The Gild of Freemen of the City of York


The following article, written by Harry Ward, late Master of the Gild, explains the origins of the Freemen.

York Freemen Through The Ages

By Harry Ward
(Amended 1995 - By R Helstrip, Master)

Even before the Norman Conquest and as crafts and trade developed, the concept of freemen was developing. Men ceased to be villeins. William the Conqueror who had for so long fought wars in developing and defending Normandy developed the same techniques in England. He built castles in the towns, two being in York. The Citizens were free to trade and exercise their crafts; they paid a collective tax, repaired and manned the walls, and provided troops. They were the Kings men.

Extant rolls of York burgesses go back to 1272 but the word freemen was not used until the 14th. Century. In York a man had to be a freeman before he could trade or become a master craftsman and join one of the many guilds. (The concept of guilds is two thousand years old). The charters of the Freemen are the charters of the City of York. The first Royal Charter was dated 1154-8.

Each freeman, from earliest times, had the right to graze one or two cows on the appropriate strays. The City was divided into wards; Micklegate (west of the Ouse), Bootham, Monk and Walmgate each had its stray. These lands are now of immense and rapidly increasing value but have now been taken over by the City Council against the wishes of the Freemen. The present areas of Micklegate, (Knavesmire, Hob Moor and Scarcroft), Bootham, Monk and Walmgate ward strays are 412 164, 138, and 79 acres respectively, far less than their original size before the Enclosure Acts.

Monk Ward Stray formerly stretched six miles to Sandburn. About 500 cows and 200 horses were depastured in all of the strays in 1835.

The York race-course is on the Knavesmire which was freeman's land.

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