Only male citizens of London had any say in its affairs – and most men and women who lived in medieval London were not citizens. It has been estimated that less than a quarter of the adult men living in London were citizens. The rest, even if they were born in London, would be classified as ‘foreigners’; those born overseas were ‘aliens’.
Citizens were ‘freemen’ and ‘freewomen’ of the city, who had taken an oath of allegiance. They gained that status in one of three ways:
- by ‘patrimony’ – by being the son or daughter of a freeman;
- by ‘redemption’ – by being sponsored by a citizen and paying a fee;
- or by apprenticeship – by serving an apprenticeship of seven or more years to become qualified in a city craft or trade.
In addition a woman who married a freeman became free herself.
Only a man or a woman who was free could set up in business in the city or sell their goods by retail; a freeman’s widow could continue to run his business, at least until she remarried.