Deaths, Cancellations And Land Rovers: 800 Years Of The Lord Mayor's Show

By Londonist Last edited 33 months ago
Deaths, Cancellations And Land Rovers: 800 Years Of The Lord Mayor's Show

This year's Lord Mayor's Show — the 800th anniversary of the parade — will witness a procession of 7,000 people, around 200 horses and more than 150 floats. It attracts over 500,000 live spectators, and millions will watch it on television. Here, we delve into the history of the event, discovering a few things you might not know.

Former Lord Mayor Fiona Woolf in 2013/ Photo by Michael Garnett in the Londonist Flickr pool

1. How it all started

1215 was the year of the Magna Carta, in which London was the only place to be mentioned by name. Clause 13 states that: “The city of London shall enjoy all its ancient liberties and free customs”. William the Conqueror had granted a charter which asserted his own sovereignty while allowing the City to run its own affairs as had previously been the case (this is why London was exempted from the Domesday Book). Self-government had evolved over the course of the 12th century, with the first mayor 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.

2. The procession grows

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 in common usage by the 1540s) to Westminster to swear allegiance to the Crown. In the early days, he (for it was always a he) would ride there 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 to all intents and purposes become an annual pageant.

The past rubs shoulders with the present. Photo Grant Dommen in the Londonist Flickr pool

3. The Lord Mayor gets a shortcut

The procession used to go 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. Roadworks permitting, the route has been fixed since 1952.

4. Cancelled four times: by plague, fire, riots... and boring farts

There were years when it was cancelled; in 1625 there was no show due to an outbreak of plague, and in 1639 the Puritans put a stop to it. Following the Restoration it was back, although not all Londoners appreciated it; Samuel Pepys thought it “poor and absurd” in 1660 and “very silly” in 1663. 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.

Canaleto captures the river procession in 1747

5. A change of date

The show used to be held 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.

6. Deaths and broken limbs

The Lord Mayor's Show hasn't always gone as smoothly as it could have. In 1483, the barges of the Skinners’ and the Merchant Taylors’ Companies collided while trying to overtake each other, resulting in at least one death. Following this disaster, it was decreed that they should alternate their positions in the Livery Companies’ order of seniority each year — this gave rise to the phrase ‘at sixes and sevens’. In 1711, Lord Mayor Gilbert Heathcote broke his leg when he was 'unhorsed' during the parade; perhaps unsurprisingly, he was the last Lord Mayor to ride on horseback. The Lord Mayor’s Coach was first used in 1757 and is still used to this day. That said, in 2012 the coach developed a fault and Lord Mayor Roger Gifford was obliged to complete the parade in a Land Rover.

7. Canaletto paints the Lord Mayor

The Lord Mayor’s Show has long featured in popular culture. Some say that it’s mentioned in a Shakespeare play, although in actual fact the parade isn’t mentioned; the Lord Mayor features as a minor character in Henry VI, Part 1 and Richard III. In the mid-18th century, the parade was depicted by both Canaletto and Hogarth. Canaletto produced five paintings of the pageant on the Thames with the Lord Mayor’s barge in the centre, while Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness series ends with the ‘Industrious ’Prentice’ becoming Lord Mayor and parading through the City.

8. Hitchcock and Fleming get a piece of the action

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 film Sabotage includes a scene in which the Lord Mayor’s Show forms the backdrop, while in 1958 Ian Fleming mentioned it in the James Bond novel Dr. No — the villain’s “dragon on wheels looked like a float waiting for the Lord Mayor’s Show”. The BBC first televised it in 1937, one of their first outside broadcasts following the Coronation procession earlier that year. It's still broadcast annually.

Described by the Pageant Master as “a peculiar combination of State ceremonial, military parade and carnival”, the Lord Mayor’s Show has continued to reinvent itself over time, presenting London as a global, modern city while also recognising its long history and traditions.

This Saturday, 14 November, will see the Lord Mayor’s Show progress through the City, from the Guildhall to the Royal Courts of Justice and back again, after the new Lord Mayor of the City of London, Jeffrey Evans, has sworn allegiance to the Crown.

By Nick Young

Last Updated 13 November 2015