Above: Part of Canaletto’s famous river procession of the Lord Mayor’s Show, showing the Lord Mayor’s barge being rowed up-river to Westminster in 1752. This painting was reproduced on a huge hoarding in 2012 at London Bridge Station, while a new entrance was being rebuilt.
The Origin of a Lord Mayor for the City
It was William the Conqueror who granted a charter which asserted his own sovereignty over England while allowing the City of London to run its own affairs as had previously been the case. This is why London was exempted from the Domesday Book survey. Self-government in the City evolved over the course of the 12th century, with the first mayor for the City being appointed in or around 1189. In May 1215, shortly before Magna Carta, King John issued another charter which established the City of London’s right to elect its own mayor on an annual basis — in return for the mayor swearing allegiance to the King. That still happens today.
It should be noted that the Lord Mayor of the City of London is a different role from that of the Mayor of London. The relatively new title of Mayor of London was created in 2000, after the London devolution referendum, and was the first directly elected mayor in the United Kingdom.
The Lord Mayor’s Show
The Lord Mayor’s Show started with the need to ‘show’ the person to the public. It has nothing to do with being a ‘show’ like we talk about a theatrical show even though it is a grand spectacle. In the early days, once a mayor had been elected or, indeed, a king had been crowned, it was necessary to show that person to as many members of the public as possible. This was usually done by having a procession. In a world where impostors might say that they were the mayor or the king, it was important that many people had seen the real person so that they would immediately recognise someone who was falsely claiming to be in authority.
What we now know as the Lord Mayor’s Show began as the procession of the new mayor (the title ‘Lord Mayor’ was first alluded to in 1283 and was not in common usage until the 1540s) to Westminster to swear allegiance to the Crown. The reason why the mayor had to ride to Westminster was because the King lived at the Palace of Westminster and the Law Courts were situated in the Great Hall, within the land of the palace.
In the early days, the mayor rode to Westminster on horseback shortly after his election. Over time a procession grew around the trip. In 1378 the mayor was accompanied by the City’s aldermen, and in 1401 minstrels had tagged along too. The first procession by water was in 1422, and by the 16th century the procession had, for all intents and purposes, become an annual pageant.
The procession used to travel all the way to Westminster Hall but this was shortened in 1883 when the Royal Courts of Justice moved to their present location on the Strand. Traditionally the route varied from year to year and there seems to have been a fluctuation between having it on land or on the Thames. Some say that the word ‘float’ in the context of a parade originates from when the procession travelled on the water (others claim that this use of the word is of American origin). The last time a Lord Mayor travelled to Westminster by barge was in 1856, after which the completion of the Embankment narrowed the river, making rowing from the City to Westminster much harder. Apart from minor road diversions, the route has been fixed since 1952.
Years When the Lord Mayor’s Show was Cancelled
There were years when the procession was cancelled. In 1625 there was no show due to an outbreak of plague and in 1639 the Puritans prevented it taking place. Following the Restoration it was back, although not all Londoners appreciated it. In 1660 Samuel Pepys thought it “poor and absurd” and in 1663 he described it as “very silly”. It was cancelled in 1665 following the Great Plague and it didn’t run for five years after the Great Fire. It was cancelled again in 1830 due to the Reform Bill riots.
A Change of Date
The show used to be held annually on 29 October but after Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1751 the date changed to 9 November. The procession was held on that day until 1959 when, in deference to concerns about its impact on traffic, it was switched to the second Saturday in November.
A Lady as Lord Mayor
All the mayors of the City of London were men until 1983 when Mary Donaldson was elected and held the office of Lord Mayor for 1983-84. She was quite insistent that she should be called ‘Lord Mayor’ and fined people £1 for charity if they incorrectly referred her a ‘Lady Mayoress’. Mary Donaldson, born Dorothy Mary Warwick, who trained as a nurse, died in in 2003. The second lady to be elected Lord Mayor was Fiona Woolf, in 2013.