Freemen of Berwick
Captain Jim Evans, recently retired chairman of the Guild of Freemen of Berwick-upon-Tweed, covered 1000 years of complex history. He revealed that Berwick is unique in many ways. Together with Roxborough, it became the first ‘Royal Borough’ and was once the wealthiest town in Scotland with only London, in England, contributing more financial support to its monarch at that time. Records show that Berwick changed hands 27 times, finally becoming English. As King James V1 crossed Berwick bridge into England he exclaimed that Berwick should be the centre of his domain – neither English nor Scottish!
In ancient days a Burgess was a privileged member of a community, enjoying freedom to work and trade as merchants in their town and possessing certain rights; however, in return they had responsibility for administering and supporting their local community. They had originally been granted a plot of land from the king, to whom they paid rent ─ all land being owned by the king in that era. Those living in the then very prosperous town of Berwick became property owners, living in grand houses. The king also appointed a ‘provost’, whose responsibility it was to collect and pay the town’s taxes to the monarch and a mayor who originally represent the Guild.
As communities developed, master tradesmen evolved, each having their own trade guilds. Names became associated with trades, for example: Baxter (baker), Smith (blacksmith) and Miller. Other names were connected with places of origin. In the thirteenth century Berwick grew in size, seeing an influx of families from the continent attracted by its wealth. Skills and trades were passed on to sons but, we were told, few families survived more than an average of three generations; common disasters of the time ─ fire or disease ─ frequently caused their demise. An apprentice served seven years and lived in his master’s house. Eventually skilled tradesmen’s guilds combined with burgesses into one guild, becoming synonymously Freemen.
The commercial centre of a trading community was traditionally the market – usually indicated by a market cross. Berwick once had two such crosses which stood where the current Town Hall is sited. The Town or Guild Hall has an ancient history and was given to the Guild of Freemen many centuries ago. Its many past uses have included being a prison. Originally having one curfew bell, it now has a peel of eight bells (paid for by the Freemen); there are no church bells in the parish church which was built in the puritan days of Cromwell’s rule.
Our speaker described Berwick as “unique” in many ways – too many to tell here! Currently there are 600 Freemen enrolled, with women admitted in 2009. Originally only the eldest son, at 21 years of age, was eligible to become a Freeman, but by the seventeenth century all sons were admitted to the Guild ─ widows too. The Guild of Berwick-upon-Tweed formed a trust in 1926, governed by trustees and a committee elected annually. Roles, rules and privileges have evolved over the centuries with numerous charters and Acts defining their governance.
Today amongst its many activities the Guild supports charities, provides housing, and continues ancient traditions and ceremonies. Captain Evans showed the Guild’s official robes and a number of documents and books, proving Berwick-upon-Tweed’s has a very intricate history, incorporating that of the Freemen’s Guild.
14th September 2016