I have just returned from a visit to the historic town of Alnwick - a visit prompted by an excellent talk
given at the January meeting of the Glendale Local History Society by retired solicitor Cliff Pettit.
Cliff’s talk took us back to a time when life was very different to today. He 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 of them), and Serfs (plenty of them). 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 trades people 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 the 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. This continued into the
19th century and even today the occasional contentious issue arises.
The rivalry between the Dukes and Freeman frequently involved land and property and so it is not
surprising that the Market Square featured in many disputes. Cliff intrigued us by explaining that the
very grand Northumberland Hall was built on one side of the Market Square by the then Duke and
gifted to the town to outshine the Town Hall, owned by the Freemen, on an adjacent side. It seems
that prestige was as significant as commercial advantage in this rivalry.
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. Around the world there were many men who were eligible to be Freemen, but in Alnwick
there were relatively few and this could lead to difficulties in maintaining the number of Freemen in
The Alnwick Freemen are still concerned with the governance of their town and own property both
within Alnwick and on Alnwick Moor. Cliff entertained us with his account of the Freemen’s
traditional initiation ceremony which used to take place annually. This was not for the faint-hearted as
it involved riding the town boundary on horseback and crawling through a bog containing hidden
Our speaker concluded with a reassurance that relations between the Freemen and the Duke are now
“tolerable”. The vote of thanks was given by the chairman of GLHS Hilda Field.