What does freedom of the city mean?

Not long after Prince Andrew gave up on huffing and puffing until he blew down Virginia Giuffre’s house–in other words, after he settled her lawsuit out of court–the city of York rescinded an honor it had given him back when he looked a bit less sleazy than he does today: the freedom of the city.

This is significant because, um, why?

Well, it’s not, really. Or it is, but only if you take British traditions seriously, which I have some trouble doing but I’m sure Andy doesn’t. No one could run around dressed in those uniforms if they didn’t take it all seriously. 

Still, in the avalanche of bad publicity that’s fallen on him lately, York’s contribution is barely a pebble. But since it’s an intriguing pebble, let’s talk about what this freedom of the city business is.

Irrelevant photo: This was taken during either Storm Dudley or Eunice, although I’m damned if I remember which one. My partner swore they sounded like an aunt and uncle from Oklahoma–ones no one looked forward to seeing. All that white stuff? That’s foam. We had enough wind to whip the ocean into a meringue.

Starting at the beginning

Freedom of the city dates back to the middle ages, when lords were lords and serfs weren’t free and any sensible person would’ve told you this was the natural order of things. 

All that non-freedom is what made the freedom of the city matter.

According to a “purported law” of William the Conqueror’s–he’s the guy, remember, who won England as his very own plaything in 1066–“If serfs reside without challenge for a year and a day in our cities, or in our walled towns, or in our castles, from that day they will effectively be free men and forever free from their bonds of servitude.”

For a law that’s no more than purported, it seems to have had an impressive impact. It was repeated in various ways by various cities and rulers. Henry II gave Lincoln a charter saying, “Should anyone reside in my city of Lincoln for a year and a day without being claimed by any claimant, and he is contributing towards the customary dues of the city, and the citizens can prove (by the customary legal process of the city) that a claimant was present in England but made no claim upon him, thereafter he may remain in my city of Lincoln, undisturbed as before, as my citizen, without legal challenge.”

For claimant, you can substitute lord–someone with a feudal right to claim this person as, effectively, his property.

Elsewhere, you’ll find specific statements about a villein (that’s what you and I would call a serf) being freed of villeinage if he lives “undisturbed for a year and a day in any privileged town, to the point that he is accepted into its community (that is, gild) he is thereby freed from villeinage.”

Gild? That’s what we’d call a guild. Hold onto that word, because we’ll come back to it.


Consulting the grownups about this

Notice that bit about privileged towns. This year-and-a-day stuff didn’t work in just any town. You couldn’t hide out for the required time in your local market town and hope to be free. The magic only worked if the spell was written into the town’s charter. 

But not every town or city was welcoming to fugitive serfs.

Do I have details about that? I do not. The best I can tell you is that historians aren’t in universal agreement over how common it was for villeins to free themselves this way, or how welcoming or unwelcoming towns were. And since historians are the grownups in this discussion, we’ll leave this for them to work out while we go upstairs and do whatever they told us not to.

It’s worth knowing that free men didn’t live only in cities. They also lived in the countryside, working the land more or less as serfs did. The difference was that they rented their land, didn’t owe the lord any service in kind, and were free to leave, although they couldn’t necessarily afford to. You could be free and as poor as the neighboring serf–or poorer. 

Nothing’s ever simple, is it?


Two footnotes 

  1. Becoming a free man didn’t make you a freeman. That was a different category and we’ll get to it in a minute. What being a free man did do was make you not-a-serf, which was a major change in status,even if it wasn’t the solution to all your problems. 
  2. Almost everything I’ve found talks about free men. Only the Guild of Freemen of the City of London website acknowledges references to women having been guild members. Given the English language’s counterproductive tradition of sometimes insisting that men means both men and women and the rest of the time insisting that men means only men, figuring out what we’re talking about here isn’t easy, but the year-and-a-day thing does seem to have applied to women. As far as I can tell.


Guilds, freemen, and free men

It’s not just the men and women who are hard to tell apart. Several websites get woozy about the difference between free men and freemen. So when the city of Birmingham, by way of example, explains what freemen means, it’s hard to know if it applies to both free men and freemen.

Don’t you just love the English language?

What does the Brimingham website say? “The medieval term ‘freeman’ meant someone . . . who had the right to earn money and own their own land. People who were protected by the charter (rules) of their town or city were often ‘free’, hence the term ‘Freedom of the City.’ ”

Are you confused yet? 

Good. Then you’re following the discussion. You could live in a city and be free, but not be a freeman, and therefore (at least as time went by) not someone who had the freedom of the city. To become a freeman of a city or town, you had to be accepted by one of its guilds, and they limited their membership. If too many people have the right to practice as, say, goldsmiths, prices will drop.

The medieval guilds were powerful organizations, made up of merchants or craftspeople (who weren’t always men). They had a monopoly on their corner of the economy and regulated trade, standards,  apprenticeships, and prices. Each one protected its interests, and they often controlled city or town governments.  

If you couldn’t become a member–and unless you had connections, you probably couldn’t–you might well be free and a man, but you were stuck working as a laborer. You weren’t a freeman of the city.


More about freemen

The Portsmouth City Council website skips over free men and goes straight for freemen:The institution of freemen or burgesses dates from the early beginnings of municipal corporations in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Freemen or burgesses enjoyed considerable political privileges, being entitled to elect the officers of the corporation and its representatives in Parliament, although they were not necessarily resident in the borough of which they were burgesses or freemen.”

In this context, the corporation was the city government.

“In choosing freemen or burgesses, boroughs found it convenient to admit men of national importance who might be able to secure greater economic or political privileges for the area. Prominent local landowners with interests in a borough would reward their supporters by securing their admission as freemen or burgesses–between the sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries a very high proportion of the known burgesses in Portsmouth were not resident in the borough.”

In other words, freemen were a select group of a city’s residents (or, just to confuse the picture, non-residents). They were people with power and money. That held until 1835, when the Municipal Corporations Act established city councils. After that, they might very well still have held power, but they had to exercise it differently.


Can we confuse the issue a bit more?

Of course we can. Let’s go to Texas, where a couple of Freedom of the City certificates are sitting in the Ransom Center, which led the center to write about them.

One certificate was issued in London in 1776 to Michael Dancer at the end of his apprenticeship. It was big–2 feet by 5 inches–and came with a tube so Mick could roll it up and carry it around with him. The Ransom Center swears that people would have carried these the way we might carry a passport or driver’s license today, to prove identity and citizenship. 

I offer you a grain of salt to go with that explanation. They might well have needed the document for one thing and another–only people who’d been granted freedom of the city could exercise a trade within London’t city limits, and that held true until 1835–but I’d guess it was too important to cart around the streets every day like a driver’s license. 

The Ransom Center tells us that along with a freedom of the city certificate, London also presented its new members with “a book titled Rules for the Conduct of Life, which was intended to guide them in their life as freemen. While providing many basic laws and recommended codes of conduct, the book also outlined several interesting freedoms available only to freemen.  For example, the book notes freemen have the right to herd sheep over the London Bridge, go about the city with a drawn sword, and—if convicted of a capital offense—to be hung with a silken rope. Other ascribed privileges are said to include the right to be married in St. Paul’s cathedral, to be buried in the city, and to be drunk and disorderly without fear of arrest.”

I’m not exercised about where I get buried–I hope to be past caring by then–but that silken rope might make freedom of the city worth pursuing. 


What does being a freeman of the city get you today?

Not much. Let’s limit ourselves to London: You can’t drive sheep across London Bridge anymore. Capital punishment’s been abolished, so if you want to be hung with a silken rope you’ll have to make your own arrangements. I’m not sure what the law is on drawn swords, but I‘d recommend doing some research before you try it. Folks get twitchy about swords these days, no matter what certificate you’re carrying.

That makes the freedom of the city something you can put on your resume, if you have one, but that’s about it. It’s just a bit of English tradition that you’re welcome to take seriously if you can.

46 thoughts on “What does freedom of the city mean?

  1. As you surely knew I must, I beg to differ on the issue of villeins and serfs. I will always refer to villeins as villeins. What’s more, unlike some novelists who write about the Middle Aees, I know that it’s spelt ‘villein’ and not ‘villain’.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Historical novelists get that one wrong? Ouch.

      As for the difference, I confess it had gone over my head. I just looked it up and now know enough to know that I’m not sure of the shades of meaning but (embarrassingly) you’re right.

      Liked by 2 people

      • The same word can mean different things in different eras as well, which doesn’t help. I’m fairly sure that one of your city websites defined burgess incorrectly, but they might have not have been using it as a medieval term. I might have to write a post about it.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Oh, yes, we lived down the road from them–Dudley and Eunice Jorgenson. They let us sit on their horses and Dudley would walk the horses around, and we could stroke their cows and take a few eggs home to Momma, and some milk with cream in. Oh, we loved that. And so did the cats. Good people. Good neighbors. They’re gone now. But their sons are keeping the place running. We miss them.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. How did the dang certificate end up in TEXAS ??? I was already thinking of the Fugitive Slave Act, and getting to Texas further confused me. Plus I always get Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney, who ruled on Dred Scott, mixed up with Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the commisssioner who banned the 1919 Black Sox from baseball. So my mind wandered off. Sorry.
    No lieges were mentioned in the making of this post ?
    Seriously – I will go back and reread after I have some coffee. That beach photo was arresting, to say the least. Wasn’t Cornwall once known for its connections to smuggling ?

    Liked by 4 people

    • It was known for smuggling. Lots of coastline, lots of coves and crannies and places that were hard to watch. Apparently, it was the gentry who were the big-league smugglers. For whatever that bit of knowledge is worth.

      I expect the certificate got to Texas along with its owner, who–freedom of the city or not–was looking for someplace to start anew. I’m sure there’s a story there.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A question born of ignorance, please be gentle: what does “serfs reside without challenge” mean? That if you’re a serf and happen to live in a city and whoever is your “master” doesn’t come looking for you in that city during that year you’ve gone unchallenged?

    A cute cartoon that I thought you’d appreciate given the attitude that anyone carrying a Freedom of the City certificate must have (plus all the huffing and puffing in the beginning)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Now that’s a twist on the three little pigs story that I’ve never heard. Or imagined. Thanks for adding it to the warpage my already quite warped brain.

      I think you’ve got the sense of the quote: A serf was tied to the land and couldn’t leave without the lord’s permission–unless, of course, they left with a great deal of risk and daring and made it to a city, where they hid for a year and that vital extra day. (Sounds like a magical formula, doesn’t it? I wonder if it didn’t have its roots in some half-forgotten belief.) I don’t know if some structure existed for a feudal lord to claim a runaway serf–or to use the verb from the quote, challenge their freedom–but I’ll bet there was one, since cities and towns had governing structures. But that’s me speculating. Don’t put too much weight on it, because I don’t have any actual facts on hand.


      • I’m glad I could assist with the warpage :D

        That is fascinating and surprising (to me), that the powers that be decided to give a loophole out of serf-itude… Now I wonder, how did the serfs learn of this loophole? I doubt that their masters would have been eager to publicize it?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Interesting question, and one I hadn’t thought of. My instinct would be to look at the conflicting interests of the towns (and townspeople) and the feudal lords. The towns needed people, and their wealthy citizens would have needed poor citizens to do the jobs that didn’t lead to wealth–the digging, the carrying, the cooking, the cleaning.

          A surprising number of people in the middle ages traveled surprising distances–including many merchants. Word would spread.

          Which is at least a guess at how. Why, though, is harder. I wish someone had been taking notes on the discussion that led up to that.


    • Welcome might be stretching it, but I don’t think they get to keep him out. Or return him to his feudal overlord. And yes, I think it is his duchy, although I admit I haven’t kept track. As I keep saying, I have a hard time taking any of this seriously.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Seems like we’ve got a lot of madness going around lately. I’m thinking of marking it down a bit just to see if we can’t unload some before its sell-by date.

      And thanks. I confess, I like the picture as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: What does freedom of the city mean? – Nelsapy

  6. So, if I manage to find the Andrew formerly known as Prince hiding within the walls of York City before his year-and-a-day is up, I can take him home at sword-point and put him to work in the garden. Or hang him without use of silk. I think that’s fair.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The sheep and the right to get drunk and be obnoxious without being arrested–yeah, I could get behind that. Being hung with a silken rope, though, just doesn’t strike me as much of an advantage. Call me fussy if you like, but…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: What does freedom of the city mean? | Sharing Positive Links to inspire. Original Windows From Heaven Journey Pics included.

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