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”.
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.
Today, marching the 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.
Freedom of the City’ is one of the most ancient traditions in the United Kingdom that are part of ‘being British’. The stretch back to the laws of ancient Rome. Roman Britannia was conquered in stages from Julius Caesar in AD54 and by Emperor Claudius ten years later. In Ancient Roman times it was a capital offence for Roman legions to enter the city in formation, or with weapons, without permission. This helped ensure that ambitious generals did not mount a military coup against the Senate.
The UK retained this tradition as temporary armies were formed around different sovereigns and their generals. The 19 remaining Regiments in the British Army, formed from different parts of the UK, gradually emerged after 1633. Shortly afterwards Cromwells New Model Army did, itself mount a military coup.
The various Guards Regimental bands have had ‘Freedom of Entry’ in Ascot for over 300 years, parading and playing at Royal Ascot since the horse racing was started by Queen Anne in 1711.
The Scots Guards were formed in 1642 and were the personal bodyguard of King Charles I of England and Scotland. It became part of the army in 1686.
Identifying the Scots Guards, separate from the Coldstreams, Welsh and Irish Guards, is based on their buttons, arranged in threes; no plume on the bearskin, plus the collar badge is a thistle, and the star of the Order of Thistle on the shoulder badge.
Bearskin hats are made from the skin of American black bears, taken annually during the Black Bear Cull in Canada. The British Army takes 100 skins for itself, supposedly a mere fraction of the thousands of bears that are killed to keep numbers in check.
Let us hope that we all have the Freedom to Roam around our cities again next year, with pride in our Armed Forces and enjoyment of the Regimental Bands!