Then one of them fleeing from the other till he came to a certain little pit, as he stood on the brink of the pit, and was about to fall therein, his kinsman said to him 'Take care of the pit, turn back lest thou shouldest fall into it.' Thereat so much clamour and noise was made by the bystanders and those who were sitting around, that the Earl heard these clamours as far off as the castle, and he inquired of some how it was there was such a clamour, and answer was made to him that two kinsmen were fighting about a certain piece of ground, and that one had fled till he reached a certain little pit, and that as he stood over the pit and was about to fall into it the other warned him. Then the townsmen being moved with pity made a covenant with the Earl that they should give him threepence yearly for each house in the High Street that had a gable, on condition that he should grant to them that the twenty-four jurors who were in Leicester from ancient times should from that time forward discuss and decide all pleas they might have among themselves." For the most part the liberties of our towns were. bought in this way, by sheer hard bargaining.
The earliest English charters, save that of London, date from the years when the treasury of Henry the First was drained by his Norman wars; and grants of municipal liberty made professedly by the Angevins are probably the result of their costly employment of mercenary troops. At the close, however, of the thirteenth century, this struggle for emancipation was nearly over. The larger towns had secured the administration of justice in their own borough-courts, the privilege of self-government, and the control of their own trade, and their liberties and charters served as models and incentives to the smaller communities which were struggling into life.
During the progress of this outer revolution, the inner life of the English town was in the same quiet and hardly conscious way developing itself from the common form of the life around it into a form especially its own. Within as without the ditch or stockade which formed the earliest boundary of the borough, land was from the first the test of freedom, and the possession of land was what constituted the townsman. We may take, perhaps, a foreign instance to illustrate this fundamental point in our municipal history. When Duke Berthold of Zahringen resolved to found Freiburg,his "free town," in the Brisgau, the mode he adopted was to gather a group of traders together, and to give each man a plot of ground for his freehold round what was destined to be the market-place of the new community. In England the landless man who dwelled in a borough had no share in its corporate life; for purposes of government or property the town was simply an association of the landed proprietors within its bounds; nor was there anything in this association, as it originally existed, which could be considered peculiar or exceptional. The constitution of the English town, however different its form may have afterwards become, was at first simply that of the people at large.
We have seen that among the German races society rested on the basis of the family, that it was the family who fought and settled side by side, and the kinsfolk who were bound together in ties of mutual responsibility to each other and to the law. As society became more complex and less stationary it necessarily outgrew these simple ties of blood, and in England this dissolution of the family bond seems to have taken place at the very time when Danish incursions and the growth of a feudal temper among the nobles rendered an isolated existence most perilous for the freeman. His only resource was to seek protection among his fellow-freemen, and to replace the older brotherhood of the kinsfolk by a voluntary association of his neighbours for the same purposes of order and self-defence. The tendency to unite in such 'frith-gilds' or peace-clubs became general throughout Europe during the ninth and tenth centuries, but on the Continent it was roughly met and repressed. The successors of Charles the Great enacted penalties of scourging, nose-slitting, and banishment against voluntary unions, and even a league of the poor peasants of Gaul against the inroads of the northmen was suppressed by the swords of the Frankish nobles. In England the attitude of the Kings was utterly different.
The system known at a later time as 'frank-pledge,' or free engagement of neighbour for neighbour, was accepted after the Danish wars as the base of social order. aelfred recognized the common responsibility of the members of the ' frith-gild ' side by side with that of the kinsfolk, and aethelstan accepted 'frith-gilds' as a constituent element of borough life in the Dooms of London.
The frith-gild, then, in the earlier English town, was precisely similar to the frith-gilds which formed the basis of social order in the country at large. An oath of mutual fidelity among its members was substituted for the tie of blood, while the gild-feast, held once a month in the common hall, replaced the gathering of the kinsfolk round their family hearth. But within this new family the aim of the frith-gild was to establish a mutual responsibility as close as that of the old. "Let all share the same lot," ran its law; "if any misdo, let all bear it." A member could look for aid from his gild-brothers in atoning for any guilt incurred by mishap. He could call on them for assistance in case of violence or wrong: if falsely accused, they appeared in court as his compurgators; if poor they supported, and when dead they buried him. On the other hand, he was responsible to them, as they were to the State, for order and obedience to the laws. A wrong of brother against brother was also a wrong against the general body of the gild, and was punished by fine, or in the last resort by expulsion, which left the offender a 'lawless' man and an outcast.
The one difference between these gilds in country and town was, that in the latter case, from their close local neighbourhood, they tended inevitably to coalesce. Under aethelstan the London gilds united into one for the purpose of carrying out more effectually their common aims, and at a later time we find the gilds of Berwick enacting "that where many bodies are found side by side in one place they may become one, and have one will, and in the dealings of one with another have a strong and hearty love." The process was probably a long and difficult one, for the brotherhoods naturally differed much in social rank, and even after the union was effected we see traces of the separate existence to a certain extent of some one or more of the wealthier or more aristocratic gilds. In London, for instance, the Cnihten-gild, which seems to have stood at the head of its fellows, retained for a long time its separate property, while its Alderman - as the chief officer of each gild was called - became the Alderman of the united gild of the whole city. In Canterbury we find a similar gild of thegns, from which the chief officers of the town seem commonly to have been selected.