Celebrating 800 years of paranoia, murder and betrayal

The new Mayor of London was supposed to stand by King John as his Barons rebelled and the country drifted into civil war, but London's rich European merchants had other ideas.

In 1215 King John's disastrous reign was falling apart. His armies were retreating in France, he was completely broke and his Barons were on the edge of open revolt. Soon he would be forced to sign the Magna Carta, which he would go on ignoring until civil war finally broke out and he died of dystentery while marching from one beseiged city to another.

London is right in the middle of the coming conflict. It is rich but vulnerable, hard to rule but easy to invade. The city is squeezed by the King's taxes and frequently held hostage by warring Barons, and this is very bad for business.

For years London had been trying to organise itself into a 'commune': a sort of early city state that would be able to declare its borders, make agreements and defend itself. The King may have thought it was a clever move to go along with this, and in 1215 he issued a Royal Charter creating the commune and allowing the City to elect its own Mayor every year. 

The King added a condition: every year the newly elected Mayor must leave the safety of the City, travel upriver to the small town of Westminster and swear loyalty to him. The Lord Mayor has now made that journey for over 800 years, despite plagues and fires and countless wars, and pledged his (and her) loyalty to 34 kings and queens of England.

In fact the loyalty of 13th century London was quite flexible, and when it sided with a group of rebellious barons,  the King was finally brought to the negotiating table. From this came the Magna Carta and the birth of modern Britain. Among its 25 signatories was the second elected Mayor of London, William Hardel, no doubt responsible for the inclusion of part 13:

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.

The Mayor became the "Lord Mayor" about a century later but it remained an elected office and for the next few hundred years, Lord Mayor of London was by far the grandest position to which a commoner could aspire.

The Mayor's journey was the celebrity spectacle of its day and over the centuries it grew so splendid and so popular that by the 16th century it was known everywhere as the Lord Mayor's Show. It 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 the Mayor of London three times. 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.

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.