So what exactly is a Freeman?
A freeman is a relic of an ancient tradition. Men with the required qualifications were admitted to what was known as the ‘freedom of the city’. This meant the freemen took an oath to support the Mayor and accepted all sorts of responsibilities, like standing for elections, taking office, paying their taxes and abiding by the rules. In return, they were granted special trading rights and privileges, one of them being that their sons inherited the ‘freedom’.
These rights and responsibilities have mostly disappeared but the title survives, and the freemen of Norwich continue to play an important part in life of the city.
Why are they called freemen?
The name originally denoted they were literally free men. That is free of royal power and feudal lords, free to trade without tolls and free to govern Norwich in return for taxes and loans to the King.
What is the Honorary Freedom?
This is nothing to do with the Norwich Freemen. It is the right of the City Council to award the freedom of the city to worthy people and organisations, such as Norwich City Football Club, for their contribution to Norwich.
How come they still exist?
This was a bit of fluke! The institution of the freedom was finally abolished by the Municipal Corporation Act, 1835. At the last moment the House of Lords secured an amendment which allowed Freemen to continue as a link with the past, but all political power and economic privileges were lost. Luckily for the Norwich Freemen, they were allowed to keep their lands.
Are they the same as the Freemasons?
No, but people sometimes confuse them because of the similarity of their names. They both have medieval origins and relate to trade organisations. However, freemasons were a closed fraternal society, while the freemen were much more broadly based with political power and responsibilities.
How do you become a freeman?
Today, there are two ways to become a freeman, either by patrimony (father to child) or apprenticeship. Few are now admitted as apprentices. The freemen are trying hard to open the doors wider, but they are restricted by ancient laws and customs. There has to be an unbroken line of succession.
How many Freemen of Norwich are there now?
There are now around a thousand freemen including 400 women. Not all of them live in Norwich and some come from far and wide for the historic admission ceremony held at City Hall in March every year.
What role do freemen play in contemporary Norwich?
The freemen’s charity the Norwich Town Close Estate Charity gives financial help to freemen, their children and widows.
Since 1983, the charity also has also awarded educational grants to projects and other charities within a 20-mile radius of Norwich. Regular recipients, include Dragon Hall, Cinema City and Theatre Royal, Norwich Cathedral, St John’s Cathedral, How Hill Trust, Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, Puppet Theatre, YMCA, Norfolk Museums Service, Citizens’ Advice Bureau and Wymondham College.
Grants from the freemen’s charity helped save Dragon Hall, in King Street, provided match funding for much-needed restoration work at Cinema City and helped fund the new, purpose-built learning and skills centre at the Theatre Royal.
Can women be freemen?
Yes, in 2009 an act of parliament allowed daughters of freemen to qualify for admission to the Freedom. In 2010 Norwich women were admitted to the freedom in a two great ceremonies at St Andrews Hall. They now make up 35% of the Freemen of Norwich. They are sometimes referred to as ‘lady freemen’ but by law they are called ‘freemen’.