Burgess was a British title used in the medieval and early modern period to designate someone of the burgher class. It originally meant a freeman of a borough or burgh but later came to mean an official of a municipality or a representative in the House of Commons.

Usage in England

Sir William Anson was, among other things, "...One of the Burgesses of the University of Oxford," in 1899

In England, burgess meant an elected or unelected official of a municipality, or the representative of a borough in the English House of Commons.[1] This usage of "burgess" has since disappeared. Burgesses as freemen had the sole right to vote in municipal or parliamentary elections. However, these political privileges in Britain were removed by the Reform Act 1832.[2]

Usage in Scotland

Burgesses were originally freeman inhabitants of a city where they owned land and who contributed to the running of the town and its taxation. The title of burgess was later restricted to merchants and craftsmen, so that only burgesses could enjoy the privileges of trading or practising a craft in the city through belonging to a Guild (by holding a Guild Ticket) or were able to own companies trading in their guild's craft.[3] One example are the Burgess of Edinburgh.

The burgesses' ancient exclusive trading rights through their Guilds were abolished in 1846. Thereafter a burgess became a title which gave social standing to the office and usually carried with it a role which involved charitable activities of their guild or livery company, as it does today.[4]

Usage in American colonies

The term was also used in some of the American colonies. In the Colony of Virginia, a "burgess" was a member of the legislative body, which was termed the "House of Burgesses". In Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, the Burgess, or Chief Burgess, was the executive of many colonial era municipalities until the turn of the 20th century and persist in some places as the highest ranking magistrate of a municipality.[1]


It was derived in Middle English and Middle Scots from the Old French word burgeis, simply meaning "an inhabitant of a town" (cf. burgeis or burges respectively). The Old French word burgeis is derived from bourg, meaning a market town or medieval village, itself derived from Late Latin burgus, meaning "fortress"[5] or "wall". In effect, the reference was to the north-west European medieval and renaissance merchant class which tended to set up their storefronts along the outside of the city wall, where traffic through the gates was an advantage and safety in event of an attack was easily accessible. The right to seek shelter within a burg was known as the right of burgess.[6]

The term was close in meaning to the Germanic term burgher, a formally defined class in medieval German cities (Middle Dutch burgher, Dutch burger and German Bürger). It is also linguistically close to the French term bourgeois, which evolved from burgeis.

"Greensleeves" reference

The original version of the well-known English folk song "Greensleeves" includes the following:

Thy purse and eke thy gay guilt knives,
thy pincase gallant to the eye:
No better wore the Burgesse wives,
and yet thou wouldst not love me.

This clearly implies that at the time when it was composed (late 16th to early 17th century) a burgess was proverbial as being able to provide his wife with beautiful and expensive clothes.

See also


  1. ^ a b Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Burgess" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 4 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 814.
  2. ^ Archives The Mitchell Library, North Street, Glasgow.
  3. ^ Archives The Mitchell Library, North Street, Glasgow.
  4. ^ Archives The Mitchell Library, North Street, Glasgow.
  5. ^ American Heritage Dictionary etymology
  6. ^ Bücher, Carl (1912). Industrial Evolution. S. Morley Wickett (translator) (Die Entstehung der Volkswirtschaft. Translated from the third German ed.). New York: Henry Holt and Co. p. 116. Retrieved 2009-04-03. burgess-rights.