Guild of Freemen Of Berwick-upon-Tweed



Berwick is mentioned in early chronicles from the ninth century and it was already the principal port for southern Scotland by 1119 when Prince David referred to it as a Royal Burgh and appointed a Sheriff (Vicecomes de Berwic). On his accession to the throne of Scotland in 1124 as King David 1, he granted charters to four Royal Burghs in southern Scotland, one of which was Berwick. In return for taxes or tribute collected by the townspeople and assistance with the defence of the town, they were granted the exclusive right of trade within the town except on market days or fairs. Berwick was the wealthiest town in Scotland throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with its customs duties contributing up to one third of the total Royal income. As the closest point to Europe much of  Scottish imports and exports passed through the port. Merchants and tradesmen from as far afield as Flanders and southern England settled in the Burgh.

The original burgesses of Berwick were those who possessed a 'toft' or rood of land sometimes referred to as a Burgage plot within the Burgh. The holding of such plots also entailed responsibilities in the governing of the town. Tradesmen who were Freemen were formed into Trade Guilds which protected the standards and trade within the town. The earliest recorded Trade Guilds were the Baxters (bakers), Fleshers (butchers) and Salmon Fishers. It was possible to become a Freeman after a year and a day spent within the town. It was not necessary to possess a burgage plot in order to be a Freeman. The Commune or Community represented the inhabitants of the town and included all Freemen and Burgesses. The Provost (sometimes Burgh Reeve or Alderman) was appointed by the King. He was the King's representative and was responsible for collecting customs and other Royal dues along with the Bailies. At this time Royal Burghs were on the King's land and were subject to the jurisdiction of the King's Officers.

The four original Royal Burghs in southern Scotland met as the Curia Quattuor Burgorum or Court of the Four Burghs. The Leges Quattuor Burgorum (Laws of the Four Burghs) were drawn up by this Court and in due time received the sanction of the King's Court or Parliament. This Court was summoned each year by the Chamberlain of Scotland who presided over the Court. Commissioners were provided by the original four Royal Burghs to sit with the Chamberlain and develop common practices and resolve disputes. Appeals could be made against decisions by a Provost or Bailies to this Court. Other Royal Burghs were created and became subject to decisions of this Court. Royal Burghs from the north of Scotland met as The Hanse of Northern Burghs.

The Statutae Gildae were written and agreed by the Berwick Guild in the 13th. century. They were approved by the Court of the Four Burghs and applied to all Scottish Guilds. There were amendments to these original laws by the Court and in Berwick additional items were added.

By the middle of the thirteenth century Berwick had grown in both size and influence. The Merchants' Guild was by far the most influential of all the Guilds and included many of the families which had been attracted to Berwick by its wealth. The original burgages had been split to cope with the expanding population. The Trade Guilds included many of the native population. In about 1235 a Royal Charter extended the rights of Burgesses to include the election of a Mayor, who was not a King's Officer  but represented the Guild. This was the only Scottish Mayor allowed by Charter. The Mayor ruled the town with the aid of four Bailiffs and twenty four afeering men, all elected by the guild of Freemen or Free Burgesses, that is all enfranchised inhabitants.

After an extended period of negotiation the Laws of Berwick Guild were formally approved in 1249. This brought all Burgesses and Freemen into one Merchant Guild although it did make the dominant position of the merchants very clear. To quote from the laws "No butcher while he handles the axe can be a merchant or meddle with the staple trade of the town". After this the terms Burgesses and Freemen become interchangeable. Further regulations were added to these Laws between 1281 and 1294.


At the beginning of the Scottish Wars of Independence in 1296, Edward 1 of England sacked Berwick and killed most of the population as a political act to persuade the Scots to accept his rule. Berwick never regained its civic eminence. Although the Scots eventually won the Wars of Independence, except for short periods of time Berwick was to remain in English control. Berwick changed hands to England for the last time in 1482.  Edward 1 gave Berwick its first English Charter in 1302, confirming the Charters of Alexander 111 of Scotland. By this and other English kings' Charters, Berwick was governed as a garrisoned Scots town in English hands until 1604. The government of the town was by a Governor aided by a "King's Council" appointed by the English king. There was a separate exchequer and a separate judiciary in the form of a Bailiffs' Court. The Merchant Guild had control of trade and in times of peace was responsible for trade across the frontier with Scotland, appointing "hostmen" to look after foreign traders who came to the town. The elected leader of the Guild was the Mayor who was a salaried Crown Officer. The administration of the Guild was clear of interference by the Crown and was carried out by an elected Alderman, who was not a salaried Crown Officer and acted as deputy to the Mayor with regard to the Guild. The Guild had its own Tolbooth situated in the area of the present Town Hall.

In 1604, after James V1 of Scotland had succeeded to the English throne as James 1, there was no requirement for Berwick to remain a garrisoned frontier town. The Guild petitioned the Crown and obtained an extended charter. This Charter created "anew the said Mayor, Bailiffs and Burgesses into one corporate and politic body" with the intention " that our said Borough of Berwick-upon-Tweed from henceforth for ever hereafter may be, shall be and remain a free Borough of itself and that the men of the same Borough be free burgesses" who " may have within the said Borough a Merchant Guild with hansa and all other liberties, privileges and free customs belonging to that Guild in as ample manner and form as before they have had accustomed or ought to have." The Charter also granted ownership of the major part of the Royal Manor. This transfer of the land right confirmed earlier rights of grazing and collection of wood and grass.

The burgesses held property by Burgers tenure, i.e. directly from the Crown. Stallingers were those who held property whose title was less than Freehold. They did not pay the burgess taxes or have the duties and privileges of a burgess. These type of tenures were abolished about 1646. However it was some time before the Stallingers rights in the estate died out.

The Guild resumed the government of the town with the administration vested in the Mayor and four Bailiffs, acting jointly as Sheriff. The Mayor and all ex-Mayors, together with the Recorder, were Justices of the Peace with powers equal to those of the King's Judges. The Mayor, Bailiffs and a number of other officers were elected by the Burgesses in Guild at Michaelmas each year, but were never allowed to act independently from the Guild which met frequently to give them instructions and to discuss and enact ordinances. This "government by public meeting" caused the status of Burgess to be one of great value, conferring on the holder the right to attend Guild meetings and thus participate personally in the government of the Borough, to vote in parliamentary elections (the town returned two members until 1885), to exemption from certain taxes, to exclusive privileges in carrying on his trade and to use or benefit from his share of the common lands. The Guild continued to govern the town until the Reform Act of 1835.

The Recorder of Berwick reporting to King Charles 1 of his visit on 6th. June, 1633, stated     " A town neither wholly regulated by English or Scottish laws, but by customs and usages in some things different from both, yet rather inclined to English laws, and more effecting Scotch fashions and language, as being oftener saluted by the rescript of the one, and seeing and hearing of the other". Berwick was in a unique position with its roots in both England and Scotland. It was not treated as part of England and was named separately in all official documents until an Act of Parliament in 1746 which provided that for the purposes of future Acts of Parliament relating to England, Wales and Berwick-upon-Tweed were included even if not, as previously, mentioned specifically.

The government of the borough was taken over by an elected Council after 1835 and extended to include Tweedmouth and Spittal. The Guild continued to represent Freemen. The management of the Estate was in the hands of the new elected Council.  There was an annual Head Guild and, following a vacancy, meadows were re-allocated on Changing Day (the first Tuesday after the last Saturday in September). A Committee was elected to represent Freemen's interests, which met at infrequent intervals. The number of Freemen declined by natural wastage.

In the period after the First World War the functions of local government expanded. Berwick Borough Council attempted to finance this expansion of interest using the income from the Freemen's Estate. The terms of the 1843 Act did not allow the sale of parts of the Estate and were proving a serious drawback to the development of the Borough. The Guild offered to apply for special powers to obtain rights of sale or lease, but this was ruled out after a public enquiry. After protracted negotiation, an Act was passed in 1926 which created a Trust to run the Estate. The Act also provided for a Freemen's Committee to be elected annually. It is under this Act and the Arbitrations of 1933-34 that the Freemen's Guild now operates.