Special 700th birthday celebrations for Freemen of Norwich society
PUBLISHED: 15:36 07 February 2017 | UPDATED: 17:05 07 February 2017
Archant Norfolk 2016
It is made up of generations of families and apprentices from across all trades and dates back 700 years. Reporter SOPHIE WYLLIE looks at the Freeman of Norwich on its landmark birthday.
Group members range from flower arrangers, butchers, photographers and solicitors.
But one thing the 1,000 members of the Freemen of Norwich have in common is protecting the culture and history of the city.
To mark the group’s 700th year, it is launching a new website this Thursday in a bid to attract new members and spread the message of the traditional society for future generations.
The main development is a new online database of all freemen records from 1317, due to launch in September, which will help family history searches.
Other celebratory events include free entry to Norwich museums and tours, a history competition, storytelling in schools and a feast for 500 Freemen and their families.
Nigel Back, chairman of the freemen’s committee, said: “We love our city. All our 2017 celebration events are designed to show our pride in the history of the Freemen of Norwich as well as our role in contemporary Norwich.
“We are launching an exciting programme of events to commemorate what is an important anniversary. We would love as many people and schools as possible to get involved.”
Butcher Walter Fleighe, was the earliest freeman registered in Norwich in 1317.
A freemen is a relic of an ancient tradition where men with the required qualifications were admitted to what was known as the freedom of the city.
Members still have to have paternal links to the society or have been an apprentice for four years under a Norwich freeman.
Mr Back added: “Most of the ancient privileges of the freedom have disappeared. However, the title still survives and the current thousand-strong Freemen of Norwich, continue to play an important role in the history and culture of the modern city.”
The society, which accepted women in 2010, gives out £500,000 annually to projects within a 20-mile radius of Norwich from the Norwich Town Close Estate Charity.
Money goes to freemen and their families and educational projects.
History of Freemen of Norwich
Back in the early days of freemen societies, men would take an oath to support the mayor and accept all sorts of responsibilities, including standing for elections, taking office, paying their taxes and abiding by the rules.
They were granted special trading rights and privileges, one of them being their sons inherited the freedom.
Ancient privileges, which have since disappeared, included grazing cattle, enjoying trading rights not held by ordinary residents, voting in elections and being hanged by a silk rope.
The freemen paid to build Norwich city walls in the early 14th century.
Norwich Guildhall was built in 1404 by freemen to house the city government, law courts, a gaol, assemblies and administrators.
From the early 15th century, freemen governed Norwich for 250 years.
Key privileges of the freemen, the right to vote in elections and trading rights, were swept away by the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1835.
Father and son speak about pride in being Norwich freemen
Butcher Michael Quinton, whose father and grandfather was a member of the Freemen of Norwich group has spoken of his pride of the group.
Mr Quinton, 63, owner of MJ Quinton Butchers on Alexandra Road, Norwich, joined in 1975 aged 21 after his father died.
He said: “I’m very proud. Norwich is a lovely city and it is a fantastic privilege to be part of the heritage of the city.”
He described the group as very open and said it was important for it to modernise for the future.
Mr Quinton, whose son and two daughters are members, added the most welcome change to the society in recent years was the introduction of women.
The change was brought about after a 2009 Act of Parliament and now out of the 1,000 Norwich members, a third are women.
He said: “The input of women is fantastic. It brings a dynamic atmosphere.”
Michael Quilton’s 34-year-old son Oliver, from Foster Road in Norwich, speaks about what it means to him to be a member of the Freemen of Norwich.
I have been a freeman since I was 18, and I currently sit on the Norwich Freemen’s committee. Currently, on behalf of the committee, I have taken ownership of the Freemen700 parade and feast that will be held at the end of September 2017.
Being a Freeman is important to me because it gives me a chance to live through a part of the history of Norwich, to be a custodian of that history and to help maintain and create that legacy which will carry on after me.
Freemen of Norwich 700th birthday celebrations
Other Freemen of Norwich 700th birthday celebrations will be tours about the freemen throughout July; a sixth-form student history competition on May 3; freemen talking to primary school students; and a September feast for 500 freemen.