Above: The members of the Butchers’ Company assembled outside their hall near Smithfield, ready to march off to Mansion House bearing the decorated Boar’s Head.
The Boar’s Head Ceremony has been celebrated in one form or another throughout England for many centuries. In one or two places there are still celebrations in the form of feasts to this day. The Butchers’ Company, in the City of London, have had halls on various sites but they now have a hall appropriately situated near Smithfield. The main meat market in the City was once held in a road that we now call Newgate Street. In medieval times and up to the time of the Tudors, that street was filled with butchers’ stalls and known as ‘St Nicholas Shambles’. The ‘St Nicholas’ part of the name derived from the fact that there had once been a church by that name on the north side of the street. It was common to call any street that was lined with butchers ‘The Shambles’ – there is still a street by that name in the City of York which was once used for the same purpose.
The butchers did not have far to go to obtain their meat because the large cattle market was just around the corner at Smithfield. Of course, when we say ‘to obtain their meat’ we actually mean to obtain a cow, a pig or a sheep. It was then necessary to slaughter the animal and remove any entrails that could be sold – like livers, tongues and hearts – and then discard the remaining offal. The actual meat of the animal was then cut off the carcass in the usual way.
When being carried out on a daily basis there must have been a vast amount of animal waste to dispose of. Apparently the nearby River Fleet was the ‘dumping ground’ which, no doubt, caused a terrible stench as it all rotted over a period of time. There were no refuse collectors in those days! Eventually someone complained about the disgusting practice and the Butchers were fined. The penalty was to convey a boar’s head to the Lord Mayor of London annually. Since the fine has never been cancelled, the annual ‘payment’ by the Butchers’ Company continues to this day.
Some time in November, shortly after the new Lord Mayor has taken up his year of office, the Butchers have a boar’s head prepared and suitably decorated so that it can be carried shoulder-high through the City streets. The procession sets off from the Butchers’ Hall along a route which includes Cheapside and the street called Poultry before reaching the Mansion House. These days the party of Butchers are invited into the building where the Lord Mayor officially receives the boar’s head. After a trumpet fanfare, the meat is sliced off the head and it is served with plates of other meats, all washed down with suitably festive drinks.