Freedom of London: Streets paved with gold

The Freedom of London was once a licence to print money. These days it's yours for just £25. Samuel Muston visits the Guildhall to discover why

Should she feel like it, Barbara Windsor can drive a flock of sheep across London Bridge without fear of rustling up trouble with the authorities. The explorer David Hempleman-Adams has the option of a silken rope if ever he finds himself convicted of a capital crime. Jimmy Choo, on the other hand, is well within his rights to go about the City of London with a sword out of its scabbard. Why does this trio – an actor, adventurer and stiletto-maker – have licence to indulge in such odd activities on London's streets?

The answer is that they have all made a trip to London's Guildhall, 600-years old this month, paid a small fee and been granted the Freedom of the City, along with the host of ancient privileges that go with it.

London is unique among the great cities of the world, in that the freedom of its highways and byways isn't some grand honour bestowed on the great and noteworthy. It is an ancient trading right. While the freedom of New York gives you all sorts of rights and heaps of prestige, the freedom of London's Square Mile gives you the right to take your livestock across one of the city's bridges without paying a toll, sell a haunch of venison between Ludgate and Aldgate and set up a market stall in an officially inconvenient spot.

According to Murray Craig, the 37th clerk of the Chamberlain's Court and the man who carries out the daily freedom ceremonies, the "honour" is more like a professional accolade, such as becoming a chartered accountant.

He says: "From the Dark Ages to the latter days of Queen Victoria's reign, the city was dominated by about 100 guilds which had monopolies on trade within the city's walls. So if you wanted to be a butcher, the council insisted you join the Guild of Butchers, and so on. And to join these you first had to be free; that is, free of a feudal overlord, and as there weren't enough freemen around to fill gaps left in the professions by the crusades, the council started to sell the right to be one in 1237. John Wilkes, an 18th-century Chamberlain, used to say at each ceremony: 'I give you the gift of joy' because it was really a licence to make money. To have the Freedom of the City is to be a guildsman. Trade and the freedom were intimately connected from the very beginning."

It all began with an uncharacteristically quiescent William the Conqueror. Aware of the financial and political power of the city, he decided not to attempt to conquer it as he had the rest of England. Instead, he set about trying to win over Saxon London with concessions. In 1067 he granted the capital a special charter that gave the "vaste and fierce populace" freedom in matters of trade, exemption from serfdom and, most importantly, a dusting of self-government.

Then, as now, commerce was the beating heart of the Square Mile and the city fathers wanted it governed as such. So the guilds got together and made the most of their new-found room to manoeuvre. First, they enacted strict bylaws to exclude anyone other than themselves from trading. Then the Crusades came along and provided a remarkable opportunity. Richard I came calling for money to fund the Third Crusade. Recognising a bargain when they saw it, they exchanged a hunk of gold for a massive concession: they would be allowed to vote for a leader who would be their representative. The leader, they specified, would have to be a freeman. The office of Lord Mayor was duly created in 1189 with the draper Henry Fitz-Ailwyn taking up the ceremonial cudgel. It was this link between the freedom, trade and politics that saw it survive until today. And despite the election of the Lord Mayor being more picturesque than anything else, several thousand freemen turn up at the Guildhall every year to say "aye" or "nay" when a successor to Fitz-Ailwyn is proposed.

It's not all playful ancient privileges and ceremonies, though. Since the 18th century, freemen have been expected to uphold certain standards of behaviour. According to David Hempleman-Adams, who was admitted in 2008 and is a member of the Guild of Air Pilots & Air Navigators, the confirmation ritual is actually quite a solemn affair. "It wasn't just a case of a trip to the Guildhall, a handshake and then 'off you go, chaps'. You're surrounded by the chamberlain in his robes, the beadle in his top hat and a clerk enters your name in a sheepskin register when you've pledged your allegiance to the Queen and to the Lord Mayor. They even give you a stern book called Rules for the Conduct of Life. It's very much a shoulders-back, top button-fastened sort of occasion," he says.

As solemn as it might appear to British explorers schooled in the ways of the establishment, it can be quite puzzling, if not downright amusing, for foreigners. As residency hasn't been required since the 1980s, the freedom is often given to foreign dignitaries as a sort of over-the-counter palm greaser. So when the Mayor of Beijing, Wang Qishan, paid a visit in 2008, he came to the Guildhall. "The ceremony was conducted in English and so the Mayor had a translator with him who was a little behind the English version," former Lord Mayor Sir John Stuttard says. "When it came to the part where he had to promise 'to obey the Lord Mayor of London and inform him of any conspiracies' there was a second of silence and he burst out laughing. Mostly, people just nod."

Although foreigners and Londoners alike are lining up round the block to become freemen (there are currently 28,000), the whole thing looked likely to die out in the 19th century. "When the Victorians arrived on the scene with their laissez-faire economics, they looked on the guilds with suspicion," Craig says. "So they abolished all their trading monopolies and consequently people lost interest in the freedom, since it was no longer a statutory necessity. They removed the main draw: the ability to make a bob or two."

In the face of official Victorian disapproval, the city's freemen decided to stop chasing money, and start giving it out, turning themselves into charity organisations. It was this reimagining that saved the guilds and the freedom. As well as setting up alms houses "for aged and decayed freemen and their wives" and the City of London Freemen's school in 1832 – which continues to give preference to kin of those who hold the freedom – they turned the guilds into trade associations set up to push for the highest standards among tradesmen. Our language reveals their importance as guarantors of quality. Who hasn't heard of a 13-loaf baker's dozen: the result of an order from the Worshipful Company of Bakers to never give short measures. The phrase "lock, stock and barrel" referred to the checks made on guns to see they were in working order.

They have proved so good at this that enthusiastic tradesmen still seek to create new guilds, including those for security professionals and water conservators. And while they may not have much of an economic role in the life of the city, they do hold dinners each year where guildsmen can gather to gossip and swap tips.

If you are 21, of good character and have managed to stave off bankruptcy, it has never been so easy to become a freeman. There are three ways: patrimony, servitude and redemption. The first requires you to be the son or daughter of a freeman. The second method requires you to apprentice yourself to a guildsman. The third, and the one that accounts for the majority of the new intake, requires you to seek nomination by two existing freemen. They then take your application, and fee (which range from £25-£30) to the Guildhall, which gives it the thumbs up or down. In practice most application are nodded through and "redeemers", as they are known, are invited to attend an official ceremony and put their "x" on the official parchment.

As charming as all this undoubtedly is, one question looms: why bother? Do we really still care about all these guilds, freemen and their quaint apprentices and odd practices? Aren't we all a bit over all this medieval flimflammery? Sir John Stuttard certainly doesn't think so: "If the 1,700 people who became freemen last year are anything to go by, it seems Londoners certainly still do care, they care very much.

"Perhaps it's the sense of being bound to the history of the place. Or maybe, as a nation, we all just love dressing up and marching around old buildings." Whatever reason we do it, one thing is sure: we probably want it to continue. If only to see Barbara Windsor usher a flock of sheep across London Bridge.

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