BACK IN TIME: The Alnwick Freemen and The Dukes, 1757 to date, was the subject of an excellent talk given at the January meeting of Glendale Local History Society by retired solicitor Cliff Pettit.
Cliff reminded us that in the 15th and 16th centuries, Northumberland was a pretty lawless place and Alnwick, being an important trading and market town, was at the sharp end. So much so that the Earls of Northumberland didn’t much care to live there, preferring to spend their time in their properties in the more peaceful (and warmer) south of England. Consequently the running of the town was left to the Freemen of Alnwick.
In feudal medieval England, the lottery of life dealt three options: Nobility (not many of them), Freemen (middling numbers) and serfs (plenty).
The Freemen were essentially a town council and dealt with all the things that their modern day counterparts handle. Trading standards, local administration, rents and local taxes were all in their jurisdiction as was the magistracy and law and order. The Freemen themselves were, in the main, local tradespeople who derived their power from the trade guilds. These governed and regulated trades within the town.
They were part trade union, part trade protection with some philanthropy mixed in. For traders who were Freemen, it was ‘free’ to put up a stall in the Market Square, but other traders had to wait outside the town walls to be let in and had to pay a fee (to the Freemen).
In time, the Alnwick Freemen became influential wealthy property owners and the nobility were content to allow this to happen while they enjoyed their softer lifestyle further south.
Then two things happened. The Union of the Crowns in 1603 led to a lessening of cross border strife and in 1672 -he first Duke of Northumberland decided to make his home at Alnwick Castle.
Suddenly the nobility were not comfortable living in a place where Freemen had such influence and wealth and the Duke began a campaign, mainly through the courts, to reduce their status.
The rivalry between the Dukes and Freeman frequently involved land and property.
Cliff explained that the Northumberland Hall was built on one side of the Market Place by the then Duke and gifted to the town to outshine the Town Hall, owned by the Freemen, on an adjacent side.
Cliff told us that to be eligible to become a Freeman you either needed to be the son of a Freeman or become an apprentice to a Freeman.
Since apprenticeships are scarce in modern times, this meant that succession through the male line had become the only way and women were inevitably precluded.
Cliff entertained us with his account of the Freemen’s traditional initiation ceremony. This was not for the faint-hearted as it involved riding the town boundary on horseback and crawling through a bog containing hidden obstacles.
The next meeting will be on February 9, at 7.30pm at the Cheviot Centre, Padgepool Place, Wooler, when Peter Arnold of the Northumbrian Language Society will speak on The Northumbrian Language and its Dialects.