From a talk by Mr. Cliff Pettit.
The Freemen’s Charter dates from 1157, but the order is even older than that. It is not known exactly how many Alnwick freemen there are, as only freemen living within the Alnwick area are eligible to share in the profits from the rents of Freemen property, but there are two ways for men (and only men) to become a freeman: men who are apprenticed to a Freeman, and sons of a freeman are eligible. Daughters are not, nor can it pass through the female line. Hence, Cliff Pettit himself is not a freeman, but he has many relatives who are.
From 1209, a bizarre initiation ceremony was introduced. This arose because on 24th April 1209, King John, who was visiting the north to deal with the Scots, became stuck in a bog near Snipe House whilst out hunting. Arriving back at Alnwick Castle in a bedraggled state, and very angry, he determined to revoke the Freemen’s Charter. However, they apologised profusely, and he punished them instead by insisting that freeman should also go into the bog. Hence, an initiation ceremony took place on the 24th April every year until 1852, ensuring that initiates got well-muddied at Freemen’s Well, near Snipe House.
Until 1757, the Freemen were the governing body of the Town, the Dukes having lost interest in Alnwick after 1603, when the castle, which was largely wooden, began to fall into disrepair. The Freemen owned a considerable part of the town, including the Market Place and the Shambles. They were patrons of the church and grammar school, and owned coal mines and limestone quarries, as well as great tracts of moor. There was a “Four and Twenty” governing Council which ran the courts and imposed fines. Rules were very strict, particularly to ensure market traders were not fraudulent, and fines quite steep for the time. They also had disciplinary powers, and imposed fines for misdemeanours.
In 1757, however, the Earldom passed by marriage to Sir Hugh Smithson, later the 1st Duke of Northumberland. He took a great interest in the town, and thought he had rights over the moorland which the Freemen owned. Over the next 10 years, he and the 2nd Duke launched costly lawsuits. The Freemen were obliged to reach agreement, since finances were at this time at a low ebb: they had recently built the Town Hall, a weighbridge, and a lock-up. The problems also led to dissension among the Freemen themselves: the Four and Twenty were a self-perpetuating oligarchy which was disliked, and the dissenters were encouraged by the Duke.
However, the powers of the Freemen were not finally diminished until the 1835 Municipal Reform Act. In towns throughout the country, arrangements were made with freemen respecting the property they owned. Only the City of London and Alnwick were excluded from the new arrangements as the 3rd Duke lobbied on behalf of Alnwick Freemen to the House of Lords. Today, they have complete autonomy over their land. This, of course, causes problems to the local council today, particularly relating to the Market Place. A quite recent Council error led them to register the Pinfold. The Freemen applied for it to be de-registered, a costly undertaking for which the Council had to pay.