The Honorary Freedom of the City of London - An exploration of The Lives of the Great and the Good

The Lives of the Great and the Good - Honorary Freeman of the City of London is a new book written by William (Bill) Clark, Past Master of the Woolmen's Company and the prime mover behind the annual Sheep Drive over London Bridge, an event that has now become a popular fixture in the City's calendar and for which Bill was recognised with a Highly Commended award by the City Livery Club's Root & Branch Award committee in 2018.

I heard of Bill's project to write a book about the Honorary Freemen of the City of London prior to the City Briefing in September 2021. My first thoughts were about how the Honorary Freedom is defined, a topic which it turns out was the genesis of Bill's excellent work, and one I still do not have entirely straightened out in my mind (see below) despite chatting with the Clerk to the Chamberlain's Court (Murray Craig) about it at the end of that City Briefing. 

Nevertheless, Bill's book is a masterpiece of penmanship, condensing the essence of 265 life stories into substantial (500 page) yet accessible and easy-to-read work of reference that captures many of the landmark events in British, Empire, Commonwealth and Global history - such is the nature of the people who have been admitted as Honorary Freemen.  The book features a Foreword by Alderman Vincent Keaveny (Lord Mayor 2021-2022) and contains photos or images of portraits of many of the luminaries who have been admitted into the Honorary Freedom.

While thoroughly well researched and expertly presented, The Lives of the Great and the Good deals with a complex topic in a straight forward manner with just the right amount of coverage of each Freeman. It  has sparked my interest in discovering more about all sorts of fascinating characters - Monarchs, Prime Ministers, Admirals, Generals, Philanthropists, Statesmen and even the occasional rogue.

I was particularly interested to learn that at least two examples of the Honorary Freedom were presented to persons who were already Freemen of the City of London. Lord Robert Baden-Powell of Gilwell became an Honorary Freeman in 1929, but had already served as Master of the Mercers' Company in 1913 - election to that office is contingent on being a Liveryman of the Mercers' Company, which in turn is contingent on being a Freeman of the City of London. Another example is that of Colonel and Alderman the Viscount Wakefield who was made an Honorary Freeman in 1935, having already served as Lord Mayor of London in 1915-16.

Her Majesty The Queen was admitted as an Honorary Freeman in June of 1947 (The HRH The Princess Elizabeth), having been admitted in to the Freedom of the Drapers' Company by right of patrimony the previous month. As a Freeman of the Drapers' Company Princess Elizabeth had every right to be presented by the Drapers' for admission into to the Freedom of the City of London. The Court of Common Council voted to invite Princess Elizabeth to take the Freedom upon herself, and so she was admitted as an Honorary Freeman. In 2017 the Court of the Drapers' Company voted to elect Her Majesty to the Court of the Drapers' Company - a 70 year wait for promotion!

The Lives of the Great and Good would make an outstanding present for anyone who is interested the people who have been so honoured and what a roll call it is. Names such as Baden-Powell, Berners-Lee, Churchill, Eisenhower, Garibaldi, Gladstone, Mandela, Montgomery, Nelson, Nightingale, Pitt (Elder and Younger) are recorded among a pantheon of peers who have been made Honorary Freemen.

If you would like to purchase a copy, it is now available from Etsy for delivery before Christmas (but do hurry) or alternative, if you are in the City, you can purchase a copy from the Guildhall Art Gallery shop.


The Great and the Good - Honorary Freemen of the City of London. Photo copyright Paul D Jagger

What exactly is the Honorary Freedom? 

Every Freeman of the City of London may feel 'honoured' when they are admitted in that ancient ceremony in Guildhall, but the Corporation makes it clear in a leaflet handed to Freemen that while they may feel honoured, only the Honorary Freedom is of the form of an honour; much in the way that an doctoral degree is not an honour unless awarded honoris causa (for the sake of honour).

The Honorary Freedom is the City's highest honour, and one that is granted exceptionally rarely. In all respects it conveys the same rights, privileges and duties as any other form of Freedom of the City but it is awarded as an honour following a vote of the Court of Common Council.

Aside from the fact that is granted as an honour, and is usually presented at a special ceremony attended by the Lord Mayor, Aldermen and assembled guests, the Honorary Freedom confers no special rights. In times past Honorary Freemen might receive their certificate in a gold box 'worth 100 pounds' and some military officers received a gilded sword in addition to their certificate. The Freedom certificate presented to an Honorary Freeman is usually a rather elaborate affair, richly embellished on parchment, although there is no uniformity to them - unlike the conventional Copy of Freedom.

The origins of the Freedom of the City of London

The earliest recorded Freedom goes back to the 15th century, but it was clearly an established practice at that time as the Court of Aldermen were issuing regulations pertaining to the Freedom in the early 1400s. We do not know when the first Freemen were admitted but it seems almost certain that early admissions were tied to, and evolved from, membership of the City's Guilds (later Livery Companies) which already had their own concept of admission to Freedom of the Guild. The entry level membership grade for Livery Companies in the 21st century remains 'Freeman'.


An early 'Copy of Freedom' on display in the Chamberlain's Court in the City of London. Photo copyright Paul D Jagger.

Traditionally there were three routes to the Freedom, all came by way of the Livery Companies: Servitude (completing an apprenticeship), Patrimony (inheriting the right from either parent) and Redemption (payment of a fine). More recently voters in the Square Mile have been encouraged to take up the Freedom if they are on the Ward List (register of voters).

Hundreds of thousands of people have been admitted into the Freedom of the City of London, today the Chamberlain's Court of the City of London Corporation (the Chief Finance Officer's department) deals with somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 applicants a year - most of them still coming by way of the Livery Companies. By way of comparison the Honorary Freedom was first conferred only in the 17th century, and Charles II was the first recipient. The Honorary Freedom continues to be an exceptionally rare distinction.

Where it all started - can a King be granted an honour?

King Charles II was admitted into the Freedom on 29 October 1674. Earlier Monarchs had been admitted into the Freedom of Livery Companies, but Charles II was the first to be honoured by the City. Whether it is possible for a King's subjects to confer an honour on the Fount of Honour is a constitutional conundrum I will leave for others to debate - the Stuart monarchs were not know for permitting any confusion between a King and his subjects. 

It is notable that our current sovereign became a Freeman of the City of London while a princess - this is important because the Freeman's declaration binds the Freeman to the sovereign in a way that would make a regnant King or Queen of this realm both parties to the contract! The photo of the Declaration of a Freeman shows the wording of the modern declaration and I draw your attention to the clause 'That I will be Good and True to our Sovereign Lady'. Furthermore it would not be possible for the sovereign to 'be obedient to the Mayor of this City' in his or her own realm.

Her Majesty is also a Freeman of the Drapers' Company but has never been elevated to the Livery, although she ranks first among Court Assistants. Perhaps the Drapers' Company has a declaration made by Liverymen during the clothing ceremony that likewise binds them to the monarch... raising the same legal issue as the Freeman's Declaration, no doubt someone from the Drapers' Company will let me know in due course.

Her Majesty's status as a Freeman of the Drapers' Company and Court Assistant is, I think, the only example of a Freeman being elevated to the Court of a Livery Company. In all other circumstances a person must first be clothed with the Livery before being considered for progression to Court.


The Declaration of a Freeman. Photo copyright Paul D Jagger

My view is that the first Honorary Freedom was actually an astute political move, a gesture by the City to its sovereign; one designed to win the King's favour and apologise for the role the City had played in both the civil war and the schisms that followed the passing of the laws known as the Clarendon Code, the first of which (the Corporation Act, 1661) prevented nonconformist from becoming civic officers - thus excluding Catholics from being elected to Common Council or the Court of Aldermen.

The Honorary Freedom today

The Court of Common Council still confers the Honorary Freedom from time-to-time, although the era of awarding it to Admirals of the Royal Navy or General's of the British Army for defeating the King's enemies (historically the Dutch, French or Spanish) has passed, modern awards tend to be made to great statesmen and senior members of the Royal Family. Sadly the tradition of presenting a sword seems to have fallen into abeyance.


The good old days when Admirals of the Royal Navy received a presentation sword with their admission into the Honorary Freedom. Photo copyright Paul D Jagger.

The most recent award was to Aung San Suu Kyi in May of 2017, and that was the also the first, and only, Honorary Freedom to be revoked (2019). Notwithstanding that hiccup, it seems certain the Court of Common Council will continue to award the Honorary Freemen to the Great and the Good as it did in 2014 when I had the privilege of attending Sir Tim Berners-Lee's admission ceremony in Guildhall. 

So where's the confusion?

The only thing that makes the Honorary Freedom an 'honour' is the fact it is conferred as an honour, but it is otherwise a substantive Freedom (unlike an honorary degree). The Court of Common Council has also created two routes by which a person may be recognised in a manner that might be considered an honour. They are: Freedom by Special Nomination and Freedom by Invitation. To quote verbatim, the Corporation's website provides the following descriptions of these two additional routes:

Freedom by Invitation

The City of London Corporation from time to time invites individuals who have made a significant impact in their field to take up the Freedom to acknowledge their particular contribution. Such Freemen receive a partially illuminated copy of freedom, the ceremony is conducted by the Chamberlain and is followed by a toast and a lunch.

Freedom by Special Nomination

A third category whereby the Freedom can be regarded as an honour or mark of respect is Freedom by Invitation whereby individuals are invited to receive the freedom with no requirement to pay the fee. The invitation is often extended by the Lord Mayor or the Chair of Policy and Resources, the ceremony is conducted by the Chamberlain or Remembrancer and hospitality may be offered after the ceremony.

As with the Honorary Freedom, Freedom by Invitation or by Special Nomination is still a substantive form of Freedom, but like the Honorary Freedom it is a particular mark of distinction which is presented at a special ceremony for the occasion with a special parchment. In my view these routes to the Freedom slice the distinction between the Honorary Freedom and the other routes (servitude, patrimony, redemption and ward list) very thinly indeed!

Many actors, sportsmen, artists and celebrities have been admitted into the Freedom by one of the above two routes, and in modern times they might make it to the TV or the press, usually expressing a feeling of having been honoured. While I won't spoil the story behind Bill's book, it is noteworthy that when Dame Barbara Windsor was admitted into the Freedom she declared to the gathered press and cameras, and to her late mother "I love London with a passion and I'm just so honoured. I'd say 'look Mum, at last I'm posh'."

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I welcome polite feedback and constructive comment on all my blog articles. If you spot and error or omission, please do let me know (please illustrate with verifiable facts linked to an authoritative source where appropriate).

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