HONORARY FREEMAN of the City of Nottingham
On Thursday, 16th October 2014, the Nottingham boxer Carl Froch was awarded the title ‘Honorary Freeman of Nottingham’. Dr. David Cross was asked by Notts TV to do a live piece on the history of being a ‘Freeman’.
The award of ‘Honorary Freeman’ has been around since the 1890’s when an Act of Parliament made the award possible. By then, any ‘real’ Freemen had long since died out, so ‘Honorary’ ones could be created (without any complaints from the ‘real’ ones). Nottingham City has made this award 37 times since 1905 (and once while it was still a Borough in 1895), so on average you get a new Honorary Freeman of Nottingham about every 3 years. Jane Torvill, Christopher Dean, Brian Clough and Paul Smith are some of the more famous recent recipients. If Carl Froch or any other recipient is thinking they can now drive their sheep across Trent Bridge (which seems to be the widely held idea) then I suggest they DON’T DO IT! Your sheep will get run over and you may get arrested. Now then, had you been a real Freeman in the Medieval period, things would have been a bit different.
Imagine that the City of Nottingham today was run not by a City Council made up of politicians, but by the owners of all the businesses in Nottingham – anyone concerned with making money in the City. Imagine that they ran the whole City, said how things were organised, who was allowed to do what and so on. Go back 1000 years, and these business folk in charge would be the Freemen of Nottingham – the merchant class who basically ran Nottingham on a day to day basis. They later became the ‘Merchant Guilds’ that most people have heard of.
Why were they called ‘Freemen’? (Actually, they were more usually called ‘Burgesses’, but ‘Honorary Burgess’ doesn’t quite have the same ‘ring’ to it). It was because they were ‘free’ independent people, not subservient to any Baron or landowner, like serfs and villeins were. Most of the population 1000 years ago lived not in towns, but in small rural communities. While not exactly ‘slaves’ as we currently think of the term, ordinary folk essentially ‘belonged’ to their landowner or local Baron. They had to ask permission to move home, get married and so on, and had to do what they were told – work on the land, fight in this war, whatever their ‘boss’ told them. ‘Freemen’ were just that – free to live as they wished. It is likely that the distinction between ‘Freemen’ and ‘slaves’ goes right back to Roman times and just got adapted slightly for later post-Roman society. The distinction was still thriving at the time of the Norman Conquest and for centuries afterwards right through the Medieval period.
So what about the sheep on Trent Bridge? Well, given that the ‘Freemen’ had all the commerce sewn-up and under their control, they enjoyed many ‘perks’ that privilege or power bestows – like the rights to the best grazing for their cattle, and the right to pass toll bridges and other subscription-only entry ways for free. If they paid a toll, they would essentially be paying themselves, as the Freemen controlled all the commerce. So – ANYONE could drive their sheep over Trent Bridge, but Freemen could do it for FREE (no pun intended).
The historic rights of real Freemen no longer apply to the modern ‘Honorary’ ones, so sadly even if Carl Froch has any sheep, they would have to travel in a lorry like everyone else’s. One final word – an ‘Honorary Freeman’ and the ‘Freedom of the City’ are two different honours. ‘Freedom of the City’ today is usually given to local military Regiments and gives them the right to march through Nottingham.