Sudbury can be proud of its riverside heritage in the Sudbury Common Lands because they have an almost unrivalled historical pedigree in England. Although their formation as grazing lands is now lost in the mists of antiquity, we do have written information in the form of charters that throw light on the nature of the land and the rights enjoyed by certain people over them. However, old texts translated into modern English may be open to misinterpretation as well as being seen from a viewpoint about something as far removed from our way of thinking as we could possibly imagine.
Although the first written reference to the old Commons appears towards the end of the twelfth century it was not until about the year 1260 that the Lord of the Manor’s charter laid out the ‘deal’ between himself and the people of Sudbury. Richard De Clare, Earl of Gloucester and Hertford, put his seal to this charter which stated that he and his heirs recognised that the burgesses and their free successors would have and hold the original ancient commons ‘quietly, wholly, rightly, peaceably and by inheritance’. This charter guaranteed those meadows to the ‘burgesses and their successors and to the whole community for ever against all people’. There was a catch, of course, in that the burgesses were obliged to provide a down-payment or ‘fine’ of 100 shillings plus an annual fee of 40 shillings thereafter – forever.
Today we could be forgiven for considering Richard De Clare to have been an altruistic individual, although a brief history lesson would certainly confirm the contrary to be true. However, despite that, it would seem a tremendously generous deal for the people of Sudbury, but it was not all that it appeared to be if viewed from our current perspective.
Back in Medieval times society was structured in a very different manner and quite unrecognisable to us today. Many people were ‘tied’ to the manor and these serfs, villains, bondsmen and neifs were essentially slaves. They were obliged to work the lord’s demesne and were subject to obligations that made them ‘unfree’. A little research reveals how desperate the lives of these people were and there was almost no way of breaking out of the system, at least before the pressures resulting from the Black Death led to big changes.
If we return to the charter, we can see that there is a reference to ‘free successors’. Therefore, it is certain that majority of the ‘community’ was excluded from enjoying rights over the lands and that would have been understood perfectly well in those times because those tied to the lord’s lands were no better than slaves and therefore were not free and so did not enjoy any rights.
While the above might appear to be rather irrelevant today, it perhaps should be remembered by Sudbury’s Freemen that they enjoy rights with ancient roots, which while bestowing very little in the way of advantage now, should, nonetheless be viewed as a rare privilege and something to be cherished and handed down through the family. After all, not everyone can say ‘I am a Freeman of Sudbury’ and those that can, should be rightfully proud.
Adrian Walters, Clerk to the trustees of the Sudbury Common Lands and Honorary Freeman of Sudbury