Today’s freedom was yesterday’s trade privilege

THE Freedom of the City originated in the early thirteenth century. Today the freedom is largely symbolic, but in the Middle Ages it was a valuable working document that gave you the right to trade.

It would enable you to carry out your trade or craft as a member of one of the venerable City livery companies. They were a sort of medieval trade union, banded together to regulate prices, quality and standards and to look after their members. The members of the companies received monopolistic trading rights in the richest part of the kingdom. However, there were two catches – one was the fee, which was much higher than the relatively small £25/£30 fee today (which no longer swells the coffers of the Corporation, but goes to the Freemen’s School for foundation scholarships). Secondly, the Lord Mayor expected that the guilds would maintain quality and excellence in the goods and services provided. In this way, it would ensure that bakers would not give you stale bread and vintners would not give you sour wine. It was a form of medieval trading standards. This continued for centuries until the Victorians came along. They did not like monopolies, preferring the benefits of free trade. So the requirement that you had to be a member of a livery company to be a Freeman was lifted and in 1835 the freedom was widened to incorporate those living or working in the City.

The freedom is supposed to give the right to drive sheep over London Bridge. Alas, the City of London Police are not keen on this custom in the twenty-first century. In the Middle Ages however, it was a valuable economic privilege. It was not so much that you could take sheep over the bridge, but that you did not pay the toll, which would considerably enhance your profit when selling the sheep at Smithfield Market. You could take any livestock over the bridge and not pay the tariff but in the mediaeval period the sheep was queen of the beasts because the wool trade was the bedrock of the English economy. More sheep went over the bridge than all other animals put together.

Occasionally today Freemen can take sheep over the bridge, but it is usually for charitable purposes. Lord Mayors from time to time arrange sponsored sheep drives for their chosen charity.

There were other privileges too. Freemen could be hanged with a silk rope if they committed murder; you could wander around the City with your sword drawn to defend yourself from robbers; you were exempt from the press gang; you could be drunk and disorderly and granted safe passage home from the Watch. Sadly none of these privileges are available today. The main remaining privileges are of a charitable and educational nature.

Freedom can be obtained in a number of ways mainly by redemption, which is to say payment. One has to apply for the Freedom either through a livery company or by nomination.

It is a gratifying thought that the Chamberlain’s Court is as busy today as it was in the eighteenth century. People receiving the freedom this year include HRH Prince Edward, the Archbishop of Westminster, Dame Judi Dench and Stephen Fry.

Murray D Craig is the Clerk of the Chamberlain’s Court at the City of London. His recent lecture at Gresham College on this subject is available at www.gresham.ac.uk