained from the Register of Freemen of the City of Gloucester in 1935, there were approximately 300 enrolled Freemen at that date. Among the existing Freemen’s Rights and Privileges which may be claimed by them were:-

  1. Right, or preference to occupy 7 places at the United Hospitals (Alms House, London Road, Gloucester) as vacancies occur.
  2. Pensions payable according to scale, to Freemen or their widows having attained the age of 60 years or upwards (provided that funds are available).
  3. Exemption from payment of Toll in the Market.
  4. The previous right to turn out three head of cattle in St. Catherine’s Meadow between August 2nd and February 2nd in any year (has been extinguished and is no longer available).
  5. Scholarship at Sir Thomas Rich’s School. Any son of a Freeman can compete in a scholarship examination, and if the competitor is equal in marks with other competitors, preference must be given for a place at the School to the son of a Freeman of the City. This is the ruling of the Board of Education.
  6. The Freemen enjoy the right of direct approach to the Sovereign.
  7. A Freeman charged with any misdemeanour can claim the right to be tried by a Jury of brother Freemen.
  8. Freemen claim the right to sell their goods in public streets of the City, without being charged with obstruction.

Sons of Freemen (in the year 1935) on attaining the age of 21 years, were enrolled as Freemen of the City of Gloucester, for which a fee of 13s 6d was payable at the Guildhall.


The original ‘Burgesses’ were those whose tenement in the City was rented of the king or lord who owned the Borough. They were assessed to Borough customs or as we would say, Rates, although the customs at that time covered a rather different range of payments and sometimes included personal service such as assisting in Town Watch, and working on Castles, Walls, Ditches etc.

The Norman Conquest wrought no revolutionary change in the system of burghal tenure in the ancient boroughs of the old Anglo-Saxon Kingdom. It was William the Conqueror’s intentions to seamlessly take over the traditions of Edward the Confessor’s rules.

In the old Anglo-Saxon kingdom, the royal official had been the Port Reeve, this position was entitled as Sheriff by the Normans. These were men of superior rank than their predecessors and many were placed in complete charge of the Royal Boroughs, such as Gloucester. All revenues belonged to the king.

During the 12th century there was a gradual acquisition by some of the  more important boroughs of the privilege of ‘farming’ the revenues which the crown drew from them. The king would lease the revenues to the burgesses in return for an annual fixed sum or ‘Fee-farm’ (Ferme = the old English word for lease). The Latin name used in charters was ‘Firma Burgi’.

Between the granting of the first two charters by Henry II in 1155 and 1163, and the third by Richard I in 1194, Gloucester had obtained a franchise that provided the right to pay the fee-ferme direct to the Royal Exchequer without the intervention of the Sheriff. It is known that sheriffs were rapacious in extracting more from towns under their control than they were legally entitled.

The Charter of Richard I, grants to the Burgesses of Gloucester “ All the Borough of Gloucester with Appurtenances for ever at Ferme. Rendering yearly fifty- and five-pounds sterling, as they were wont to render and ten pounds of the increment of the ferm at the account of our Exchequer in the term of Easter and the term of St. Michael.”

Of course, nothing is ‘for ever’ and the revenue charges increase with each Sovereign’s charter. In the reign of Charles II, they were vested in Trustees appointed by an Act of Parliament to sell them.

The Free Burgesses of the Middle Ages were a group of merchants, traders and craftsmen who governed the City while obtaining more and more privileges by grant of charters by needy kings. In 1483 (Richard III) they gained the right to elect their own Mayor and two Sheriffs. They were “Incorporated in the name of the Mayor and Burgesses of Gloucester”.

From that time until the Boroughs were reformed in 1835 none but the Freemen were ever elected to the Corporation of the City of Gloucester.

See also Medieval Gloucester

See also Gloucester Civic Administration 

See also Gloucester – The Case for Royal Entitlement

See also St Nicholas, the Freemen’s Civic Church, Gloucester

See also Hyett’s of Gloucester and Painswick 

See also Freemen of the City of Gloucester


Gloucester Parade 2021

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