The Freedom of the Borough of Sudbury in the early 19th century

The freedom of Sudbury was unusual, and seemingly unique, in that it existed in two distinct forms, the freedom of the Borough, and the freedom of the Commons, which could not be held except by a freeman of the Borough. Admission to the freedom of the Borough was obtained by birth, (all sons of freemen being eligible on reaching the age of 21, if born within the borough), by seven-year apprenticeship to a freeman within the borough, or by purchase, (otherwise known as ‘redemption). The freedom of the Commons was obtained by birth or redemption, the two freedoms usually being purchased together, or the freedom of the Commons being purchased, at a lower fee, by someone already free of the Borough. Admissions were recorded in the Minutes of the Court of Orders and Decrees, and until 1812 in a Cocket Book kept solely for that purpose (a cocket being the revenue stamp on the docket issued to the freeman or, from 1806, affixed in the book).

The impact of the Napoleonic wars is reflected in the number of freemen who served in the Militia. There were also many non-resident freemen. (Cocket Book from the Town Archives, Sudbury Town Hall)

The freedom of the Borough conferred the right to vote in parliamentary elections, for those neither in receipt of alms, nor convicted of a felony. It also gave entitlement to trade in the town. To these privileges the freedom of the Commons added the right to depasture two heads of cattle on the Common Lands of the borough, these consisting of two meadows, Portmanscroft (known also as Freemen’s Great Common) and Kings Marsh, both granted by the Lord of the Manor, Richard de Clare, in the 13th century, as well as 12 acres of another meadow, Fullingpit Meadow, provided for the freemen (his constituents) by a member of parliament in the 18th century.

Kings Marsh, Sudbury Common Lands

The widow of a freeman of the Commons could depasture one animal. For each head of cattle the owner paid a fee to the Corporation of a few shillings, the amount being determined annually, and after payment of the costs of maintaining the land, this money was divided among the freemen and widows of freemen who did not exercise their right to depasture cattle. The Common Lands were grazed during the summer months, the date for turning cattle in pasture in May or June, being fixed by the Corporation. With minor amendments of fees and dates, regulations made by the Court of Orders and Decrees in 1804 continued to operate until 1835.
Another privilege appertaining to the freedom of the Commons was the right of shackage, which permitted freemen to feed their cows and horses on other lands in the borough between old St. Bartholomew’s Day, (August 24th), and Candlemas, (February 2nd). The half year grazing rights also extended to waste land such as roadside grass verges.

The freemen were also exempt from paying tolls at fairs and markets throughout England and had the privilege to fish, hunt, shoot and hawk in the Borough.

Charles Dickens in the ‘Pickwick Papers’ is said to have satirized Sudbury in his description of the memorable election at ‘Eatanswill’.

The other privilege enjoyed by all the freemen was of voting in parliamentary elections. The borough sent two representatives to the House of Commons and had long had a reputation for bribery and corruption at elections. Candidates prepared for extravagant expenditure could influence the poorer freemen, predominantly the weavers, and an indication of the importance of the vote in their eyes may be derived from the concentrations of admissions by birth or apprenticeship in election years.
The 1832 Reform Bill preserved the voting rights of the freemen but extended the franchise to £10 householders. The non-resident freemen lost their vote unless they lived within 7 miles of the town.

The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 banned the purchase of the freedom but preserved most of the freemen’s traditional rights. The freedom could no longer be bought but only gained by birth or servitude.

As a result of the findings of the Commission of Enquiry into the 1841 election, Sudbury was disfranchised in 1844 and lost the power to send M.P.s to Westminster and became part of a larger county constituency. The freemen also lost their political power.

Allan W. Berry (Years of Transition: Sudbury, Suffolk in the 1830’s and 1840’s; Suffolk County Town: A Sudbury Miscellany)