Judi Dench and other stars receive Freedom of the City from St Albans man
- Credit: Debbie White/Archant
WHAT do Judi Dench, Florence Nightingale, Horatio Nelson, Winston Churchill and Luciano Pavarotti all have in common?
The Academy Award-winning actor, pioneering nurse, national hero, British Prime Minister and Italian tenor have each participated in an ancient ceremony that dates back to the 13th Century, to receive the Freedom of the City of London.
And the person who has been conducting freedom ceremonies for thousands of people for over a decade is down-to-earth St Albans man Murray Craig.
In his role as Clerk of the Chamberlain’s Court, in the beautiful and iconic Guildhall in London, Murray orchestrates the symbolic ceremony with help from the Beadle.
Steeped in tradition, becoming a freeman was a necessity for the likes of bakers and butchers during the Middle Ages.
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But apparently when most people are asked what they know about the freedom they reply that it, “has something to do with driving sheep over London Bridge”.
Murray shudders at the thought that today’s “freeman could turn Bo-Peep. You would cause traffic chaos!”
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He explained: “It was a form of medieval trading standards and quality control.”
The Corporation of London then, as now, regulated the livery companies and demanded that all liverymen become Freemen of the City as a method of control.
For a sizeable fee, those who became freemen had certain valuable trading rights and privileges not available to non-freemen, for example exemption from market and bridge tolls.
Murray said: “It was very lucrative because what you were getting was monolithic trading rights for the richest part of the kingdom. In return, what you had to give was a fee, and you also had to maintain standards of excellence and quality in goods produced.
“So bakers wouldn’t give you stale bread, butchers wouldn’t give you rotten meat. Back in the Middle Ages, it was a very useful privilege – not so much taking the sheep over the bridge but not paying the toll.
“And the bedrock of the Middle Ages was the wool trade, hence [the story evolved about] sheep over London Bridge.”
But from 1800 an expanding population made this sort of regulation unworkable, so all City trade and franchise restrictions were abolished and the requirement to obtain the freedom was lifted.
However, becoming a “freeman”, where recipients become citizens of London, has remained popular to this day. Now though, fees raised are given to the City of London’s Freeman’s School in Ashtead, Surrey, to support orphans of freemen, and to the city’s almshouse in Brixton.
Over the centuries a who’s who of well-known – and respected – leaders, celebrities, dignitaries and royalty have become freemen, for example Nelson Mandela, Disraeli and Wellington.
The city of St Albans has also provided recipients of the title including the late tennis player Kay Stammers, who lived on Sandpit Lane, where she had a tennis court.
Kay, who played left-handed, was born in St Albans and won the women’s doubles title at the competition in 1935 and 1936 with partner Freda James Hammersley, and defeated Helen Jacobs in a 1939 Wimbledon semi-final.
Long before her though, another St Albans luminary gained the freedom – Sir William Domville, the Lord Mayor of London in 1814, who lived in a brick house near the sub-dean’s house on Holywell Hill opposite Café Rouge.
Murray said that there were several ways of becoming a freeman: “You apply for the freedom either via a livery company which nominates you, or people can be nominated. Sometimes it’s a thank-you gesture.”
The City of London is keen to maintain the freedom as a living tradition and it is open to all who are genuinely interested in this part of the capital’s history.
About five years ago Pavarotti was given the freedom in recognition of his generous work with the Red Cross.
But he put his foot down during the ceremony when Murray asked: “Maestro, would you like to sing the declaration of the freeman in the style of an opera?”
“No,” Pavarotti replied, “I’ll read it.”
In 2010 Dame Judi Dench delighted Murray with her eloquent reading of the declaration of a freeman.
Murray said: “She was a tour de force; it was as if we had Desdemona, Lady Bracknell, Queen Victoria and Hedda Gabler all in one room, she was absolutely wonderful.”
Murray continued: “Last year we had a bumper crop of freedoms; we had Joanna Lumley, and she was very nice.
“We had a different Beadle [master of ceremonies] whose glasses misted over with excitement and he erroneously introduced her son as her husband.”
Astonishingly, Murray is just the 37th clerk of the Chamberlain’s Court since 1294.
Before his current role he was in housing management where he was “piggy-in-the-middle” between landlords and residents.
Murray joined the Chamberlain’s Court as deputy clerk in 1997 and became clerk in 2002.
When the Herts Advertiser visited Guildhall to watch several of the up to 1,800 ceremonies conducted annually, Murray was using his encyclopaedic memory of the history of the City of London to help keep the traditions alive and entertain visitors to the court who were soon all roaring with laughter.
Murray joked: “I’m like the Queen, I have shaken a lot of hands.”
He tells anecdotes around “props” – statue remnants, certificates signed by the likes of Margaret Thatcher – that line the court room.
They are reminders of the freedom’s 700-year-old history.
Sharing a wall with a freedom certificate presented to Princess Diana is a copy of a letter from national hero Lord Horatio Nelson who wrote to the Guildhall in 1798.
Murray said Nelson, “was very proud to be a freeman because after the Battle of the Nile where he defeated the French, he wrote from the battlefield to the Lord Mayor, thanking him for the honour.
“To show him his gratitude he sent him the broken sword of the defeated admiral, Armand Blanquet.”
Murray added: “We are very proud of the freedom. It’s a unique slice of London history.”