History of Norwich Freemen

2. Freemen in Control

Freemen and city government, 1317-1417

The population of Norwich grew to as much as 25,000 before it was decimated by the Black Death in 1348. By the late 13th century, responsibility for the government of Norwich rested with the freemen meeting in their assembly to elect the four bailiffs and discuss matters of common concern. However, a growing population and increasing social divisions in the city made this direct style of government difficult to manage.

At this time, in many English towns and cities, influential freemen took control of the civic administration and established self-perpetuating or unelected oligarchies. In Norwich the common freemen fought successfully against this trend. The freemen managed to retain their political rights, but as we shall see, social distinctions persisted and a political elite gradually emerged in the 14th century.

City Government 1344

This is confirmed by a description of city government contained in the Old Free Book.  Among the entries for the years from 1344 to 1347 it includes the names of the four newly elected bailiffs, and ‘24 citizens’ elected by the assembly, who were then sworn in to elect the bailiffs. The Assembly Rolls provide a glimpse of how this system worked with annual elections from 1365 to 1386.  The rolls also show that the whole assembly elected members ‘to go to the Parliament of the Lord King’. This is the origin of the freemen electorate, which became so notorious in the 18th century.

Creating a government structure was relatively easy but law and order proved more difficult to resolve. Traditionally, urban communities were responsible for their own policing, but by this time, it was more complex and harder to control. Further powers were given to the bailiffs, and justices of the peace were appointed, but soon the cities applied to the Crown for county status and the law enforcement apparatus associated with it.

City Government, 1404

By the charter of 1404, Norwich became a county in its own right.  To bring the city government into line substantial changes had to be made.  Two sheriffs replaced the four bailiffs and presided over monthly county courts, while a mayor took responsibility for city administration. With four reputable men, the Mayor also exercised the office of justice of the peace in the Mayor’s Courts. His magisterial authority was symbolized by a sword being carried erect before him on all occasions except in the presence of the monarch. Unfortunately, the charter of 1404 said nothing about how the mayor, sheriffs and justices of the peace should be appointed, and the respective roles of the ‘Twenty-Four’ and the freemen.  The twenty-four wanted sole control over the appointments, while the freemen argued that control should remain with them in their assembly. In 1414, they agreed to submit the matter to the arbitration of Sir Thomas Erpingham, local magnate, councillor to King Henry IV and hero of The Hundred Years War.

The structure of government in 1404

The ‘Composition of 1415’

This settlement introduced another layer of government, which left ultimate responsibility with the freemen. However, this control was exerted through elected representatives rather than by the whole body of freemen in their assembly. The freemen were to elect annually a Common Council of sixty members, and a Mayor’s Council of twenty four aldermen to make decisions. The mayor was then elected by a two tier system. First, the freemen nominated two of their number, who had served in high office, as candidates, while the choice was made by the mayor and his council. For the appointment of sheriffs, one was elected by the mayor and aldermen, the other by the Common Council.

Furthermore, all the laws and directives of the Mayor’s Council had to be approved by the Common Council and issued in its name. In 1417, Henry V embodied the agreement in a new charter which he granted to the city.

From the freemen’s point of view, the settlement proved a masterly compromise, as it safeguarded their political influence and involvement in city government. With this level of collaboration and consent, and the new leadership provided by the Mayors, the city prospered mightily.

Freemen secure and build the city, 1294-1500

The rapidly rising population of Norwich in the late 13th century placed all sorts of pressures on the city authorities. The Great Riot of 1272 between the Cathedral and the townsmen left the city badly shaken. There was clearly a need for the authorities to assert their control and protect the city from further social disorder, the destruction of property and possible attack from outside.

The solution was to replace the old defensive system of bank, ditches and palisade with a brick and flint wall, paid for by the Murage Tax.  The walls were started in 1294 and completed in 1344, largely through the generosity of Richard Spynk, a wealthy merchant.

The city walls, as shown above, were an impressive sight and formed the longest circuit of urban defences in the country. However, they did not protect the city from attack or widespread looting, as in the Peasants’ Revolt, 1381 and Kett’s Rebellion, 1549.  But the gates, and the Boom Towers across the Wensum at Carrow Bridge, were useful for collecting tolls and customs, raising money and protecting freemen’s trading rights. The gates also became a focus for civic pride bearing coats of arms and banners.  The walls, with their gates and towers, were maintained at considerable cost until they were demolished between 1792 and 1808. The remnants are now being promoted as a tourist attraction.

In 1398, during the Hundred Years War with France, defences were strengthened on the east side of the city with the construction of the Cow Tower on a bend overlooking the Wensum. Like the walls it was largely ineffective, but useful as a customs control.

Learn more: For the Cow Tower, see www.english-heritage.org.uk; www.norwich.gov.uk; Norwich City Walls Survey, 1999-2002, and www.georgeplunkett.co.uk for old photos of City Walls and Towers.


The Guildhall, Norwich, c. 1840

After the Black Death in 1348, the city authorities intervened directly to support the economy, buying up empty market stalls and shops. In 1384, they established a Cloth Seld or covered market, similar to an Eastern bazaar. These ventures raised money to finance public buildings.

The most conspicuous example from this period is the Guildhall, built between 1407 and 1414, to house the new system of government established after 1404. It replaced the toll house as the city government required accommodation for multiple law courts, a gaol, assemblies and administrators.

The old murage loft became the new tollhouse with the Mayor presiding as Clerk of the Market.  The Norwich Guildhall was one of the grandest halls outside London and was used as the centre of city government until 1937 when it was replaced by the City Hall.

Market Cross, 1502-1732

In 1341, the market place acquired a substantial Market Cross, which was replaced by this elaborate structure in 1502, during the mayoralty of John Rightwise, and designed by Thomas Hearne.

Alas, this wonderful building required expensive maintenance and was demolished in 1732. However, it graced the market place during Norwich’s greatest period and by extension that of the Norwich freemen.

Freemen in the ascendant 1417-1660                                            

The charter of 1417 ushered in 250 years of relative harmony in Norwich government and society. This was no mean achievement in a period of recurrent crises, and in marked contrast to other large towns. All suffered from the plague, declining markets, foreign competition, the impact of the Reformation and rising poverty, but Norwich proved the most resilient and enterprising. By the 1520s, if not before, it was the second largest city in the kingdom, up from fifth in 1377, and ahead of its old rivals Bristol and Newcastle. York had plummeted from second to thirteenth position.

So, how did this happen? Migration was a key factor. Faced with recession in the great cloth making industry, Norwich diversified into the more popular light-weight cloths produced in the Low Countries, by encouraging Protestant refugees, fleeing from persecution, to settle and practice their craft in Norwich. First licensed in 1565, inward migration rose rapidly and greatly increased economic activity with new skills and technology.

Problems of assimilation appear to have been handled with sensitivity by the city government and to the satisfaction of ‘strangers’ and freemen. Norwich devised one of the earliest schemes of poor relief in the country, which later served as a model for national schemes.

What role did the freemen play in this success? It was less dramatic but equally important, and predates the coming of the Strangers. With its system of freemen representation, Norwich ensured that the aspirations of the rulers never diverged radically from the ruled or at least the politically articulate among them, which included traders, merchants and craftsmen.  Until the late 17th century, 70 per cent of such men took up the freedom. So, there was broad agreement as to the way forward.  In fact, through the mayoralty, the freemen initiated the process.

The mayor in 1565, Thomas Sotherton petitioned the Crown, through the Duke of Norfolk, for the right to invite the migrants from the Low Countries.   The request was granted and later Sotherton invited migrants to stay at his house which came to be known as ‘Strangers Hall’.

Strangers Hall, Norwich

Thomas Sotherton, a grocer, admitted to the freedom in 1547, served as MP for Norwich in 1558-9 followed by the mayoralty in 1665. He married Elizabeth, a daughter of Augustine Steward, Mayor of Norwich, three times, 1534, 1545 and 1556. Steward was instrumental in rebuilding the Council Chamber of the Guildhall in 1534, and purchasing Blackfriars for the city in 1540.

Freemen, mayors and pageantry

It is no coincidence that the rise of Norwich to second city in the kingdom followed the creation of the mayoralty in 1404.   For the first time, Norwich acquired clear and strong leadership. Images of several mayors survive in stained glass windows of the churches they endowed, and later in the portraits they commissioned for themselves. Without exception they were all very wealthy, indeed that was the principal qualification for the job.

Robert Toppes and his two wives, stained glass in St Peter Mancroft, Norwich

Most freemen could not aspire to such heights, so mayors were often called upon to perform the task more than once, including Robert Toppes. His career in the city shows what was expected and required of the mayor.

Unlike Thomas Sotherton and Augustine Steward, Toppes was self-made man.  Probably from London, or even the Netherlands, he purchased the freedom to trade as a mercer in Norwich in 1421.  He built himself a great warehouse in King Street, now known as Dragon Hall, and quickly rose to be part of the local elite. He held several prominent posts in the city, including Treasurer, Sheriff and Alderman, and served as Mayor in 1435, 1440, 1452 and 1458.  He also represented Norwich in parliament four times.

When Toppes died in 1467 he left money to every church in Norwich and all the parish churches linked to the worsted cloth industry. He was buried in St. John the Baptist’s chapel in St. Peter Mancroft, where a stained glass window depicts Toppes and his two wives, with an angel behind. This is a fragment of a much larger window Toppes gifted to the church in 1455.

Paying for the privilege

The mayor’s duties included running the city administration and presiding over the Mayor’s Court, but the most expensive aspect of his role was paying for the mayoral procession held every summer to celebrate his inauguration. Today, the mayor’s procession, paid for by the city council, and the civic service which follows are a reminder of those proceedings.

The freemen’s role in the city was reflected in the splendid civic pageantry which attended this event. All freemen participated in the ‘mayor’s riding’ bedecked in the clothing or livery of their craft or company. The freemen led the procession with their companies marshalled in order of precedence.

Then came the mayor, robed, mounted and preceded by his sword and mace bearers.  He was followed by the aldermen, who brought up the rear of the procession. The occasion culminated in a feast for the freemen in St. Andrew’s Hall on a scale which far exceeded the civil allowance, leaving the Mayor to pick up the bill. Music was provided by the ‘city waytes’, a band of uniformed musicians retained by the Corporation.

A whiffler from an 18th century lithograph. Four whifflers led the mayor, aldermen and freemen in procession on civic occasions and guild days.

The mayor’s procession was attended by a number of traditional personalities: the whifflers who cleared the path, followed by standard bearers, trumpeters, clowns and most popular of all, the dragon with its flapping wings and turning head terrorizing the crowd nearest the route. Examples can still be seen in the Castle Museum.

Freemen, each in their separate companies, also organised and presented the Norwich pageants on Corpus Christi day, 15th June. These pageants presented a series of biblical events, each one produced by a group of crafts. The ‘creation of the world’ was staged by the mercers, drapers and haberdashers; ‘David and Goliath’ by the smiths; ‘Abel and Cain’ by the thick woollen weavers, coverlet makes, masons and limeburners  and ‘the birth of Christ with shepherds and three Kings’ by the dyers, goldsmiths, goldbeaters, saddlers, pewterers and braziers.

In Norwich, these religious pageants were very much a feature of the 16th century. The earliest evidence comes from 1522, then after a brief lapse for the Reformation, they were revived in 1565. In 1535, the grocers laid out 17s 6d on preparing their wagon for a presentation of ‘paradise’. How long they continued after that is not known, but there is a reference to a shed for storing the ‘pageant wagon’ in 1626.

The Ordinance for Crafts, 1622, divided the trades and occupations of Norwich into 12 Grand Companies.  They were led by the Mercers, followed by Merchants, Grocers, Apothecaries, Drapers, Goldsmiths, Worsted Weavers, Hosiers, Tailors, Brewers, Inn-holders and Cordwainers. The Freemen’s Register, 1548-1713, records a further 200 trades and occupations divided among these companies.

During the 17th century Norwich developed its role as a fashionable regional capital, providing shopping, marketing, cultural facilities and professional services second only to London. After remaining static for most of the century, its population rose from 20,000 in 1670 to 30,000 by 1700. In 1697, the traveller Celia Fiennes commented that ‘the whole city looks like what it is, a rich, thriving industrious place’, but change was on its way

Further reading

F. Meeres, Strangers: a history of Norwich Incomers, (2012)

J. Pound, Tudor and Stuart Norwich (1988)

R. Frost, ‘The Urban Elite’, Medieval Norwich ed. by C. Rawcliffe & R. Wilson (2004)



History of Norwich Freemen

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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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