The Origins of the Freemen



Town Moor in Winter

The origins of the Freemen are obscure. At one time they were thought to be linked with the Anglo-Saxons who emigrated to Britain in the fifth century A.D., when the Romans departed. The more modern view is the possibility that the origins are only partly Anglo-Saxon but also partly British and partly Roman. There were, broadly speaking three classes of people - nobles, free men and slaves. The free men were a middle class, comprised of those who were permitted and obliged to carry arms. This distinction can be followed right through from mediaeval to modern times.

Early communities arose through the gradual gathering of people around a fortified centre or homestead ("Burh" or "Burgh") to give the population mutual defence. These communities were situated on folk land and independent of local overlords. The folk land was set aside for this specific purpose by the King as part of the Royal Demesne. The community of the burgh, usually a group of men or families sharing common ancestry, cultivated the arable and common land of the burgh. They also established the customary rules that regulated their own dealings and their local justice. These rules were administered by the community in their Moot or Assembly. The inhabitants themselves were free men, that is to say they were not bound to the land as a serf or villein of an overlord. They were bound among themselves for the defence of the burgh and paid their dues and taxes direct to the King. Later some towns were founded by feudal overlords who granted privileges by foundation Charters.

Newcastle was originally the site of the Roman station Pons Aelius (situated in the area of the present St. Nicholas Cathedral and the Castle) outside which a civilian settlement grew. There is no definite evidence but it is probable that this remained a fortified settlement after the Romans left. Whether or not it may be identified with the "celebrated royal town" mentioned by Bede is a matter for historians to argue. However there are indications that Monkchester (as the town was called about the time of the Norman Conquest) had Royal connections. The Royal connection may more strictly have related to Pandon, the area between All Saints Church and the River Tyne within two hundred metres of the Guildhall. Although part of Pandon was not joined to Newcastle until 1299 the greater part of it lay within the old boundary of the town.

The town rose rapidly in importance after the building of the new castle under William Rufus. A report of the customs of the town in the time of Henry I showed that there was a well established free mercantile community, known as Burgesses, whose chief official was the "Praepositus" or Reeve.

The Normans enforced a system of tax or rent collection by Sheriffs or "Shire Reeves" who often reached a position where they demanded unjust taxes. The Burgesses wanted to avoid these demands of the Royal Sheriff by agreeing a definite settlement of the liability of the Burgh as a whole and payment of a fixed amount and no more. They became eager to obtain Charters from the King under which they could settle the amount of their tax directly with the Royal Exchequer, and removing from the Sheriff his financial interest.

The Burgesses (now known as the Freemen) who had to find the money, were authorised to recover it by means of tolls and other charges against strangers using the town and from which the Freemen themselves were exempt.

It was necessary that there should be a body of men to whom the King's Charter could be granted and who would be responsible for the payment of the annual charge. Historians have differed as to who normally took the grant. Best opinion is now that it was the Freemen, the same body as the Burgesses of the old township and this certainly appears to have been the case in Newcastle.

The first Charter to the Freemen was granted by Henry II in 1175, exempting them from tolls throughout the King's dominions.

King John, by Charter, granted Newcastle to the Freemen at an annual payment of 100 which appeared until quite recently in the City's annual accounts. This Charter and its successors were repeatedly confirmed by successive Sovereigns who granted many further privileges to the Freemen.

About the end of the 12th century the leading Freemen combined together in a Guild known as the Guild Merchant, which was granted a Charter in 1216, for the purpose of controlling the trade of the town. This Guild soon obtained control of the town's affairs. Other merchant guilds of Drapers (wool merchants), Mercers and Boothmen (corn merchants) were formed during the 13th century but these were later absorbed into the Merchant Adventurers who claimed to be the original Merchant Guild.

During the next two centuries other tradesmen and craftsmen also joined together in trade or craft guilds such as Bakers and Brewers, Butchers, Coopers and Goldsmiths. In all there were forty six of these Guilds or Companies as they are now called in Newcastle. These craft Guilds of the Middle Ages were in effect the equivalent of the modern Trade Unions. The members agreed on and controlled conditions of labour, standards of work, admission to the trade after apprenticeship and associated matters. Considerable jealousy arose between the Freemen and the Merchants as the Merchants were trying to claim exclusive use of the Freemen's ancient customary trading rights. In 1305 the Freemen were successful in legal proceedings against the Merchants. The dispute continued, however, during the 14th and 15th centuries between the Merchant Companies and the craft companies. The members of the Merchant Companies (succeeded later by the Merchant Adventurers Company and the Hostmen's Company), however, managed to retain the real control of the town's affairs. No doubt the origins of the tension which followed between the Freemen and the Corporation, is to be found in these disputes.

The preamble to the Charter granted to Newcastle by Queen Elizabeth in 1600 states that the Town of Newcastle upon Tyne was an ancient Town and county which enjoyed various rights and privileges by both prescription and charter. 'Prescription' means to have existed from time immemorial, which the Law considers as being from the reign of Richard I.

The rights and privileges of the Town and the civic responsibilities were confined to the Freemen. From the earliest Charter until 1835 the Freemen formed a constituent part of the Corporation and enjoyed special rights in the corporate property which was vested in the Mayor and Freemen for the time being. The possession of these rights carried duties and liabilities on the part of the Freemen, one being the proper government of the Town including the discharge of its taxes to the Crown. The paramount government requirement was responsibility for defence of the Town from attack and, to this day, when a Freeman is admitted he swears before the Lord Mayor to defend the City.