Charles Looker writes, we know a great deal about the early history of the freemen of Godmanchester thanks to their own records.

Godmanchester was a royal manor - like many lands which had been reclaimed by the Saxon kings from the Danes (and so taken over by the Norman kings). In 1212 King John granted a charter to Godmanchester which, for an annual rent of £120 (no small sum in those days), allowed them to be self-governing rather than being controlled by a royal steward. You will hear more romantic interpretations of why King John did this, but I prefer a down-to earth reason - money. £120 was probably more than he was receiving annually before the charter and he would not have to employ a steward any more. Most mediaeval kings wanted money for one thing, war, and I believe it is no coincidence that within a year of the charter King John was at War with France.


The 1212 charter is very short: only 172 words. This might leave it open to different interpretations. The freemen made their own and, because much of English law was (and still is - see box) based on custom, they were scrupulous in recording their actions - effectively creating their own local laws. There were in fact many other towns in a similar position to Godmanchester, but Godmanchester has one of the best surviving records. What possibly singled out Godmanchester was the large area of arable land attached to it.

English Common Law and Godmanchester

Modern example of the application of Common Law is in relation to footpaths where If you can proof use without challenge (and without express permission) for  twenty  years or more, it is deemed to be a public right of way. Only this year, the Monks Pit footpath was declared a public right of way after the case had been taken the House of Lords. It is of note that the principle itself was not under question, but the Ramblers Association wanted Their Lordships to rule on what constituted a challenge. Fortunately for them and for walkers in Godmanchester, they considered that neither an ambiguous sign, nor a single letter to someone constituted a challenge.

110 years earlier, Godmanchester made another appearance in the House of Lords, when the Borough's custom of opening locks and sluices, belonging to other people, in order to relieve flood water, was discussed. Once again, Godmanchester won.

The records were lost for a time (they had been hidden away during the World War II), but the County archivist after the war, Philip Dickinson, re-discovered them and a number of other Huntingdonshire mediaeval records and microfilmed them. That would not have been enough for our present day understanding without the work of a group of historians led by Dr Ambrose Raftis at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto, who were interested in mediaeval economics. They were able to use these records to draw up all sorts of statistics about Godmanchester and two books (available in Huntingdon Library) were written by Dr Raftis on this.

Godmanchester was now a self-governing manor and the arable land they had farmed as serfs effectively became their own. Grazing land was treated differently. Instead of having the use of an identifiable area of land, a right to put a certain number of animals onto the commons was attached to each house.

Arable land could be traded freely, but, because it was all part of the manor, all transactions had to take place through the governing body, the Court Leet, and were thus recorded. Land had to be surrendered back to the Bailiff who would then pass it to the purchaser. This was called "Surrender by the hand and glove", because the transfer was symbolised by the Seller passing a glove to the Bailiff who then passed it to the purchaser. The Bailiffs, of whom there were always two, were the predecessors of the Mayor (a post instituted in 1834).

In the Middle Ages and in Tudor times, there was nothing to prevent outsiders acquiring land in Godmanchester, but to exercise property rights one had to be admitted to the liberty of the town (the term freeman came into use later). You could inherit this, or you could pledge to observe the customs, i.e. its laws, and pay an arbitrary amount determined by the Court and known as a fine. Becoming a freeman then was rather like the modern practice of becoming a shareholder in a management Company when you buy one of a block of flats.

The Court also controlled the passing of land through inheritance and ruled on who should inherit. They applied a rare rule, known as the Borough English, in which the youngest son of the first wife inherited. This rule is mentioned in sale documents for land as recently as the early 20th Century. In 1312, they even ruled which household utensils the heir should receive in addition to the land.

In the words of Ambrose Raftis "...statistics of government in Godmanchester stir images in the mind of participation, self-government and indeed ... idyllic democracy".

At the turn of the 15th and 16th Centuries, there were 42 different officials and there was much rotation between posts. As an example, 135 different people had held some sort of office in the period between 1485 and 1505 and that was in a town much smaller than the present one. There isn't room here to explain What all the Officials did.

The Jurors were the governing body, but the Bailiffs (separate from the Jurors) had overall responsibility for the day-to-day management. The Bailiffs were appointed by the jurors and could be over-ruled by them. The Court (the Bailiffs and the Jury with others attending) was held every three weeks on a Thursday (the same day of the week as Godmanchester Town Council now meets).

Posts were divided evenly between the four main streets of the town: Earning, last (now Cambridge), Post and West. There were three jurors, two clerks, One farm rent collector (the share of the £120 due to the King) from each street, For each pair of streets Earning/East and Post/West, there was a bailiff, a collector of rents, a Collector of the ale, a Constable, a custodian of the church and a Collector of the view. For the whole town there was sub-bailiff, a Custodian of the seals, a hayward, a bellman, a coroner and a custodian of the horses.

The privileges of freemen extended beyond Godmanchester. Probably on the basis that they had already paid the King a fat sum for their rent, they were excused a range of tolls and taxes. A freeman was provided with a docket and, although travel beyond the town would have been unusual in those days, its purpose was to excuse them from tolls.

Naturally, later years have not received the attention of the Canadian mediaeval scholars, but it would be an interesting topic for a keen local historian.

References: R Fox (1831) The history of Godmanchester. Baldwin and Cradock, London.

 HJM Green (1977) Godmanchester. Oleander, Cambridge.

JA Raftis (1982) A small town in late medieval England - Godmanchester, 1278-1400. . Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto.

JA Raftis (1988) Early Tudor Godmanchester - Survivals and new arrivals. Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto.


Charles Looker