Madness formed as a ska-pop band in 1978 and were one of the most successful acts during the two-tone movement in the UK in the early 1980s. The Liberty of Norton Folgate was their first album release for ten years.
This 10-minute title track recounts the social history of a corner of east London that until 1900 was controlled by St. Paul's Cathedral and as such was legally independent from its surroundings. Frontman Suggs told Uncut magazine February 2008 that the song tries to do what Peter Ackroyd did in his book, London: The Biography. He explained: "It's about the city as entity, called 'The Liberty Of Norton Folgate.' The places outside the city gates were called 'liberties,' because that's where the police took liberties with young boys and prostitutes and where new immigrants arrived. They established their own communities outside the gates because they couldn't get in. The song is a history of Shoreditch (a place in East London) - from the Huguenots through to the Bangladeshis. It's about how the joy of living in London is that it's always changing. In the current climate, it seemed worth saying. The last line is 'And in the beginning was the fear of the immigrant.' We've moved on from there so, let's get on with it."
The song name checks Jewish boxers Battling Levinsky and Jackie Berg.
Suggs told Mojo magazine February 2008 that the album has: "a semi-autobiographical, everyday-life-in-London theme. All seven of us have written for it."
Suggs told The Sun May 22, 2009: "I thought The Liberty of Norton Folgate was such a great name for a record. Every British person's dream is to live slightly outside the law, under the radar, running their own village society. It's a very romantic notion."