The Corporation: Rights and privileges of free burgesses

Historical Account of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Including the Borough of Gateshead. Originally published by Mackenzie and Dent, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1827.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.


Eneas Mackenzie, 'The Corporation: Rights and privileges of free burgesses', Historical Account of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Including the Borough of Gateshead, (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1827), pp. 652-655. British History Online [accessed 19 June 2024].

Eneas Mackenzie. "The Corporation: Rights and privileges of free burgesses", in Historical Account of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Including the Borough of Gateshead, (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1827) 652-655. British History Online, accessed June 19, 2024,

Mackenzie, Eneas. "The Corporation: Rights and privileges of free burgesses", Historical Account of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Including the Borough of Gateshead, (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1827). 652-655. British History Online. Web. 19 June 2024,


The name burgess is usually deduced from the Saxon burg, signifying a village or fortified town. Consequently, a burgess was an inhabitant charged with the defence of the place in which he lived, and, in return for his military services, was entitled to certain privileges and immunities. Accordingly, all the burgesses of Newcastle upon Tyne hold their privileges by military tenure, being to this day charged with a musket for the defence of the town. (fn. 1) And because (as is expressed in Queen Elizabeth's charter) "Newcastle hath in times past been the bulwark of the neighbouring parts, bravely resisting and opposing our rebels," &c. therefore hath the royal munificence been employed, from periods very remote, to reward the loyal men of this town with charters, grants, &c.

The Franchise of Newcastle is claimed either by birth, servitude, marriage, or gift. Of the first are all the sons of burgesses; of the second are the apprentices of burgesses; of the third are the widows of burgesses; and of the fourth are all freemen made so gratis, for the sale of it was never known.

There are three distinct classes of freemen. 1st, Those having fellowship with the Twelve Mysteries or the Fifteen Bye-trades: those belonging to the former enjoy the ancient right of sending two of each Mystery to the election of mayors, &c.; and those belonging to the latter trades the privilege of sending one from each society. 2d, Those in fellowship with the other Companies of the town, who are without this privilege; but they are qualified to sit upon juries, to enfranchise their apprentices, to perambulate the boundaries, &c. 3d, Those in fellowship with the whole body, called the Freedom of the Town, and which may be enjoyed without any connexion with the Company: it entitles a burgess to vote for a representative in parliament, to an exemption from tolls, quay-dues, &c. to two stints on the common pasture, &c. and to transfer the franchise to his sons.

Franchise by Birth.—The sons of freemen claim all equally alike the franchises of the father—the youngest as well as the eldest; but neither daughters nor sons in law, as in some corporations, can inherit or transfer any thing. In case of franchise by birth, should a father die before he is admitted to his freedom, the sons by such neglect lose their claim, even should their grandfather, from whom their father claimed his freedom, be living, and an admitted burgess. Illegitimate sons, as in all other cases, cannot inherit from their father. (fn. 2)

Franchise by Servitude. (fn. 3) —This is by indenture of apprenticeship, for seven years at least, and may be forfeited various ways. 1. By elopement from his master. 2. By compact with his master:—for if any master agree to give up to an apprentice any part of his time, any burgess has a full power to prevent his franchise being obtained. 3. By turning over an apprentice to a non-freemen. 4. By the master not being free of the company. 5. By the removal of the master to a residence without the liberties of the town, during any part of his servitude. 6. By the master not occupying the trade the apprentice is bound to.

Collier informs us, that "exception, in some instances, has been made to the 4th rule, by the common council, when applied to by the master, who have admitted such apprentice to his franchise, even when his master has not been conformable to the company's bye-laws; but whether upon the ground of the company's acts, or its rules being incompatible with the law of England, or the right of the corporation in general; or whether upon their own power being such as to admit without consent of the company, I am not sufficiently informed positively to assert; but observe, that if admitted on either of the two first grounds, I think the council justifiable, but if on the latter, the contrary; as I look upon the acts and rules of the company full as binding on its members, as the acts of the common council are on theirs; and the one has as much right to repel the illegal power of the one, as the one has of the other; for both are equally incorporated by one and the same charter; and the companies, it must be observed, are the very ground-work of the other parts and officers of the corporation, and if taken away, the rest must follow."

Franchise by Marriage.—If a freeman marries a freeman's daughter, prior to his admission, he is admitted for 6s. 8d. less than either by birth or by servitude only. By marriage the resident widow of the burgess is entitled to two stints for cows on the Town Moor; and if she continue the business, not only to enfranchise the apprentices her husband left at his decease, but may also take others, with leave of the company, and enfranchise them also. She is also clear of tolls, quay-dues, &c. the same as her husband was when living.

Franchise by Gift.—The franchise of Newcastle cannot be sold, but may be presented as a gift; when it is usually styled, an honorary or personal freedom. It has been generally supposed, that an honorary freeman can neither transmit his franchise to his sons, nor confer it upon his apprentices: but we must allow, if a person is a burgess, he must have the privileges of one; for an estate given (if the giver has a right to give) is as good a tenure as either a purchase or a patrimony: and what made the first men burgesses, but a gift of the crown? and what made the present burgesses such,—but being their descendants or apprentices? (fn. 4)

By the charter of the 42d of Queen Elizabeth, it was ordered that all burgesses should be admitted by the mayor and burgesses, or common council, whereof the mayor and six aldermen were to be seven: this is now dispensed with, and the oath administered by any one of the magistrates is deemed sufficient. It is usual, on admission, to present the mayor or alderman, who admits, with a silver penny, or the silver coin nearest to it in value. The following is the form of the oath:—

"Newcastle Upon Tyne. You swear that you shall from henceforth hold with our sovereign lord the king's majesty's that now is, and with his heirs and successors, kings and queens of Great Britain, against all persons, to live and to die, and maintain the peace, and all the franchises of this town of Newcastle upon Tyne, and be obedient to the mayor, aldermen, sheriff, and all other officers of the same, and their council keep, and no man's goods avow for yours, unless he be as free as yourself, and of the same franchise. And you shall observe and keep, to the best of your power, all lawful ordinances, made by common consent on high court days: and all other things you shall do that belong to a freeman of the said town.—So help you God.
"A. B. was this — day of —, in the year of our Lord God —, admitted a free burgess of this corporation, before the Right Worshipful C. D. Esq. Mayor, and stands charged with a musket for the defence thereof. Clerk's Signature.

"Signed, C. D. Mayor."

Minutes of Expense attending Admission in 1800.

Town-clerk £0 12 9
Chamberlains for town 1 4 0
Ditto, begged for themselves 0 2 6
Court-keeper 0 1 0
Mr. Mayor, a silver sixpence, which was returned, with a request that it be given to the first poor object met—attended to 0 0 6
Chamber door keeper 0 1 0
£2 1 9


  • 1. To find the origin of burgesses, says Collier, "we need but step back about five hundred years, and fancy ourselves one of our predecessors, possessed of a house built with timber, wattled with hazzle rods, daubed over with clay and chopp'd straw—one story high, or if more, the upper one like a pigeon-loft, with a loop hole to peep out at every morning, to see whether the Scots or Mosstroopers were not in the street before they durst open the door. "If we step in, we may readily fancy an old sire, with his beard and whiskers, gravely weaving a web, and the old dame making cloth bonnets and hose:—contented with her work, though miserably botched for want of a pair of spectacles, (which were then not known) she sits mumbling her pater-noster: while the bare-footed younkers sit cruddleing on a heap round a fire made on the hearth in the middle of the house, listening to the legends of monks, and the stories of witches and hobgoblins, till terrified by each other they tremble with fear, and a jingle in a corner makes them shriek aloud—'Holy St. Nicholas, defend us!'— only from a cat licking a kail-pan. "But what is that sturdy yew bow, the length of a man?—those quivers of arrows, a full cloth yard long?—that broad sword, halbert, target, and coat of mail, which you see hung up in a corner for?—Not for defence against monks, witches, and hobgoblins, you may be sure, but for the security of his burgage and all that therein is, from worse beings—the Scots, rebels, and thieves—a sort of visitors, at that time, not the most desirable, nor readily said nay to, but with the point of a sword or thrust of a lance—but it was giving this sort of denial that made them—burgesses."—Essay on Charters, &c.
  • 2. By the laws and customs granted by King Henry I. to the burgesses of Newcastle upon Tyne, it was provided, that, "If a burgess have a son at his table in his house, let the son have equal liberty with his father.—If a villain come to the borough to stay and hold land in the borough a year and a day, without any prolocution of his lord or himself to any term, let him remain in the borough as a burgess. No foreigner, ought to buy cloth to dye, unless he be of the custom of the borough. Any burgess may sell his land, and go where he pleases, unless his land be indited or claimed. If a burgess be impleaded in a plea, whence battle may arise, by any villain, or inhabitant of the country, let him defend himself by the law, which he has in his custom, unless he be impeached of any crime, for which he ought justly to fight, nor ought a burgess to fight with a villain, if there be not a prior claim to his burgage."
  • 3. Collier says that strangers, from various causes, would naturally resort to such a burgh as Newcastle. At their first coming, they would be looked upon as spies, rogues, and traitors, and consequently not only denied the use of arms and advantage of commonage, but also narrowly watched and cramped in their actions. These were inhabitants, but not burgesses. Their children, however, were employed by burgesses, and ten or seven years' servitude was fixed as a proof of fidelity and a compensation for the franchise. Brand also thinks this is a probable origin of a claim by servitude. The word "apprentice" first occurs in a deed dated 12 Edward III. "Bond of apprentice" occurs in the statutes in 1389. There is a statute of Henry IV. that "none shall put son or daughter to serve as apprentice to any craft in any city or borough, except they have land or rent to the value of 20s. per annum."— Apprentices in this town are first mentioned in the ordinaries of the Saddlers' and Glovers' Company, dated 1436.
  • 4. Collier questions the right of the common council to make a burgess, or, as he expresses it in addressing the freemen, "of sharing your freehold and franchise and dividing your chattels among those whom they chuse to favour with their smiles, or bless with their bounty—I beg pardon, with the burgesses' bounty, I should have said." He thinks that the expressed dissent of the mayor and burgesses in guild would render such acts of the common council illegal, "which, without that dissent there expressed, would have been legal."