The First Roll of the Gild of Merchants
Prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066 the burgesses were responsible for the civic administration of the town, the maintenance of law and order and for the punishment of crime. This responsibility was discharged by the Portmanmoot
, a body of 24 jurats (officers similar to aldermen) who were elected from the burgesses.
Working alongside the Portmanmoot was the Gild of Merchants, a group which existed for the protection and regulation of trade in Leicester. Like the civic administration, the Gild lost its authority after the Conquest, but regained it in 1107 by a charter granted by Robert of Meulan.
The Portmanmoot and the Merchant Gild, originally distinct institutions, became a single body from which the modern city council gradually evolved. From the grant of a Charter in 1599 by Queen Elizabeth I to 'The Mayor, Bailiffs and Burgesses of the Borough of Leicester' the Merchant Gild ceased to function actively and the corporation assumed the government of the borough. The Freemen maintained all the functions that the Merchant Gild were responsible for and it was necessary to be a Freeman to carry out business in the borough. Nevertheless until the Municipal Reform Act of 1835, only sworn and admitted Freemen were eligible for membership of the ruling council of the borough or to hold any important municipal office.
The jurats of the Portmanmoot were presided over by a senior officer elected from their number, first known as the Alderman and from 1209 renamed the Mayor. Alderman or Mayor, this senior officer was also Master of the Gild of Merchants.
The distinction between the Gild and Portmanmoot became unclear, and by the 15th Century all commercial and civic functions were governed by a combination of the two, known as the Mayor's Sessions. The system of 24 jurats - the Gild Court - still existed, presided over by the Mayor, and it was around this time that the term 'Freemen' came into use.
Although the Gild of Merchants had probably existed unofficially for many years, it was on 9th October 1196
that 60 new members pledged their oath of allegiance to the Gild and had their names recorded on the Roll of Freemen (the original parchment scroll used at the ceremony still exists today in the Leicestershire Records Office in near perfect condition). An almost unbroken list of Freemen has continued to the present day.