Miscellaneous Borough Legislation

Miscellaneous Borough Legislation

Borough Regulation

The culture of English society really began in the boroughs created by Alfred the Great. In such an insular self-governing enclosure it was necessary to create rules and regulations. As mentioned previously in my comments on borough freemen, the law of custom determined that responsibilities would be shared upon the kinship of families. The local laws developed and were governed via the Moot hall. Digressions would normally result in monetary fines. Deliberate injuries or crimes against a neighbour would be dealt with by compensation. Such fines were known as ‘wergild’ – a predetermined fine of a value recognised in law.


Deaths, sudden or unexpected, were dealt with by a Coroner, an office dating back before the Norman Conquest. Each County had a Coroner who was required to collect fined for incorrect procedures. Anyone discovering an unexpected death must:

Raise the hue and cry, involving the nearest household’s;

Guard the body and alert the Coroner.

The Coroner would attend the scene and convene a jury examination. He recorded the cause of death and the jury’s verdict – misadventure, or death caused by another individual, with or without ‘malice aforethought’. The object which caused the death was confiscated as ‘Deodand’ – it was ‘given to God’ defacto forfeit to the Crown. For example, a runaway horse would be confiscated, forfeit to the Crown. Violent death was compensated by wergild paid to the family of the deceased. Animals or objects causing serious damage, including death, were referred to as ‘banes’ (hence the expression ‘bane’ of my life). Such an object was handed to the victim (noxal surrender).

The Borough

Perhaps the greatest benefit to a burgess within their borough was their liberty and protective customs. Duties were allotted in return for the benefits of their overlord’s protection. The old burhs (early boroughs) were encouraged to become trading centres of commerce and local government. Communications was a key factor in the siting of the burhs and each borough was encouraged to have their own mint. For the defence of their overlord it is probable that most of the early burh’s had a mounted force ready to act against any invasions.

The Moot Court of the burgh would meet at least three times a year. Following the Norman Conquest, the burghs were enhanced and protected by a castle. Resident burgesses were protected by legal privilege. Citizens were ruled by the constable who had replaced the High Reeve as Sheriff, until the charters of King John provided powers to nominate borough officers. Thus, began the French title of the Mayor and the ability for two or more citizens to nominate ‘keepers of the pleas’ and borough control of their Coroner.

Burgesses who originally paid their rents through the Borough Reeve now paid the overlord through the Sheriff. Some of the early burgesses, in order to encourage their settlement, had built houses on available land. Rent charges may be variable but any movements within the burgages required ‘quit rent’ agreements with the lord of the borough.

Admissions of Burgesses

In London, by way of example, in the 13th century, there was a regular system for the admission of new members to the borough franchise. Admission could be obtained by inheritance, by purchase or gift. In some places by marriage, and in London from around 1270, by a municipal register of apprenticeships. New burgesses or freemen, in return for privileges, were bound to share in all burdens of taxation, control, and duties that fell upon the burgesses. In later times, admission came to be used as a means to secure the parliamentary franchise, when freedom of a borough was freely sold and given. In the 15th century the disturbances, led the boroughs to create new constitutions. Remodelling the boroughs between 1681 and 1685, more than 120 boroughs received new charters (this was a Tory policy).

Customs first appeared in royal and seigneurial charters in the twelfth century, but by the late thirteenth century and early fourteenth century officials began preserving their laws in stand alone custumals. A serious gap in information exists between the medieval period and the seventeenth century. Much has been said about the reforms leading to the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act.

Royal Charters (Instruments of incorporation)

These were granted by the sovereign on the advice of the Privy Council and date back to the 13th

century. Their original purpose was to create public or private corporations (including towns and cities) and to define their privileges and purposes.

Charters are sometimes issued today for professional bodies, institutions and charities to demonstrate pre-eminence, stability and permanence in their particular field. The Charter provides legal personality to govern affairs, subject to general law.

Cromwell’s Commonwealth

On the 10th February 1649 an Act was passed requiring an Oath to be administered to every Freeman at his Admission in the City of London and in all Cities, Boroughs and Towns Corporate in England and Wales.

Freemen of London: Oath –

You shall Swear, that you shall be true and faithful to the Commonwealth of England; and in thereto, you shall to the best of your power, maintain and preserve the Peace, and all the due Franchises thereof; and according to your knowledge and ability, do and perform all such other acts and things as do belong to a Freeman of the said City.

Other Cities and Boroughs-

And be it further Enacted by the Authority that the same Oath mutatis mutandis and no other shall be administered to all and every Freeman in every City, Borough and Town Corporate in England and Wales, where Oaths are ordinarily administered to Freemen, at the time of their Admissions to the said Freedom, in every such City, Borough and Town Corporate.

Uniformity of Government

The Local Government Act, 1888 divided England and Wales into 62 administrative counties including London and 61 county boroughs. It was intended to preserve the spirit of local independence in administering local affairs, to foster the growth in civic pride while maintaining standards that should be general throughout the country.


At the commencement of every English parliament, the Commons lay claim “to their ancient and undoubted rights and privileges – including:

  • The right of dealing with breeches of privilege
  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom from arrest (now limited to civil causes)

Honorary Freedom of Boroughs Act, 1885

Section 1 of the Act provided that:

. . . the council of every borough may from time to time, by the authority of not less than two-thirds of their number present and voting at a meeting of the council specially called for the purpose with notice of the object, admit to be honorary freemen of the borough, persons who have rendered eminent services to the borough . . .

The Act does not give the recipient the right to vote in parliamentary or other elections for the borough, or to enjoy any of the rights and interests of existing freemen.

This Act was repealed under the Local Government Act 1933. Section 259 continued the powers of the borough corporations to appointing freemen. The 1933 Act was repealed by the Local Government Act, 1972 and awards of ‘honorary freedom’ are now made under the legislation of the L.D.E.D & C (Democracy) Act, 2009.


The Gild of Freemen of Haverfordwest Freemen’s Gild “appoints a small number of Burgesses from ‘Persons of repute who have rendered outstanding service to the Town”.

At Durham “Occasionally Companies (Gilds) have also admitted ‘gentlemen freemen’ whose influence might be helpful to the Guild”.

Freemen’s Charities

The debacle over Peggs vs Lamb case in the High Court and the Huntingdon Freemen’s uncharitable sale of ‘common’ lands resulted in a national review by the Charities Commission. ‘Huntingdon Freemen’s Trust’ was formed in 1993, when the funds and assets of the former Freemen’s Charities were transferred by the High Court (Re. Peggs vs Lamb).

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