FREEMAN

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 4th July 1994, reproduced by kind permission of the author, Desmond Holden.

The "What's in a Name" series has been a regular feature in the Advertiser.
Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames and Desmond regrets he is unable to undertake research into the genealogy, descent or family history of individuals.

Editor's Note: Articles are provided for general interest and background only. They are not intended to provide an exhaustive treatise for any individual family history - investigations of which may yield quite different results. Or, in Desmond's own words:

"In the end it must remain with individual bearers of the names to draw upon family traditions and to seek out such documentary evidence as is available to decide the matter for themselves."

WHAT'S IN A NAME … Are you called FREEMAN?

This name is not to be identified with Freedman. The name under this heading is "Freeman" and refers to one "born free", whereas the name "Freedman" would have described a person who had been liberated from serfdom. This point is particularly noticable in the form "Freeborn" which prevails somewhat in Northern Ireland. Otherwise there are several variations on the name: Freebody and Franklin.

The name means exactly what it says; "a free man" - but then we ask: From what has such a person - been made "free"? To answer that question properly could lead us into a long discourse on English history from the Saxon Invasion to the end of the Wars of the Roses (339-1485) - and we really can't be doing with that! A distinguished historian also called Freeman needed 15 volumes just to describe the events associated with the Norman Conquest (1066)! See what is meant!!!

Reducing everything to a few simple high-spots, it all started when the Saxons descended upon Britain. Until then land had been owned more or less collectively by communities. The invaders introduced a highly developed sense of kinship and established themselves in groups based on the family. They parcelled-out all the best land for themselves and let the natives manage the left-overs. Then came William the Conqueror who grabbed everything that was going and dished it out to his pals. Old settlements were commandeered but former occupants were allowed to remain in possession provided they undertook to perform stipulated tasks on lands which the Norman invaders had seized.

Contrary to a widely held belief this was not entirely an imposition forced on the peasants: something like it had already existed in the Saxon communities. The point to be taken is that the people who had not been called upon to work under similar conditions for the former Saxon Overlords were designated "Churls". The word is very ancient and means a "man" especially in the sense of a person of worth and standing. This idea still finds echoes in expressions such as "Make a Man of him." The first-name "Charles" has been derived from it. To have been designated a "Man" (i.e. "Churl") counted for a great deal. It meant you were "one of us"!

The Normans were very unwilling to confer special status upon anybody who hadn't "come over with William the Conqueror", and only reluctantly and under exceptional circumstances tolerated the existence of a few "Churls". If they ever referred to them, it was at first patronising and then positively disparaging - so much so that about 300 years after the Conquest, far from being a title of distinction, to be described as a "churl" was to imply you were coarse and ignorant.

Consequently, the limited number of people who could not, as it were, be "conscripted" to work for the Lord of the Manor disliked being known as "churls" and went in for alternatives such as "Freeman", "Freebody", or "Franklin" (a Germanic variation).

During the 13th and 14th centuries, the condition of being a "freeman" was much envied and sought-after. Readers of the Robin Hood stories will recall the incident of the rescue of the bride of the outlaw Alan-a-Dale by the serf, Jack, son of Wilkin and how he was rewarded with his freedom and a gift of free land (See Gilbert's rendering of the Tales: Ch. 5). Literature of the period frequently takes up the issue and it is summed-up in the famous rhyme beginning "When Adam delved and Eve span...." (1340).

In passing it could be noted that the much-vaunted freedoms proclaimed in Magna Carta were generally extended only to "Freemen". It was not such a Charter of universal liberty as is popularly believed! However, all this suddenly came to an end. In 1348 the plague known as the Black Death swept over England killing half the population. This brought about a critical shortage of labour.

The peasants seized the opportunity to demand their freedom and to be allowed to travel as they wished, to choose their own employers and work for wages. The Lords resisted but to no avail. In 1381 there was serious rioting all over the country, led, in London, by the folk hero, Wat Tyler. Although the uprisings were suppressed, the authorities were warned that there was a new spirit in the hearts of the people and by the end of the 15th century the distinction between free and un-free men had disappeared. With its passing, the status of "free man" no longer existed as a topic of conversation or discussion, and dropping out of the current vocabulary, survived only as a surname.

Because only a limited number of people could have laid claim to the status of "free man" the name is not very widely distributed over the United Kingdom although it is not unfamiliar. The local directories contain about 200 entries. Reference works make mention of a few persons known as "Freeman" but none of them is exactly "star" status. This is not so with its variant "Franklin". In the U.K. it was borne by the intrepid Artic explorer Sir John Franklin (1786-1847); and in the U.S.A. by that great American personality, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). He is still so much admired in the States that his name has been adopted as a boy's first name, the most famous bearer of which was President Franklin D Roosevelt (1882-1945).

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 4th July 1994.

URL of this page: http://names.gukutils.org.uk/Freeman.shtml
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