A CITY’S freemen will celebrate a milestone in their long and colourful history this weekend (May 14).

In 1520, during Henry VIII’s reign, the Durham Freemen Butchers’ Company was granted the legal right to ply their trade from the fringe of the city’s Market Place.

Their modern-day successors originally planned to mark the company’s 500th anniversary in the summer of 2020, but twice had to shelve plans due to Covid.

With restrictions now lifted, the landmark can finally be marked with a day of celebration on Saturday.

Among guests attending the festivities in the Market Place will be the county’s Lord Lieutenant, Sue Snowdon, recently sword-in High Sheriff, Shona Harper-Wilkes, and the Durham’s Mayor, county councillor Arnie Simpson.

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A feature of the day will be butchery demonstrations, with those in attendance wearing Tudor dress to add period atmosphere.

There will be a special display of exhibits mounted by underwater archaeologist and tv celebrity Gary Bankhead from the thousands of freemen-related artefacts and mediaeval treasures he has unearthed from the bed of the River Wear in the city.

Durham Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers will demonstrate lost craft skills of bygone days, while the Ran Tanners duo will be performing with their array of fiddles, bagpipes and squeezeboxes, providing the traditional music of old England, and Durham Rams Sword and Morris Men will also be displaying traditional dance.

City traders adopted the term “freemen”, in 1179, after they were granted a charter by the Bishop of Durham freeing them from tolls levied on merchandise moving in and out of the city.

The first companies or guilds were formed to maintain the standard and quality of wares and ensure they were sold at a fair price.

Among the first “freemen’s” companies to be granted lawful recognition, dating back as far as 1327, were the grocers, but the first officially documented charter went to the weavers and websters, in 1450.

The butchers, along with the barbers, cordwainers, curriers, joiners, drapers, masons and plumbers make up the eight surviving companies, boasting a total membership of more than 250, a quarter of them women.                                                                

Entry into the freemen’s ranks is generally restricted to the sons or daughters of existing freemen or through recognised time-served apprenticeships within the city’s boundaries.

Notable freemen from the ranks of the butchers include Sir John Duck, whose rags-to riches story was launched from humble beginnings as a 17th century butcher’s apprentice.

A century later no fewer than three successive Dukes of Northumberland were admitted as members, the reasons for which remain a mystery even today.

The chairman of the wardens of the eight companies, John Booth, said: “I am delighted and honoured to be involved with the celebrations marking the continuing existence of the Butchers’ Company over 500 years.

“It is so important the freemen mark such milestones and recognise the vital contribution they made to the history and heritage of our great city.”


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