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until he blew down Virginia Giuffre’s house–in other words, after he settled her lawsuit out of court–the city of York rescinded an honor it had given him back when he looked a bit less sleazy than he does today: the freedom of the city.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.
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?
- 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.
- 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.