Freedom of the Borough

Town Life

After the Norman Conquest, towns grew bigger, especially Nottingham.  Even so, they were not very large towns, for there were not as many people in England as there are today.  The streets were narrow and the houses were built close together.

Around each town there was a thick wall for safety against enemies, and the town gates were locked every night at sunset.  The Chapel Bar was the last surviving town gate of Nottingham before it was demolished in the 18th century.  Merchants who travelled to Nottingham to sell goods would have to pay money, called a toll, before they were allowed in.

The townsfolk were freeman who had paid their lord a surcharge to be free and they had to look after themselves.  They chose a Mayor who, with the help of his Aldermen, ruled the town.  Every town had its own laws and punishments.  The Mayor told the people what they must do through the town crier, who called out messages in the Market Square.

Honorary Freedom

The conferment of the Honorary Freedom of a borough or city has been established since 1885 as the highest honour which the local authority can bestow. Historically, it had not always been treated with such reverence, and until the Municipal Corporations Act, 1835, put an end to the practice, it had been possible to appoint honorary freemen for less noble reasons, not least of which might have been the future disposition of their vote at elections. Once can but hope that it was for no such reason that the Honorary Freedom of the Borough of Leicester was in 1765 conferred on its Town Clerk.

On the other hand, the Freedom of the Borough had been conferred on people of eminence in those times, as for instance in 1759 to the Right Honourable William Pitt (the Elder) "in acknowledgement of the many Signal Benefits which His Majesty and the Kingdom have reaped under his Wise, Vigorous and well concerted Administration".

The conferment of the Honorary Freedom of a city is currently empowered by Section 249 of the Local Government Act, 1972. In the case of Amber Valley it has been conferred sparingly, just five Councillors have been made Freemen, and the Freedom of the Borough awarded to five other persons and the Mercian Regiment.

History of Freemen

The Freemen are an ancient body of people whose origins can be traced back to medieval history.  They are recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086, usually as burgesses (townsmen with certain privileges), and it is those burgesses who were the predecessors of today's Freemen.

Prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066 the burgesses were responsible for the civic administration of the town, the maintenance of law and order and for the punishment of crime.

Immediately after the Norman occupation, this authority was withdrawn - probably in 1068 - but the power was regained in charters granted during 1100 - 1200.

Ending of Restrictive Practices, 1835.

Freemen attempted to maintain their stranglehold on trade in certain cities, but the influx of traders and artisans into towns during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution made this increasingly difficult.

By the time restrictive practices were made illegal in 1835, only one profession remained restricted to freemen; victualler or tippler, i.e. wine and beer merchants and publicans.

Municipal Corporation Act of 1835

In 1835 the Municipal Corporation Act created bodies elected by the ratepayers and withdrew all government powers from the freemen.  This was the first step towards the present form of democratic local government.


The burgesses, and subsequently the freemen, originally had rights over a vast area of land which they eventually lost but under the Enclosures Acts of 1804 and 1811 were granted the use of certain common land, so that freemen could graze their livestock and plant crops.

It became quite apparent that the average freeman could not afford livestock and in 1845 parts of the common land were set aside for use as allotments, each being up to 500 square yards in size.

In the City of Leicester for example, the enclosure Act and subsequent legislation created and then amended a Board of Deputies.  The Board consisted of 21 freemen elected by freemen, whose task it was to manage the lands and property belonging to the organisation.

The Board of Deputies still exists, but all that remains of the land is seven acres in Aylestone purchased from the sale of the Freeman's Common in 1965 to the City Council.  This land is known as the Freeman's Holt and contains a number of one-bedroomed bungalows for the benefit of the elderly Freemen and their widows.  The estate is managed by the Board of Deputies.

The Rights and Duties of a Freeman

Freemen's rights, duties and privileges were once very real and varied and have from time to time included the right to trade retail and wholesale in towns, freedom from toll in other protected towns, the right to send sons to the Free Grammar Schools without payment, the obligation to pay local dues, the right to an allotment garden, and the right to tenancy of Freemen's cottages.

Nowadays, in some cities, Freemen and Freemen's Widows may still be entitled to reside in the cottages rent and light free together with a small pension.  The pensions given out vary according to the circumstances of the individual Freeman  of Freeman's Widow.

There are still some charities that provide for gifts to Freemen, for example "the gift of six shillings a year each to not more than thirty aged Freemen with which to buy a load of coal".

Membership of the Gild of Merchants

Gild members, originally called "Brethren of the Gild", later became known as "Freemen", usually they were residents of Leicester, but non-residents could join on paying a fee and undertaking the obligations of membership.

New members took an oath of fealty to the Gild, paid a contribution, and were duly enrolled.  The oath has altered since the first recorded form in the reign of Richard II, which was used, with slight variations, until at least the late sixteenth century.  The charges referred to in the oath are references to local taxes, trading tolls, and contributions to the cost of maintaining the market franchise (lot and scot).

In the 12th century, membership could be obtained in one of three ways:

  1. The youngest son of an existing member who was a burgess could inherit membership through his father.
  2. Natives of Leicester unable to inherit membership of the Gild could purchase entrance for three shillings.
  3. 'Foreigners' - people from outside the city - could pay twenty shillings for the privilege of membership.

Following the charter of Queen Elizabeth 1 in 1589, admission to the freedom of Leicester could be gained in one of four ways:

  1. All the sons of a Freeman could inherit the right, providing that the father had sworn his oath of freedom before their birth.
  2. The freedom could be obtained through a seven year apprenticeship to a master who was a Freeman.
  3. 'Foreigners' could purchase their freedom if their business activities in the borough made it necessary, but usually without the right of inheritance for sons.
  4. Influential people were often offered 'honorary freedom'.

From 1832 onwards the qualifications necessary to become an Hereditary Freeman were changed.

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