Other cities may well have their own, rudimentary, mayoral celebrations, and jolly fine they undoubtedly are. But the Lord Mayor’s Show is the one that takes place annually in the City of London. Its origins date back more than 800 years and the associated procession is claimed (by its organisers) to be the longest and best prepared in the whole wide world.
Nor should anyone confuse the Lord Mayor of London, a title first recorded in the year 1189, with the new-fangled, plain, Mayor of London, a political post which has existed merely since the year 2000. The City of London is a distinct local authority area within the wider metropolis, based on London’s historic heart, and these days the main financial and business district. It is often referred to simply as, ‘the City’ and, sometimes, as ‘the square mile’ (surprisingly, because it’s about that small). You can identify a City of London address by its ‘EC’ post code. In the City, only the Sovereign takes precedence over its Lord Mayor, who is the annually elected head of the City of London Corporation - reputedly the oldest continually elected body in the world. The most famous Lord Mayor of London is probably Dick Whittington – an actual, not a pantomime, figure who really was mayor three times in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. The recently invented Mayor of London, a post held by Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, is directly elected every four years and has a serious strategic remit for the greater London area as a whole, whereas the theoretically non-political Lord Mayor of London’s role is more ceremonial and ambassadorial – and focussed on the City. Got it?
13th century London was the largest city in Northern Europe, with a population somewhere between 15 and 20,000. As an institution, it was rich, influential and hard to control. Possibly hoping for powerful support in his disagreements with virtually everyone, King John confirmed the office of Lord Mayor by a charter in 1215, which granted Londoners the right to choose their own mayor each year. It was a condition of this that each newly elected mayor should travel upstream, beyond the security of the City boundaries through what was then countryside, to the much smaller town of Westminster, in order to pledge loyalty to the Crown.
Shortly after this, the Lord Mayor of London was one of the 25 barons – and the only one there in an official capacity – to put his signature to Magna Carta. Clause 13 of the Great Charter confirms that “The city of London shall enjoy all its ancient liberties and free customs, both by land and by water.” It then goes on to confirm similar rights to “other cities, boroughs, towns and ports”, so I’m not sure of the particular significance of this clause; nor does there appear to be any reference to precisely what ancient liberties etc London enjoyed before 1215. This could keep a lawyer happy for hours.
I digress. The journey the Mayor first made to Westminster to swear his fidelity to bad King John has, so they say, been repeated every year subsequently without fail, whether at time of war, peace, plague, or whatever, to swear loyalty to the 34 kings and queens who have reigned ever since. Presumably, the Lord Mayor swore allegiance to Parliament during the interregnum. In any event, it is from these old roots that today’s Lord Mayor’s Show, part pageant, part carnival, has evolved.
Details vary from year to year, but in recent times there have been three main parts to the show. It begins with a flotilla of boats and barges on the Thames, a river pageant. This celebrates the mayor’s original journey, which would have been by boat. Next comes the parade, a procession of something like 7,000 participants in the region of 3 miles long, crammed into a 1.7 mile route from Mansion House, the Lord Mayor’s official residence in the City, near Bank, to the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand in Westminster. In the evening, the grand finale is a spectacular firework display over the Thames.
The Lord Mayor’s Show is a key event in the London Calendar and always takes place on the second Saturday of November. Most roads in the City are closed all day and the Embankment is closed until the evening. Trying to move around by road in the area is hopeless – it has always been a day to avoid when coordinating weekend work in the capital. Sometimes, the weekend of the Lord Mayor’s Show coincides with that of the National Service of Remembrance, held in Whitehall on the Sunday closest to Armistice Day, 11th November, which causes further road closures around that part of Westminster.
In any event, despite living and working in and around London for many years, I had never seen the Lord Mayor’s Show until we visited London for other reasons in 2014. In fact, it was only when we spotted the grandstands near St Paul’s the night before that we realised the Lord Mayor’s Show was taking place. So in the morning we took the opportunity to stand on the Millennium Bridge to watch the flotilla, grabbed some breakfast and then parked ourselves on Ludgate Hill and saw the entire procession go by – which I can tell you took about 2 hours.
The first carnival floats ever were the decorated barges that took part in the medieval Lord Mayor’s procession centuries ago. The flotilla we saw was astonishing. Like a scene from a bygone age, the Queen’s Royal Barge, Glorianna, carrying the Lord Mayor, was surrounded by the traditional craft of London’s livery companies and port authorities. It reminded me of an old oil painting – the Venetian artist Canaletto painted the Lord Mayor’s Show five times.
London’s livery companies have evolved from the medieval guilds – essentially trade associations regulating standards and training, which were once extremely powerful. The oldest is the Worshipful Company of Weavers, which was founded in 1155. According to the Corporation of London, there are 125 livery companies, covering every trade and profession you can think of and many that don’t immediately spring to mind: grocers, ironmongers, drapers, actuaries, mercers, fletchers – even the more modern information technologists and world traders.
The colour and flamboyance of each company’s livery (yes, that’s why they’re called livery companies) is an essential part of the procession. This also includes units of the armed forces with London associations, educational establishments, marching bands, civilian services, figures from history, costumes – a mixture of all sorts of things. It is a glorious cacophony of music, noise and colour, which changes every year. Somewhere near the front, ever since the reign of Henry V (1413-1432), will be Gog and Magog, traditional guardians of London, descended from the pagan giants who once inhabited these islands. You’ll be glad to know that the ones in the parade are just effigies. Somewhere near the end comes the State Coach, a completely over-the-top fairy-tale vehicle built 250 years ago, which can be seen in the Museum of London when not in use.
So, if you happen to be near London on the second Saturday in November, you might want to take a peek at the Lord Mayor’s Show. It’s a piece of living history – and particularly good if you’re fond of men in funny hats and tights. Mind you, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Samuel Pepys, the 17th century diarist, allegedly found it quite irritating and wrote that he regarded the pageantry as “poor and absurd”. But what did he know?
I hope my meagre pictures capture something of the atmosphere of the event for you. As usual, hover your cursor over an image to see an explanation.
To find out more, visit the official website for the Lord Mayor’s Show.