History of the Lord Mayor’s Show

The Lord Mayor's Show History of the Lord Mayor’s Show

The Mayor of London is an ancient office originally created by King John in a doomed attempt to get the city on his side.

It was 1215, and John’s disastrous reign was falling apart. His armies were retreating in France, his treasury was empty and his Barons were on the edge of open revolt. Soon they would force him to sign the Magna Carta, which would be largely ignored until civil war finally broke out. John died of dysentery a year later while marching his dwindling armies from one besieged city to another.

London was right in the middle of the growing conflict. It was a cosmopolitan, international place even then: rich but vulnerable, easy to take but hard to govern. The King’s taxes were high and the City was frequently held hostage by one or other group of warring Barons. The whole situation was very bad for business.

The King’s Charter for London of May 9th 1215, now in the London Metropolitan Archive

For years London had been trying to become a ‘commune’: a sort of early city state that would be able to declare its borders, make treaties and defend itself. King Richard had been an ally and King John may have thought it a smart move to go along with this. In 1215 he issued a Royal Charter that established the commune and allowed the City to choose its own Mayor every year instead of having a sheriff appointed by the King.

Know ye that we have granted … to our barons of our city of London, that they may choose to themselves every year a mayor, who to us may be faithful, discreet and fit for government of the city, so as, when he shall be chosen, to be presented unto us, or our Justice if we shall not be present… and he shall swear to be faithful to us...
The 1215 London Charter

At the end there you can see a careful condition: every year the newly elected Mayor must leave the safety of the City, travel upriver to Westminster and swear loyalty to the King.

London in around 1300: a walled town separated by open country from distant Westminster, where the King had his base.

In fact the loyalty of 13th century London was quite flexible and its gratitude brief. The city became a base for the rebellious barons. When they tried to get out of trouble later that year by offering the English crown to Prince Louis of France, Londoners are said to have lined the streets to welcome the invading French army.*

Later that year the King was brought to heel and the Magna Carta was signed. It was never meant to be a constitutional milestone, but just another attempt to make peace. John never put his name to it, since he could not read or write, but among its 25 signatories we can see the second elected Mayor of London, William Hardel. He probably gave us this part:

13: The city of London shall enjoy all its ancient liberties and free customs, both by land and by water. We also will and grant that all other cities, boroughs, towns, and ports shall enjoy all their liberties and free customs.
Magna Carta

The Mayor became known as the “Lord Mayor” about 200 years later but it has been an elected office ever since it was created, and for the next few centuries Lord Mayor of London was by far the grandest position to which a commoner could aspire. The Lord Mayor's Journey was the celebrity spectacle of its day and over the centuries it grew so splendid and so popular that it became known everywhere as the Lord Mayor’s Show.

The Show features in the plays of Shakespeare, the diaries of Pepys and the adventures of James Bond and of course in the pantomime story of Dick Whittington, who really was Mayor of London in three separate years. In the 20th century the Lord Mayor’s Show was the first outside event ever to be broadcast live and it still attracts a TV audience of millions.

Main image: King John from the Chronica Majora by Matthew Paris, c1240-1253, held at the British Museum. He is holding the Abbey of Beaulieu, which he endowed.

The modern Lord Mayor’s procession is a direct descendant of that first journey to Westminster. The route and date have changed over the years but the pageantry of Hogarth and Canaletto can still be seen in its lively mixture of London’s past, present and future.

The State Coach is over 250 years old, and the pikemen who guard it are almost as old as the Show. Today you will see the City’s businesses, Livery Companies, charities, Her Majesty’s Forces, the City Police and Londoners from all walks of life come together to enjoy a splendid celebration of the City’s ancient power and prosperity, just as they did in the middle ages.



* It's worth mentioning that England was essentially a Norman colony at the time. The real Angevin capital was in Anjou and the war was between the northern and southern Kings of France. John did very badly, lost almost all of his French kingdom and ended up, briefly, something much more like the King of England. This and the concessions that he made on the way, turned out to be some of the most important building blocks of Britain (and London).