What is a Freeman?

The term ‘Freeman’ was originally a definition of status in feudal society but, in England, it later became to mean a man possessing the full privileges and immunities of a city, borough or trade gild to which admission was usually by birth, apprenticeship, gift or purchase. 

The gilds were associations of men formed in towns to regulate trade. Each gild was a member of the parent body, the Gild Merchant, which also enforced the observance of justice, religion and morality, and looked after the general welfare of the citizens. 

Before the Norman Conquest, the English land forces, whether used for defence or for maintaining law and order, comprised all Freemen able to bear arms. 

Today, the Freemen are Oxford’s most ancient body. They formed their Gild Merchant in Saxon times and, later, in the Domesday Book, they are recorded as holding the town meadow, Port Meadow, in common. Even to this day, the Freemen are the beneficial owners of the meadow and may depasture on it, any cattle and horses they own - subject to certain regulations brought into force during the winter months. They also have the right to fish in the River Thames which runs along the entire length of the meadow. These are personal rights and cannot be assigned to anyone else because Common Hall, the Freemen’s legislative council, has ordered that this can be done only by its General Committee. The Sheriff, who is ‘Conservator of Port Meadow and the City Fisheries’ makes regular drives of the meadow and unauthorised users are fined.