[Image above] ACerS President Bill Lee (right) recently became a Freeman of the City of London. Here Lee stands with the city’s Deputy Chamberlain, who performed the ceremony. Credit: Bill Lee
ACerS president Bill Lee recently participated in one of the oldest surviving traditional ceremonies still in existence today—a ceremony believed to have first occurred in 1237.
And, as a result of this “peculiarly English” ceremony, Lee is now a Freeman of the City of London.
Let me explain.
Freemen are individuals (not just men) who have received the Freedom of the City of London, a designation that once served a historical purpose of providing city residents the right to trade within the city. It essentially ensured that a particular trade was being performed by qualified artisans, akin to a modern day trade association.
According to the city of London’s website, “Today most of the practical reasons for obtaining the Freedom of the City have disappeared. It nevertheless remains as a unique part of London’s history to which many people who have lived or worked in the City have been proud to be admitted.”
Still murky on these details of this honor? As Bill Lee himself said, “It’s hard to explain, even to people in the U.K.!”
So, let me let another Englishman explain.
Credit: City of London; YouTube
As Murray Craig, 37th clerk of the Chamberlain’s court and the man currently responsible for admitting individuals into the Freedom of the City, says in the video, today the Freedom is a “tool for recognizing achievements of people in certain fields.”
So while achieving the Freedom doesn’t serve the functional purpose it once did, it’s still quite an honor—and so rather fitting and laudable that Lee recently participated in this eight-century-old tradition.
The original purpose of the Freedom of the City was to allow members of a guild or particular trade—called a livery—to perform their craft. Livery companies are essentially trade organizations, many of which were set up in the Middle Ages to protect the standards of various classes of manufactured goods.
“Today, there are more than 100 liveries, and though trading conditions changed, since their inception, their work is as pertinent as it always has been,” according to the City of London’s website. “Different in size, structure and interests, they share the same ethos: supporting trade, education, charity, and fellowship, working in the best interests of the communities in which they operate. The charitable dimension of their work now amounts to over £40 million each year.”
In other words, liveries still play an important, prominent, and distinguished role in English society today. “Of these trade associations and guilds—which include, for example, the Grocers, Weavers, and Vintners—those most relevant to the materials community are the Ironmongers, Goldsmiths, and Armourers & Brasiers’,” Lee explains.
A prerequisite of becoming a Freeman of the City is to be a Freeman of one of the livery companies. Lee specifically is a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Armourers & Brasiers’, a group that originally provided the suits of armor and weapons used in medieval times.
And since the demand for suits of armor has since declined—thanks to innovations like more lightweight, comfortable, and protective ceramic armor—the livery has since turned its attention to more charitable activities.
About 75% of the Armourers & Brasiers’ charitable funds support science “at each stage of education with an increasing focus on support for materials science at the later stages,” according to the group’s website.
The organization also awards an annual Materials Science Venture Prize, which provides £25,000 to support commercialization of materials research. The award is presented during the Armourers & Brasiers annual research forum at the University of Cambridge, this year held on June 20 and featuring a special lecture on the materials science of another specifically English tradition—custard.
Head over here for more details on the forum and to register for free.
So while steeped in tradition, history, and intrigue, becoming a Freeman of the Armourers & Brasiers’ is quite a relevant honor today within society in general and specifically within the materials science community.
However, Lee is careful to clarify that he received the honor of the Freedom of the City by redemption, which means that he “paid £100 for the privilege” of becoming a Freeman.
Alternatively, one can also achieve the Freedom through an honorary award, whose previous awardees including the prestigious company of Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, and Dwight Eisenhower.