History of Norwich Freemen

1. Who were the Freemen?

Map: Norman Norwich c.1100

The freemen of Norwich are descended from the townspeople who struggled to win self-government as the city grew in wealth and power after the Norman Conquest. These men wanted to be free of royal power and feudal lords, and free to control their own trade, businesses and manufactures.  Gradually, kings conceded more and more power to cities and towns in return for taxes and loans to run the country and fight their wars.

Norwich was transformed by the Norman Conquest.  With its new cathedral and castle, reinforced by the building of the French borough and market place, Norwich became the ecclesiastical, military and economic centre of East Anglia and one of the principal cities of Europe.

Charter granted in 1194

A turning point for Norwich and its townspeople was the charter granted by Richard the Lionheart in 1194 to fund his crusades.

The charter agreed that in return for an annual payment to the Crown, the ‘citizens’ had the right to be free of tolls throughout England.  They were allowed to collect and administer the income of the city from tolls, rents and profits of the borough court.

It also granted them the right to elect annually their own reeve or administrative officer.  By the early 1200s, four bailiffs replaced the reeve, but they too were elected annually by the ‘citizens’. They met regularly in an ‘assembly’ to discuss finance and other business matters.

The charter of 1194 refers to the ‘citizens’ of Norwich, but from the charter of 1285 we know that the term ‘citizen’ equated with freemen. The great Norwich historian, William Hudson, in his famous book The Records of the City of Norwich, published in 1906 wrote:

‘A citizen at the end of the 13th century was one who having sought admission into the privileged and exclusive body which possessed the chartered liberties [the freemen], after due examination and on payment of duly arranged fees, was admitted into participation with the existing members of the body.   Resident inhabitants who had never been admitted [into the freedom], although they shared some of the liberties, had no share in the government of the city’.

By this time the freemen were a well-established body which had developed alongside self-government in Norwich.  Entry to the freedom was like buying or inheriting membership of a club that controlled the city.

Freemen come to the fore, 1285-1317

As Norwich acquired more powers, so it needed the apparatus of government.  From 1285, the series of enrolled deeds, accounts and collections of regulations, bylaws and customs start to make their appearance.  Among these, the Book of Customs, from about 1308, and the Old Free Book, with entries from 1317, reveal the freemen as a distinctive body of townsmen and provide us with the first comprehensive picture of their organisation.

The Enrolled Deeds, 1285-1400                                                                                            

The earliest evidence of freemen activity in Norwich comes from the Enrolled Deeds which provide details of property transactions from 1285 to the 15th century.  These documents include not only the names of freemen and their trades and occupations, but the location of these activities in the city. From this evidence it is has been possible to create a map showing the industrial activity and pollution in late medieval Norwich (See map below).

The freemen in these deeds are not described as such, but referred to as ‘citizens’.  As William Hudson explained in his book on Norwich records, ‘citizen’ and ‘freeman’ meant the same thing. For this reason, the citizens from the Enrolled Deeds will be included in the database, Norwich Freemen Records Online.

Citizens from the Enrolled Deeds will add hundreds of entries from 1285-1400 and supplement the formal freemen admissions contained in the Old Free Book.  This is very useful as there are significant gaps in the first Freemen Register, known as The Old Free Book.

The Old Free Book, 1317-1548

This consists of 163 folios or pages. The paper for the book was purchased by Richard Spynk, a wealthy merchant in 1344 and was intended as a book for the entry of City records.  Folios 2-29 include documents relating to Richard Spynk and the fortification of the City walls and ditches in 1343-4; a note on his purchase of the paper for the book in 1344; grants to the citizens of Norwich by Edward III in 1345, and names of bailiffs and  ‘24 Citizens’ elected by the Assembly from 1344-1347.   Not until folio 30, probably in the 1370s, were lists of persons admitted to the Freedom of the City included in the book, summarized and copied from the original loose-leaf documents, with the first entry dating from 1317.

The first freeman

The earliest freeman recorded in the Old Free Book is ‘Walter Fleighe, butcher’ [Latin entry: Walterus Fleighe, carnifex] (see image left).  This is the first name which heads the list of those recorded under the heading of ‘11th year of the reign of King Edward II, in the time of William But, Robert de Lopham, Peter de Bumpsted and Robert de Wilby, bailiffs of Norwich’. (The regnal year of 11 Edward II ran from 8 July 1317 until 7 July 1318).

Folios 30-54 list the entries in successive years from 1317-1451.  But from 1452, in folios 55-139, the admissions were grouped together under various trades and occupations.

Despite the flaws in the document, the Old Free Book has preserved the names, trades and occupations of thousands of freemen for posterity and brought to the fore a freemen body working, living and organizing themselves in medieval Norwich.

Rules of Admission to the Freedom and the Freemen’s Oath

Any organisation, body or club requires rules and regulations.  Entry to the freedom of the city of Norwich was no exception. The rules were set out in Chapter 36 in the Book of Customs compiled for the administration of the city in about 1308.

Rules of Admission to the Freedom

‘No one may merchandize in the city unless he be at lot and scot of the city [pays borough dues] and contributes to the common aids [Crown dues] of the same.  And that all who shall be received as a peer of the city [into the freedom] may be free and not serfs to anyone, let enquiry be well made before they are received’.

In other words, everyone in Norwich who paid rates and taxes was eligible for freeman status, and all those who wished to trade freely in the city had to acquire that status.  Aspirants could qualify for the freedom in three main ways:

  • By patrimony, from father to son, providing that the father had been a freeman at the time of his son’s birth.
  • By serving as an apprentice for seven years with a freeman and paying a fee of not less than a mark or thirteen shillings and four pence.
  • By purchase, newcomers or ‘strangers’ who had been apprenticed elsewhere could buy entry to the freedom on payment of a fee of at least twenty shillings, but only after they had established themselves by practising their craft freely for a year and a day.

As well as the entry qualifications a candidate had to provide himself with a furnished house and satisfy an admissions panel that he could fulfil the financial obligations of a freeman. Finally, they all had to pay the clerk 6d for the enrolment.

The Lord Mayor, Valerie Guttsman admitting David Eaton, son of Tom Eaton and grandson of Frederic Ray Eaton (chairman of the Freemen’s Committee 1921-1960) to the freedom of the city in 1980, at  the Mayor’s Court in the 15th century Guildhall  where they were traditionally admitted until the ceremony moved to City Hall in 2011 after the admission of women.

Women and the Freedom:   Women apparently were not eligible for the freedom, although several examples have been found in the Old Free Book.   Widows were allowed to carry on their husbands’ businesses without paying for admission, which may explain why they rarely feature in the registers. Women were granted the freedom in 2010. 6. Women and the Freedom

Honorary Freedom

This honour, evident from 1550, was originally conferred by ‘Order of the Assembly’ on those members of the Norfolk gentry elected to serve as officers of the city, such as steward and recorder.  It was a way of attracting legal specialists.  However, by 1671, with the admission of the Rt. Hon. Lord Henry Howard, Baron of Castle Rising, and his two sons, the title became mainly honorific.  The Howards agreed to uphold the franchises and liberties of the city, but did not have to fulfil the obligations contained in the oath, such as bearing office. In return for the honour, the Howards presented a new silver mace to be borne before the mayor and a rich crimson gown, lined with silk, to be worn by him and his successors.   In 1677, Colonel William Paston and his younger brother Robert Paston, sons of Robert Paston, first Earl of Yarmouth, were admitted to the freedom on similar terms as the Howards.   As the aristocracy became more powerful in the 18th century it was a good idea for the city to keep them onside. To find out more about the Honorary Freedom

 The Freemen’s Oath

The freeman’s relationship with the city was cemented by the oath he took on his admission to the freedom. The oath lists the responsibilities and obligations accepted by the freemen in return for the rights and privileges they enjoyed. To this day, taking the oath is the highlight of the admissions ceremony binding the freemen, and the new lady freemen, to the city.

Regulating trade in the freemen’s interest

The Book of Customs, dating from 1308, shows that the regulations controlling trade in the city were carefully drafted to protect the interests of freemen and to penalize those who chose to avoid enrollment. All buying and selling was concentrated in the market place with dealers in similar commodities grouped together: fishmongers in one place, drapers in another and grocers elsewhere, just like today. This arrangement facilitated control and encouraged competition. Country people and traders from other towns were charged heavy tolls as they entered the city gates. Their efforts to evade such charges provided much of the business of the City courts. For example, in 1289 Hugh de London was fined 12d ‘because he buys and sell in the city and is not of the freedom’.

On the plan of Norwich Market Place (below), notice the toll house, the city gaol, murage loft for collecting tax for the upkeep of the city walls and the pillory and cage, all devices for keeping people in order! Stringent laws also applied to non-freeman residents in the city. They could not take on apprentices or enter into partnership with a freeman. Nor could an apprentice ‘make gain to his own proper use or share gain with his master’ until he was admitted to the freedom. Such regulations ensured that non- freemen remained in menial occupations with little prospect of advancement.

Trades and Occupations

The list of trades in the Old Free Book started with the Mercers, followed by Grocers, Drapers, Worsted Weavers, Lysters (dyers), Peynters, Goldsmythes, Screvenors (writers), Fysshmongers, Skynners, Taylours, Weavers, Fullers, Shermen, Bedweavers, Carpenters,  Masons, Barkers (tanners), Cordewaners (shoemakers), Bakers, Bochers, Barbours, Rafemen (chandlers), Smythes, Brasyers (metal-workers), Bowers (bow-makers), Cotelers (cutlers), Reeders (thatchers), Sadelers, Vynters (wine traders), Carters and Skeppers (maker of skips or baskets).

The editor of the printed version, Walter Rye, identified a further 182 trades and occupations grouped under these headings. For example glovers under skinners, bleachers with listers, fletchers (arrow-makers) with bowers, and ominously, surgeons with barbers.


Responsibility for the enforcement of trading regulations rested with the four bailiffs who administered the four court leets of Norwich: Ultra Aquam, north of the river; Wymer south of the river; Mancroft east of the castle and Conesford south and west of the castle.  The Castle and the Cathedral were exempt from this system as the map above shows.

In time, these leets came to form the four wards of Norwich which returned elected officers and representatives to serve in the Common Council.  These were all freemen and elected by freemen. It was a closed shop.

Further reading

  1. U. Priestley, The Great Market, (1987)
  2. E. Rutledge ‘Economic Life in Norwich before the Black Death’; J. Campbell, ‘Norwich before 1300’ and P. Dunn, ‘Trade’ in Medieval Norwich, ed. C. Rawcliffe & R. Wilson, (2004)

Heritage Projects book, A Market For Our Times (2010).





History of Norwich Freemen

NFRO Introduction

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History of Norwich Freemen

1. Who were the Freemen?

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History of Norwich Freemen

2. Freemen in Control

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History of Norwich Freemen

3. Freemen in Decline

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4. Freemen’s Lands

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5. Revival of the Freemen

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6. Women and the Freedom

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What is the Honorary Freedom?

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Celebrating 700 Years

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