The Freedom of the City of London is one of the oldest surviving ceremonies, dating back to 1237,. Among its privileges were the right to a walk the streets with a drawn sword or be hung with a silken rope. The list of recipients contains no unifying characteristic – William Booth has received this illustrious Freedom, but so has Jimmy Choo. Joseph Chamberlain received it, but so did Luciano Pavarotti, who I imagine was deeply comforted by such privileges as enjoying “the right to be drunk and disorderly in the Square Mile without fear of arrest” and an “exemption from being press ganged” although I consider it unlikely that anyone would have wanted him on their ship anyway because he’d sink it the minute he arrived on board. Someone, clearly drunk, saw fit to give it to Annie Lennox. Now it is the turn of Henry “The Fonz” Winkler, who stars in pantomime every year in Britain, and who has been granted this bizarre, outdated honour due to the work he has done with children with learning difficulties here in London.
However, the idea of being a Freeman (which rendered the person free from medieval serfdom) is not any longer imbibed with any meaning. Any medieval privileges that the title may have inferred are now obsolete. It is therefore nothing more than a symbolic “Freedom”. Not even the kind of Freedom that George Michael sung about. Not even the Freedom of the Road that Nelson Mandela’s life story was about. Nada. No longer can the Fonz drive his cattle and sheep over the bridge on his daily route to Smithfield Market. Nor can he any longer have the right to walk around with his naked sword drawn in the City of London. No longer is he, as a Freeman, in possession of the right to get married in St Paul’s Cathedral. So entrenched and restricted was UK democracy before the 1832 Reform Bill, that gaining “Freeman” status meant you reached the heady civic heights of actually having a right to vote, and be exempt from the tolls and charges that the City used to have over all its bridges. As the current Freeman status has no literal meaning, the UK did what it remains good at to reinstate the law as a symbolic one – it wasted time creating an Act of Parliament. The 1972 Local Government Act established honorary Freemen status to “persons of distinction and persons who have, in the opinion of the council, rendered eminent services” to the local area. This has not been adhered to by the City of Salford, however, as it gave The Freedom of the City to Ryan Giggs in 2010, as clearly the Aldermen of Salford are not aware that sexual incontinence is not considered an “eminent service” to the local community – or even to your own sister in law.
But what is the point of bestowing an archiac honour that is ripe with meaning but low on practicalities? Why does it mean anything to our civic lives? Well, the Freedom of the City is the only honour that a local authority can bestow. The only other authority who can bestow honours is The Queen. Although the Queen’s honour lists are highly policed (I imagine. I don’t know. My hotline to the Palace was closed down since I made those calls to Prince Andrew) by the civil service and a whole host of doers, and thinkers, and advisors and counsels, the Queen’s honours is not a democratic process. Bestowing The Freedom of The City onto the Fonz, however, would have been : council majority must be won by whatever local authority is proposing any contender for The Freedom of the City. The only obsolete privilege of a Freeman of the City which is occasionally resurrected for publicity or raising the profile of a charity has been driving sheep or lamb across London’s bridges. This has been done seven times in the last fifteen years by Freemen of the City who were keen to draw attention to a number of causes, from Help the Aged to publicising the start of London Architecture Week. The City Police are not keen on this, but yet they allow it as an occasional treat. In Millenium Year, Sir Clive Martin arranged for a professional sheep drive across London Bridge, subjecting the sheep to a high quality pamper first including blow drying their hair and polishing their hooves. The sheep were then dressed in bright yellow bibs prior to their moment of fame. Strangely enough, the certificate of Freedom of the City is still produced by the court calligrapher on sheepskin parchment. I can only hope the sheep was not a cast member from the 2000 sheep drive.
I’m going to stop bleating on about sheep. The only Freedom of the City for London that still exists is access to the Freemen School without a fee, and the right for the widow of a Freeman to live in the Freeman’s Almshouses, should she so desire. Of course, the Fonzie doesn’t have the right to vote, as he is not a UK resident, and I would suggest that annual appearances in Hampshire pantomimes may serve to keep him safe from the charitable almshouse door. Until 1996 you had to be a UK resident in order to have the Freedom of The City of London granted to you at all. But in the late 1990s they just went mental and opened it up to anyone Tom Dick or Harry that fancies his / her slice of our gay metropolitan freedoms. Fonzie is not real. He exists in the baby blue and pink coloured 1950s jukebox of our collective teenage imaginations. I for one am delighted that the City of London is open to him, as he had such a beneficial effect on all our childhoods. He was the Cool Man, atop his throne in Planet Cool. We as Londoners are proud as punch to have him.
Should the Freeman of the City be lucky enough to have his application accepted, he will be granted an audience with the Chamberlain’s Court Beadle. This is always a problem in England, because as soon as anyone hears the word “beadle” in London they feel compelled to sing the entire score of the musical “Oliver!” ending in a rousing rendition of Mr Bumble, the Beadle’s “Boy for Sale”. This is a song that is a bit like “Love for Sale” but it is about a boy. The Chamberlain’s Court Beadle then presents the happy recipient of the Freedom of the City to a terrifying man in tights who is called The Clerk of the Chamberlain’s Court. Then the applicant of the Freedom of The City must recite the following load of stuff. But wait! It isn’t about the City! It’s about the Queen!
I do solemnly declare that I will be good and true to our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth the Second; that I will be obedient to the Mayor of this City; that I will maintain the franchises and customs thereof, and will keep this City harmless, in that which in me is; that I will also keep the Queen’s peace in my own person; that I will know no gatherings nor conspiracies made against the Queen’s peace, but I will warn the Mayor thereof, or hinder it to my power; and that all these points and articles I will well and truly keep, according to the laws and customs of this City, to my power.
Non British and British Commonwealth Citizens have the option to substitute “our Sovereign Lady” with “Her Majesty”.
I mean it’s a bit of a mouthful isn’t it? And it’s all about being obedient to Boris Johnson, and keeping tradition with our customs etc, but it’s a bit low to assume said applicant wants to blow the Queen up (“conspiracies made against the Queen’s peace) or start a war. Oh. Hang on. They actually gave The Freedom of The City to Lord Kitchener in 1898. Whoops. So, what does this mean? You are legally obliged to warn the Mayor if shit is going down to risk the Queen’s peace? This is not an empty symbolic role about sheep! This is someone playing an intricate part in the great court of our constitutional monarchy! The way I understand it is this: If stuff is happening that isn’t good and that is going to blow Parliament up it’s up to Henry “The Fonz” Winkler to detect it, with Annie Lennox as his second in command, arrange an audience with the Mayor and inform him of said plot against Queen in due course. Right. We can all rest easy then. Happy Days.
Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. This blog is updated every other Thursday, so we look forward to seeing you on Thursday January 23rd!