Oxford History: Mayors & Lord Mayors


Freemen (Hanasters) of Oxford

Oxford freemen were known as Hanasters. Before the Municipal Reform Act of 1835 (also known as the Municipal Corporations Act), only a freeman could enter into business as a master or journeyman within the boundaries of the City (unless he was a privileged tradesman matriculated by the University). Also only freemen had the vote in council elections.

There were four ways of becoming a freeman and entering their guild:

  • By purchasing their freedom. The official price set down in 1551 was at least £5, but in fact people were admitted for less. People who purchased their freedom were supposed to be recommended by the craft that they wished to join, but this was not always observed
  • By being the son of a freeman. The eldest son was admitted free of charge, and all other sons could claim to be admitted for a fee of 9s 6d. A son born before his father became a freeman had no claim, however.
  • By serving a seven-year apprenticeship to a freeman. About half the freemen entered by this method
  • By gift (honorary freedom of the city for important people).

Most citizens were sworn free after serving a seven-year apprenticeship from the age of 14; and some were made free by an act of Council. Various payments were required on being admitted free.

Even after the 1835 Act, anyone who wanted to set up a business in the city of Oxford who was not a freeman had to pay a fine. In 1845 Benjamin Harris Blackwell (along with five other shopkeepers) set up his business at 46 St  Clement’s Street (outside the city boundary) in protest against this fine, even though the trade in books might have been better west of Magdalen Bridge. (It was his son Benjamin Henry who moved into Broad Street in 1879.)

Since 1900 the title of Freeman has been simply honorary, and the Freedom of the City of Oxford is now granted to persons of distinction, and those who have, in the opinion of the council, rendered eminent services to the city. In October 2008 the Privy Council at Westminster changed the law to permit the daughters of Freemen to become Freemen of Oxford.

Charities for Freemen
Sir Thomas White Loan

In his will of 1566 Sir Thomas White gave property to the city of Bristol, from which 24 corporations (including Oxford) were to receive £104 every 24 years. Oxford was to provide four interest-free loans of £25 to young freemen (preferably clothiers), the remaining £4 to cover the administrative costs. By 1822 Oxford had received ten payments of £104. By 1884 the charity comprised £850 stock, and the last payment was made in 1953.

Dame Margaret Northern’s chest

Dame Margaret Northern, widow of the Mayor William Northern, bequeathed £40 to found a loan-chest for freemen, who could borrow up to £3. This loan system was in operation by 1420, and in 1581 Margaret, her husband William, and father Simon were placed on the benefactors’ role by the city. It appears that by the mid-seventeenth century, however, that the coffer was empty. (See also William Northern)

Payments by Freemen in 1590

Hit is agreed that everie one that cometh in to be free of this cytie, beinge an apprentice within this cytie with a freeman, shall fynde and provide at his owne charges one leather buckett for to carrie water, when mysfortune of fyre shall heppen within this cytie or suburbes thereof; and that everie one that cometh in free as a forriner shall fynde and provide one leather buckett or more as this howsse shall thincke goode; and the same bucketts to be brought in to the use of this cytie, to be safelie kepte and to be in a readenes when nede shall require frome tyme to tyme; and the said bucketts to be brought in by the parties aforesaid before they shall use any trade within this cytie.

The Oath as sworn by those admitted free in Oxford the 1920s

The OATH of every Freeman of the City of Oxford.

I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and true to our Sovereign Lord King George V., his Heirs and lawful Successors, Kings and Queens of this Realm of Great Britain. I will be obedient and ready to the Mayor, Aldermen, Ministers, and Keepers of this City (Officers under the King’s Majesty) and to their lawful commandments. The Franchises, Liberties, and Customs of this City I will keep and maintain to my power; and, in as much as in me is, I will save this City harmless. I will be partner of all manner of charges touching this City as in Summons, Contributions, Watches, Taxes, Tallages, as another man of the same City is. I will avow no Foreign Goods as my own, whereby the King may lose his custom. Any apprentice I may take for seven years, I will cause him to be enrolled within the first year of his apprenticeship and if he serve me well and truly, I will so certify on Oath at his outgoing. I will not withdraw, purloin, or withhold, or consent to the withdrawing purloining, or withholding of any of the Charters, Writings, Evidences, Escripts, or Muniments, appertaining, or which of right ought to appertain, to this City but I will do my best endeavour to see them brought in and delivered to the use of this City. And in all things I will be justified by the Mayor of this City, and his Council, as a true and obedient Citizen ought to be. I will not consent to the decrease of the City Treasure, without the assent of the Mayor, and of his Council and the Counsel of this City I will truly keep. These points and all others touching the Franchises, Liberties, and Customs of this City, or any of them, I will keep and maintain to the utmost of my power.


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©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 16 June, 2022

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