Award to Sir Robert Hadfield by the City of Sheffield, 1939 (Hadfield Room, University of Sheffield)
Gold New York City 'Freedom of the City Box' presented to Commodore Daniel Patterson, made by Jonathan Wilmarth, John L. Moffat, and Joseph Curtis, 1832
"Ferdinand Receives the Keys of the City from the Virgin of Ghent", print after a painting made by Antoon van den Heuvel for the Joyous Entry by the Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand into Ghent in 1635

The Freedom of the City (or Borough in some parts of the UK) is an honour bestowed by a municipality upon a valued member of the community, or upon a visiting celebrity or dignitary. Arising from the medieval practice of granting respected citizens freedom from serfdom, the tradition still lives on in countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand—although today the title of "freeman" confers no special privileges. The Freedom of the City can also be granted by municipal authorities to military units which have earned the city's trust; in this context, it is sometimes called the Freedom of Entry. This allows them the freedom to parade through the city, and is an affirmation of the bond between the regiment and the citizenry.

The honour was sometimes accompanied by a "freedom box", a small gold box inscribed to record the occasion; these are not usual today. In some countries, such as the United States, esteemed residents and visitors may instead be presented with the Key to the City, a similarly symbolic honour. Other US cities award Honorary Citizenship with just a certificate.

Military privilege

Members of No. 28 Squadron RAAF marching through the centre of Canberra during the unit's Freedom of the City parade in August 2013

Freedom of the City is an ancient honour granted to martial organisations, allowing them the privilege to march into the city "with drums beating, colours flying, and bayonets fixed".[1]

This honour dates back to ancient Rome which regarded the "pomerium", the boundary of the city, as sacred. Promagistrates and generals were forbidden from entering it, and resigned their imperium immediately upon crossing it. An exception was made for victory celebrations (called triumphs), during which the victorious general would be permitted to enter for one day only. Under the Republic, soldiers also lost their status when entering, becoming citizens: thus soldiers at their general's triumph wore civilian dress. Weapons were also banned inside the pomerium for religious and traditional reasons. (The assassination of Julius Caesar occurred outside this boundary.)

Similar laws were passed by other European cities throughout the Medieval era, to protect public security and civic rights, even against their own king's troops. As a result, soldiers would be forced to camp outside the walls of the city during the winter months. The Freedom of the City was an honour granted only to troops which had earned the trust of the local populace, either through some valiant action or simply by being a familiar presence.[1]

Today, martial freedom of the city is an entirely ceremonial honour, usually bestowed upon a unit with historic ties to the area, as a token of appreciation for their long and dedicated service. The awarding of the Freedom is often accompanied by a celebratory parade through the city.

Entitlement to civil privileges

A slightly more common freedom of the city is connected to the medieval concept of "free status", when city and town charters drew a distinction between freemen and vassals of a feudal lord. As such, freemen actually pre-date modern boroughs. Early freedom of the boroughs ceremonies had great importance in affirming that the recipient enjoyed privileges such as the right to trade and own property, and protection within the town.

In modern society, the award of honorary freedom of the city or borough tends to be entirely ceremonial, given by the local government in many towns and cities on those who have served in some exceptional capacity, or upon any whom the city wishes to bestow an honour.

United Kingdom

A recipient of Freedom of the City of London, Nigel Cumberland, after his ceremony

Before parliamentary reform in 1832, freedom of the city or town conferred the right to vote in the parliamentary boroughs for the MPs. Until the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 the freemen were the exclusive electorate for some of the boroughs. These two acts together curtailed the power of the freemen and extended the franchise to all "householders" (defined as local rate payers; in fact therefore property owners). The private property belonging to the freemen collectively was retained. The freemen of York, Oxford and Newcastle upon Tyne still own considerable areas within their towns, although the income is effectively given to support charitable objects. The Local Government Act 1972 specifically preserved freemen's rights.[2] The Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 removed any restrictions entitling only men to be freemen.[3]

Today, the grant of honorary freedom in the United Kingdom is governed by the Local Government Act 1972 (as amended by the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009). The 1972 Act enabled the councils of cities, royal boroughs, boroughs, and parishes (or, in Wales, communities) with the status of a royal town to confer the status of honorary freeman on "persons of distinction and persons who have, in the opinion of the council, rendered eminent services" to the local area.[4] The 2009 Act extends the ability to grant the status of honorary freeman to any county, city, district, borough, town, parish or community council (so removing the requirement for the town to have 'royal' status, and also enabling county councils to confer the honour).[5] A special meeting of the council can grant the honour by passing a resolution with a two-thirds majority.

The exact qualifications for borough freedom differ between each city or town, but generally fall into two categories, "patrimony" (inheritance) and "servitude" (apprenticeship). For example, in Chester, only the children or grandchildren of freemen may apply for admission. In York, this extends to great- and great-great-grandchildren, and apprenticeship to a freeman of the city will also allow admission.[6] In Great Grimsby, the widow of a freeman passes his rights to her second husband, who retains the privilege after either divorce from or death of the widow. The borough freedom is strongest in York, Chester, Newcastle upon Tyne and Coventry; in Coventry, freedom is qualified by having served an apprenticeship. Durham and Northampton have extended their admission criteria to those who have served an apprenticeship without being "bound" (trained) by a freeman directly. Freemen of Newcastle upon Tyne are bestowed the right to graze cattle on the town moor.[7]

Freedom of the City of Belfast

Recipients of this honour have included athlete Mary Peters,[8] actor Kenneth Branagh, diplomat John Jordan, industrialist Andrew Carnegie, shipowner Thomas Henry Ismay and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Freedom of the City of London

Main article: Freedom of the City of London

Lord Nelson's certificate given him after becoming a Freeman of the City of London showing that he has Freedom
Ari Norman's Certificate of Freedom of the City of London
Sir Tim Berners-Lee receiving the freedom of the City of London in 2014

In England, the most established borough freedom is that conferred by the Freedom of the City of London, first recorded in 1237. This is closely tied to the role and status of the livery companies. From 1835, the freedom "without the intervention of a Livery Company" has been bestowed by a general resolution of Common Council, by "redemption" (purchase), at one time for an onerous sum. Now the Freedom can be obtained by servitude, by patrimony, by nomination, or by presentation via a Livery Company. Freedom through nomination by two sponsors is available for a fee (known as a "fine") of £100, but is free to those on the electoral roll of the City.[9]

New freemen are enrolled in a ceremony in Guildhall, when they receive a guide to conducting their lives in an honourable fashion and a sealed certificate. Freemen's children get admission preference at the City of London Freemen's School. There are a number of rights traditionally but apocryphally associated with freemen—the right to drive sheep and cattle over London Bridge; to a silken rope, if hanged; to carry a naked sword in public; or that if the City of London Police finds a freeman drunk and incapable, they will bundle him or her into a taxi and send them home rather than throw them into a cell. While sheep have occasionally been driven over London Bridge by Freemen on special occasions, these privileges are now effectively symbolic.

Mark Stephens with a sheep on London Bridge in 2009

The right to herd sheep and cattle across London's four bridges is no longer economically relevant, as there are no livestock markets in the city.[10] Nevertheless, this right has been exercised, or the city has granted permission, on several occasions in modern times:

By 2015, the driving of sheep across the bridge had become an annual event, organised by the Worshipful Company of Woolmen livery company, typically to raise funds for the Lord Mayor's Appeal and the Worshipful Company of Woolmen.[16][17]

A small number of sheep are herded across Southwark Bridge by the Lord Mayor and Yorkshire Shepherdess among others, London 2021.

Freedom of the City of York

See also: York § Freedom of the City

York has a long history of freemen dating back to the Anglo-Saxon period, with records dating back to 1272.[18] Freemen may claim their rights through patronage (as far back as their great-great-grandparent, there are records of women being admitted in York in medieval times, a right forgotten for a time until the late 1970s when the gild carried out research and rediscovered it) or apprenticeship. Once sworn in, freemen can join the Gild (archaic spelling used) of Freemen who continue to take an interest in the affairs of the city. New admissions are made every year (usually October) following an admission ceremony with the Lord Mayor at the Guildhall. Prince Andrew, Duke of York was given the honour in 1986, but a councillors' vote stripped him of the title after allegations of sexual abuse became public.[19][20]

Republic of Ireland

This section is about Ireland. For Freedom awarded specifically in Dublin, see Freedom of the City of Dublin.

In Ireland, borough freedom of the city is generally given to noted foreign and national dignitaries and the list rarely exceeds a few dozen. As in the United Kingdom, the title generally comes with various ancient privileges – for instance, freemen of Dublin are allowed the right to vote in certain elections, bring goods for sale in the city without customs and the right to pasture sheep on common ground such as College Green and St. Stephen's Green.[21]


Freedom of the City is a privilege bestowed to individual units of the Canadian Forces. Many units exercise this privilege in conjunction with significant annual commemorations. The Calgary Highlanders commemorate the Battle of Kitcheners' Wood with an annual freedom of the city parade.[22]

Key to the city

Then Bolivian President Jeanine Áñez receives the key to the city of Reyes.
Then Mayor of Rio de Janeiro Marcelo Crivella hands out key to the city to King Momo at the start of Carnival 2018.
Then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev receives the Golden Key to the City of Madrid during a state visit.

See also: List of Keys to the City in the United States and List of Keys to the City in Canada

For other uses, see Key to the City (disambiguation).

In some countries, such as the United States, an ornamental key – the "key to the city" – is presented to esteemed visitors, residents, or others whom the city wishes to honour. This practice is a variation on the freedom of the city tradition, and has a similar symbolic meaning; evoking medieval walled cities, the gates of which would be guarded during the day and locked at night, the key symbolises the freedom of the recipient to enter and leave the city at will, as a trusted friend of city residents.[23]

In some cities in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany, the key to the city is given to the so-called 'prins carnaval [nl]' who leads the carnivals which take place the week prior to Septuagesima. The tradition is that the mayor steps down for this period and power is transferred to the prince carnival, who then returns the key at the end of Shrove Tuesday / Mardi Gras. Today, the handing over of the key is mostly symbolic and marks the start and end of the carnival.

A similar tradition exists in some festivities in Latin America (like in Rio Carnival[24]), where the festival's King Momo receives the key to the city at the start of the festivities.

As part of the yearly Gasparilla Pirate Festival in Tampa, Florida a friendly invasion by the crew of the mythical pirate José Gaspar is recreated where costumed pirates make their way to the Tampa Convention Center and they demand that the mayor surrender the key to the city in a playful ceremony.[25]

In Canada, major cities including Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal may award a key to the city to influential business leaders, musicians, and political leaders. In 2016, the Canadian recording artist Drake received a key to the city of Toronto, presented by the mayor John Tory. In a local tradition, Calgary has opted to award esteemed visitors a symbolic cowboy hat instead of a key; this is usually followed by reciting one of two oaths (one formal, the other more silly) to become honorary Calgarians.[26]

See also


  1. ^ a b "1985 – 75th Anniversary Naval Service of Canada". Royal Canadian Navy. Archived from the original on 12 September 2012. Retrieved 21 November 2012.
  2. ^ Section 248 of Text of the Local Government Act 1972 as in force today (including any amendments) within the United Kingdom, from
  3. ^ Sections 27 and 28 of the Text of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 as in force today (including any amendments) within the United Kingdom, from
  4. ^ Text of the Section 249 of the Local Government Act 1972 as in force today (including any amendments) within the United Kingdom, from
  5. ^ Text of the Section 249 of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 as in force today (including any amendments) within the United Kingdom, from
  6. ^ "The Gild of Freemen of the City of York". Retrieved 24 June 2011.
  7. ^ "The Moor". The Freemen of Newcastle upon Tyne. Archived from the original on 8 October 2013. Retrieved 13 November 2013.
  8. ^ "Dame Mary Peters granted Freedom of Belfast". BBC News. 2 November 2012.
  9. ^ "How to apply for the Freedom". City of London. Retrieved 30 September 2018.
  10. ^ a b "Protest Freeman herds sheep over Tower Bridge". BBC News. 19 August 1999. Retrieved 15 November 2010.
  11. ^ "Sheep flock driven through city". BBC News. 17 June 2006. Retrieved 4 January 2010.
  12. ^ "Sheep marched over London Bridge". BBC News. 31 August 2008. Retrieved 4 January 2010.
  13. ^ "Sheep march over bridge for money". BBC News. 19 September 2008. Retrieved 4 January 2010.
  14. ^ "Stephen Fry on Twitter". Twitter. 8 April 2013. Retrieved 27 June 2018.
  15. ^ "Stephen Fry's Key To The City". ITV. Retrieved 27 June 2018.
  16. ^ "Why are there sheep being herded across London Bridge?". ITV News.
  17. ^ "Alan Titchmarsh herds sheep over London Bridge". BBC News. 30 September 2018. Retrieved 30 September 2018.
  18. ^ "Register of the Freemen of the City of York - British History Online".
  19. ^ Brown, Mark (27 April 2022). "Prince Andrew loses freedom of York after councillors' vote". The Guardian.
  20. ^ "York strips its duke of freedom of city honour". Reuters. 27 April 2022.
  21. ^ "Why are Bono and The Edge grazing sheep in Stephen's Green in 2000? It's their right as Freemen of the City". 7 February 2017. Retrieved 30 November 2020.
  22. ^ "About the Regiment".
  23. ^ "Key to the City of New York". New York City Commission for the United Nations, Consular Corps, and Protocol. Archived from the original on 14 November 2011. Retrieved 6 November 2011.
  24. ^ "Rei Momo recebe as chaves da cidade e o carnaval toma conta do Rio". Agência Brasil (in Brazilian Portuguese). 20 April 2022. Retrieved 8 June 2022.
  25. ^ "Gasparilla History". Gasparilla Pirate Fest. 10 November 2023. Retrieved 19 March 2024.
  26. ^ "White Hat Ceremony". Visit Calgary. Archived from the original on 22 November 2012.