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Freemen of the City of Leicester

A brief history

The Charter

In approximately the year 1107, Robert, Count of Meulan (who was the predecessor of the first Earl of Leicester) granted to the Merchants of Leicester a Charter, re-affirming their rights in the following words:


This Charter may be accepted as evidence that the Gild of Merchants was in existence in 1066, and implies that it is much older than this, although there is no written evidence to support this theory.

Did you know?

Robert, Count of Meulan's charter is believed to be the OLDEST document held at the record office for Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland. 

Origins in Medieval History

The Freemen of the City of Leicester are an ancient body of people whose origins can be traced back to medieval history. It is recorded in the Domesday Book that in 1086 there were 65 burgesses (townsmen with certain privileges) in the borough of Leicester, and it is those burgesses who were the predecessors of today's Freemen.

Prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066 the burgesses were responsible for the civic administration of the town, the maintenance of law and order and for the punishment of crime. This responsibility was discharged by the Portmanmoot, a body of 24 jurats (officers similar to aldermen) who were elected from the burgesses.

Immediately after the Norman occupation of Leicester, this authority was withdrawn - probably in 1068 - but the power was regained in a charter granted by Robert Beaumont, the first Earl of Leicester, in 1120.

Membership of the Gild of Merchants

Gild members, originally called 'Brethren of the Gild', later became known as 'Freemen'. They were usually residents of Leicester, but non-residents could join on paying a fee and undertaking the obligations of membership.

New members took an oath of fealty to the Gild, paid a contribution, and were duly enrolled. The oath has altered since the first recorded form in the reign of Richard II, which was used, with slight variations, until at least the late 16th Century. The charges referred to in the oath are references to local taxes, trading tolls and contributions to the cost of maintaining the market franchise (lot and scot).

In the 12th Century, membership could be obtained in one of three ways:

1. The youngest son of an existing member who was a burgess could inherit membership through his father.

2. Natives of Leicester unable to inherit membership of the Gild could purchase entrance for three shillings.

3. 'Foreigners' - people from outside the city - could pay 20 shillings for the privilege of membership.

Following the charter of Queen Elizabeth I in 1589, admission to the freedom of Leicester could be gained in one of four ways:

1. All the sons of a Freeman could inherit the right, providing that the father had sworn his oath of freedom before their birth.

2. The freedom could be obtained through a seven year apprenticeship to a master who was a Freeman.

3. 'Foreigners' could purchase their freedom if their business activities in the borough made it necessary, but usually without the right of inheritance for sons.

4. Influential people were often invited to become freemen for either commercial or political reasons for the duration of their life.

From 1832 onwards the qualifications necessary to become an Hereditary Freeman were changed. Click here to view the qualifications required.

Early Local Government

Queen Elizabeth I's Charter of Incorporation in 1589 reduced the self-electing powers of the jurats. The burgesses had lost the power of electing membership of the town council exactly 100 years before.

The burgesses had always enjoyed the privilege of attending common hall, as the meetings of the borough were known, and shouting their disapproval at the jurats. This right was withdrawn by Henry VII and executive powers were given to the 24 jurats aided by a second level of 48 burgesses, elected by the jurats themselves.

Various charters issued throughout the reign of Queen Elizabeth I enfranchised all freemen. It also separated the judicial system from the jurats, as well as expanding the borough boundary to include land previously owned by the Bishopric of Lincoln and by the Norman Castle.

First Merchant Grid Roll

"It' Isti intrauerunt in Gildam, merchatoriam die festi beati Dionisii primo post aduentum comitis in Angliam post deliberacionem suam de capcione sua in Francia, soluunt deintroitu & de tauro & de ansis et tantum debent."

"These entered into the Gild Merchant on the day of the Feast of the Blessed Dennis, first after the return of the Earl to England after his release from captivity in France. They pay for entry, for the bull and hanse, etc."

First Merchant Gild Roll - Admitted on Wednesday 9th October 1196

The Board of Deputies, Land and Freemen's Holt

From medieval times the Freemen of Leicester have enjoyed various rights in fields and meadows collectively known as the South Fields and in an area known as the Burgesses Meadows.

In 1804 an Act of Parliament was passed in which the South Fields and the Burgesses Meadows were enclosed granting specific rights solely to freemen and the widows of freemen resident in the Borough of Leicester for grazing livestock.  The Act also provided for the appointment of a Board of Deputies to be elected by the freemen from their own number to manage the estate and for the deputies to appoint a clerk, treasurer and overseer.  


It became apparent that the average freeman could not afford livestock and grazing rights were irrelevant, so in 1845 an Act was passed allowing for part of the land to be divided into allotments not exceeding 500 square yards each at an annual rent of one farthing per square yard.   The status quo of the Deputies was maintained with the additional responsibility of providing accommodation or financial support to needy freemen or their widows.  Deputies at that time were elected on an annual basis from each parish in the Borough of Leicester, the number from each parish depending on the size and population of the parish. 

 The Leicester Freemen’s Estate Act of 1898 regularised the system of deputies as a corporate body of 21 board members, one third of which were elected each year for a three year term of office.

 Today the present system is very much as it was in 1898 with a few minor variations.

In 1920 the area of land known as the Freemen’s Meadows was compulsorily purchased by the Leicester Corporation for the purpose of building an electricity generating station.  This sale represented the last remaining area of pasture land from the original enclosed land.  All that remained of any significance was the Freemen’s Common (an area of land set aside for allotment gardens), Welford Road Cottages and Loughborough Road Cottages. 

The Freemen’s Common and Welford Road Cottages were all disposed of by 1965 and with part of the proceeds land in Aylestone was purchased and an estate of 31 one bed-roomed bungalows constructed known as Freemen’s Holt.  Loughborough Road Cottages were subsequently disposed of in the early 70’s and further development took place at the Freemen’s Holt.

The Freemen’s Estate is a registered charity and the board members, referred to as Deputies, are trustees to the charity whose main responsibilities can be summarised as:

1. Maintaining a proper financial balance between spending money to maintain and improve the estate along with making charitable payments and maintaining a reasonable volume of investments to continue in the same manner for future generations. 

2. Making provision for accommodation and financial support for aged and needy freemen or their widows or widowers and ensuring that the available assistance reaches those who most need it.

3. Ensuring that the estate grounds and properties are maintained to a proper standard and where it is deemed appropriate carry out improvements for the benefit of the freemen.

In order to be a deputy or to be a beneficiary of the charity it is a requirement that residency is within the City or County of Leicester.  The activities of the Board are regulated by the Charities (Leicester Freemen’s Estate) Order 1977 and by the current Charities Act.

The Gild of Freemen was formed in 1976 in order to provide the sort of service to freemen that is not in the terms of reference of the Board of Deputies.  There is no provision within the legislation affecting the Board allowing for spending money other than for the direct benefit of the estate and for beneficiaries of the Charity.

The Gild of Freemen

In 1975 a small group of freemen got together with the collective objective of providing means by which freemen could meet and get together socially.  After some debate and general agreement a meeting was held in a room at the Town Arms in Pocklington’s Walk and freemen were invited to attend with the idea of creating an informal body of freemen whose common interest is that they are all Freemen of Leicester.

The Gild of Freemen of the City of Leicester was formed in 1976 and a set of rules by which the Gild should operate was agreed.

Management of the Gild would be by a body referred to as the Gild Court consisting of a Master, Deputy Master, Clerk, Chamberlain and 5 Wardens, in all, 9 members.

The basic functions of the Court can best be summarised thus:

1. Provide social activities and outings for the benefit of Gild members and their families.

2. Raise funds through membership fees and through activities in item 1 for the benefit of Gild members and their families.

3. Provide items of interest identifiable with the Gild such as ties, key rings, etc for sale to the membership.

4. Liaise with the City Council and maintain a mutually beneficial relationship to raise the profile of the Freemen within the City.

5. Provide a means of communicating with the membership through a newsletter, now known as Gildhall News.

The Gildhall News

When the Gild was first formed a newsletter was written by the clerk of the moment and issued to Gild members.  The letter was typed on A4 paper and was sent out on an Ad Hoc basis with no set timetable.  This continued up to the end of 1996 after which a new format was produced in the form of an A5 sized booklet with multiple pages known as ‘the Gildhall News’.

From the very start the cost of the letter, the printing and the postage was funded by the Gild with no financial assistance from the Board of Deputies and with no other link with the Board other than that we were all freemen.

In 1998 a representation from the Gild approached the Board with a view to creating a bond which would be of mutual interest to both parties.  The result of the meeting was that the Board would finance the cost of printing and postage of the Gildhall News with the following conditions.

1. The newsletter would be issued to all freemen whether Gild members or not.

2. The Chairman of the Board would be given the opportunity to read a draft of the newsletter before printing to ensure that the interests of the Board were not jeopardised.

3. The Chairman of the Board would be given the opportunity to include his own contribution to the newsletter.

4. The overall editing and responsibility of producing the newsletter would rest with the Gild.

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