Granting Honorary Freedom of the Town
by Stephen P. Nunn
Down the centuries the title of ‘Freeman’ has had quite different and sometimes complex meanings. In the earliest of times it simply denoted a tenant who held their land at a fixed rent and was literally “free” from feudal service. The Maldon entries in the mighty Domesday Survey (of 1085/86) indicate that some land here (at least six acres of it) was held “in the time of King Edward” by such “free men”. This Dark Age arrangement continued after the Conquest, albeit involving those sympathetic to the new Norman regime, rather than the town’s old Saxon guard. Our earliest surviving charter (of 1171) also includes reference to the power to “hold and to have for ever free” certain lands and possessions and that those burgesses “may be free and quit of danegelt…stallage…and of all toll”.
Later on, however, ‘Freeman’ also denoted a man who had served his apprenticeship and was then “free” to conduct his trade in his own right. A Statute of 1563 regulated that “only the sons of freeholders whose lands were worth more than 40s per annum” could be apprenticed in certain trades. One such tradesman was John Pratt who was apprenticed in 1579, became a freeman, lived in a timber-framed house next to the Moot Hall and, in turn, became the master of his own apprentice.
At a Municipal level, a freeman was a citizen who was not only exempt from tolls, but also enjoyed a share of the profits of his borough. But all of that changed as a result of legislation passed in 1835 and the term became synonymous with an honour – a mark of esteem upon any eminent person who had performed good service for the local community. Take for example, the resolution of the old Maldon Borough Council on the 10th February 1903 to confer “Honorary Freedom” on 21 local men who served with the South African Field Force during the Boer War. Their names are listed on an associate plaque in the Moot Hall and such lists or “Rolls” have been a common feature of the Freedom of the Borough.
Despite the passing of time legal authority still allows for former Borough or City councils to admit “persons of distinction” who have “rendered eminent services” as “Honorary Freeman”. How fitting then that a town as old as Maldon, with a documented past dating back to the 10th century, an ancient Royal Borough that has known so many Freeman in their different guises, has decided to re-instate this time-honoured title. It will only be granted sparingly and in cases where service has been outstanding, but then that’s what continues to make “Freedom of the Town” so very special.