CURIOUS MANNER OF MAKING FREEMEN AT ALNWICK
[Extracted from The Antiquarian Repertory, 4 (1809): 387-8.]
AMONG the many jocular customs mentioned by Blount in his treatise on those subjects, he has omitted one observed on making new Freemen at Alnwick in the county of Northumberland, which affords to the full as much matter for mirth as any he has there recorded, and is besides at this time in full force, having within a very few years been complied with. The history and form of it is as follows:
In the reign of King John, that monarch attempting to ride cross Alnwick Moor, then called the forest of Aidon, he fell with his horse into a bog or morass, where he stuck so fast that he was with great difficulty pulled out by some of his attendants.
The King, incensed against the inhabitants of that town, for not keeping their roads over their moor in better repair, or at least for not placing some post or mark pointing out the particular spots which were impassable, inserted in their charter, both by way of memento and punishment, that for the future all new created Freemen should on St. Mark's day pass on foot through that morass, called the Freemens Well.
In obedience to this clause of their charter, when any new Freemen are to be made, a small rill of water which passes through the morass is kept dammed up for a day or two previous to that on which this ceremonial is to be exhibited, by which means the bog becomes so thoroughly liquified, that a middle sized man is chin deep in mud and water in passing over it. Besides which, unlucky wags frequently dig holes and trenches; in these, filled up and rendered invisible by the fluid mud, several Freemen have fallen down, and been in great danger of suffocation. In short, in proportion as the new made Freemen are more or less popular, the passage is rendered more or less difficult; at the best, however, it is scarcely preferable to the punishment of the horse-pond inflicted by the mob on a detected pick-pocket.
The day being come, the candidates, for they are literally so, being dressed all in white, preceded by a cavalcade, consisting of the Castle' Bailiff, the four Chamberlains, the Freemen of the town, and a band of music, repair to the scene of action ; and on the word, or a signal being given, they pass through the bog, each being at liberty to use the method and pace which to him shall seem best, some running, sonic going slow, and some attempting to jump over suspected places, but all in their turns tumbling and wallowing like porpoises at sea, or hogs in the mire, to the great amusement of the populace, who usually assemble in vast numbers on this occasion. This scene being over, the parties return to the town, and endeavour to prevent by good cheer the ill effects of their morning's exercise.