Sheep Across London Bridge: The Freedom of the City

Guildhall Library was very pleased to welcome Murray Craig, the Clerk of the Chamberlain’s Court, to give a talk on the City Freedom, an institution which goes back to the early 13th century. Until the 19th century, one needed to be Free of the City, via a Livery Company or Guild in order to trade within the Square Mile.

Murray’s schedule is a busy one and he arrived, hot-foot from a ceremony, at 2 o’clock on the dot and launched straight into his talk.

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The audience enjoyed hearing about the history of the Freedom and how it is conducted in the present day. We were entertained with tales from his experience of meeting recipients of the Freedom and the Honorary Freedom.

Those receiving the Honorary Freedom are presented with an illuminated copy of the Freedom in a gold box, but there have been some notable exceptions. The boxes presented to Churchill and Florence Nightingale, for example, were made of wood. Churchill’s was made from relics of the wooden roof of Guildhall which had been destroyed in the Blitz. Florence Nightingale had requested something simpler and less expensive than gold for her Freedom casket – the result may have been made of wood – but no one could call it ‘plain’.

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Murray Craig told us about the fascination of hearing the many ways in which the declaration is spoken, sometimes whispered or even shouted, and on one memorable occasion recited in character.  His rendition of these speakers probably made the staff and readers next door jump – but the audience loved it.

A couple of years ago, Murray appeared with Len Goodman on ‘Who Do You Think You Are’.  We shared memories of the rush which descended upon Guildhall Library and the Chamberlain’s Court after the programme went on air and the nation heard that Guildhall Library holds records of City Weavers going back to 1600.  We had visitors forming an orderly queue for the same manuscripts for weeks!

Audience feedback was full of comments words like ‘Excellent’ and ‘Brilliant’ and there were several requests for us to ask him to speak again.  

But can you drive your sheep across London Bridge if you have the Freedom of the City?  Murray says the answer is no…because you would cause traffic chaos!

Jeanie Smith
Assistant Librarian

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