The Freedom of the City

The Burgess Roll

By Marguerite Wood, Ph.D.

Until around the 1840s the possession of the freedom of the City was not merely an honour, but a necessity to anyone who desired to earn a living there either as a merchant or a craftsman - to use the old word. This necessity goes back to the earliest organisation of cities and burghs on the continent, in England and in Scotland.

This aspect of the freedom differs wholly from the present honour. A freeman was one who, in return for the right to work and for protection from the unfree, assumed certain duties. These included the payment of taxation, a share in the guarding of his town and also a share in its government.

The ticket of a freeman still bears that the person on whom the honour is conferred is made burgess and gild brother. Much has been written about the meaning of the rights attached to each of these, and, at the present time, the old importance of both has disappeared. It may be said that the word "burgess" described the relation of a man towards his burgh and, in the case of the royal burghs of Scotland, to the Crown, of which the community of the burgh was a vassal. This is shown by the fact that royal charters and Acts of Parliament were addressed, or referred to burgesses. Towards the Crown the burgess had the duties of helping to guard the burgh, of serving with the King's army when called upon and of paying royal taxation.

The word "gild brother" in its earliest use described the man in relation to the community itself. So far as can be ascertained since early Scottish documents are rare, the gild, or merchant gild comprised all burgesses, whether merchants or craftsmen-at least with a very few exceptions. Thus burgess and gild brother were practically synonymous. The gild brother was bound to obey the laws formulated by the governing members of the gild, who usually were those who administered the affairs of the burgh and who were chosen by the popular vote of all members. The story of the separation between merchants and craftsmen and their quarrels is complicated and has no bearing upon the bestowal of honorary freedom.

Again, the growth of this custom is difficult to trace. None of the early laws make any mention of it. Admission as burgess or gild brother always was obtained by payment of a sum of money graduated according to the qualifications of the applicant for freedom. The son of a burgess paid a comparatively small sum, as did the man obtaining freedom by marriage with the daughter of a burgess. An apprentice to a burgess paid more, while a considerable sum was payable by an unfreeman, one who had had no previous connection with the burgh. This served as a protection to existing burgesses from too much competition. In the history of all burghs, but particularly of Edinburgh, the privilege of freedom was much coveted. Comparatively early in its records are found admissions of "gratis" burgesses. For granting these the most frequent reason was that some important person had asked the burgess-ship on behalf of a servant or someone whom he desired to befriend. To refuse such a request involved jeopardising the interests of the burgh and of its Council. From the idea of "gratis" burgess-ships, granted to one who desired to become a member of the community, evolved the idea of such burgess-ships bestowed on someone who bad befriended the burgh or whom it might be expedient to flatter, who, moreover, was not in the least likely to become part of the community. Both reasons were to govern the Town Council's choice of the gratis burgesses or, in modern terms, honorary freemen.

The Edinburgh Burgess Roll is, unfortunately, not complete. Still it may be taken as giving a fair account of such freemen. The Roll in these cases is supplemented by the Council Records, since almost every honorary burgess was admitted by a special act of the Town Council, for which a special book was kept, beginning in 1736.

As Edinburgh grew in wealth and importance such admissions came to be regarded as an honour worthy of bestowal and acceptance, The record of admissions show to a nicety the Town Council's policy of conciliation towards those in power. Sometimes the honour was bestowed in return for services rendered, sometimes in the hope of favours to come. Gradually, however, the scope of admissions widened till the Roll of honorary freemen came to contain names of those whose services were not only to she capital, but the nation and the world.

The earliest known honorary freeman is found on 3rd October, 1459, when in return for aid and counsel Sir Edward Boncle, Provost of the newly-founded Trinity College, was admitted. No others are noted in that century and during the 16th century admissions are infrequent. Perhaps the most notable were the Sieur d'Oysel, French adviser of Marie de Lorraine, Queen Mary's mother, and Mr. John Craig, colleague and successor to John Knox.

In the following century admissions increased. On the occasion of James VI.'s return to Scotland in 1617, possibly the whole of Ails suite were admitted to the freedom, The same happened at the two visits of Charles 1. in 1633 and 1641. During the latter visit John Hampden became an honorary freeman. The Bishops' and the Civil War saw two famous Covenanting generals made freemen, Alexander Leslie, later Earl of Leven, and David Leslie who defeated the Marquess of Montrose. During the Cromwellian ,occupation from 1650 to 1660 many English officers and offici were admitted honorary burgesses, among them General Monck and Lord Broghill. Though Charles II. never visited Scotland after the Restoration, his natural son, James, Duke of Buccleuch and Monmouth, was sent there in the summer of 1679. The Town Council gave him his ticket enclosed in a golden box and admitted his suite. The King's brother, James, Duke of Albany and York, later to be James VII. and II., succeeding Monmouth, also received the freedom, not six months later, though the golden box was not forthcoming. In the long list of the honorary burgesses of his suite is found the name of Samuel Pepys.

In the 18th century and onwards the choice of honorary freemen widens. The almost continuous wars, with France, Holland, Spain and the revolted colonies of America, account for a large proportion of Navy and Army, as the capital celebrated victories by honouring the commanders. Still the roll of admissions shows the growth of a wider basis in such names as those of Benjamin Franklin, Tobias Smollet, the Rev. George Whitefield,* Adam Smith, John Howard and Dr. Jenner. This choice of recipients of the honour illustrates the principle which governs admissions now to the freedom of the City.

* Whitefield received Honorary Burgess Tickets from Stirling, Glasgow, Paisley and Aberdeen in 1741, from lrvine in 1742, and from Edinburgh in 1762.