When Richard I bestowed on Henry Fitz-Ailwyn the title of Mayor of London in 1189, he could hardly have anticipated the longevity of the post: widely considered to be England’s oldest civic position, it has been in continuous existence for more than 800 years. Variously risking their lives and their liberty, committing treason and even being outlawed, the collective influence of London’s most famous (and notorious) lord mayors is still felt today – and these are seven of the most significant.
William Hardel (in office 1215–16)
On 15 June 1215 the City’s fourth lord mayor, William Hardel, defiantly put his seal on what would become one of the most important charters in English history: Magna Carta. Surrounded by some of the richest and most powerful barons of the day, Hardel, a tradesman by profession, was the only member of the group to be listed in his official capacity and, notably, the only commoner involved. So how did London’s newly elected mayor come to be caught up in the rebel barons’ grievances, and why did he feel it necessary to engage in a potentially dangerous act of rebellion against the king?
13th-century London was independent, thriving and heavily reliant on trade. A completely separate entity from Westminster – the seat of royal, administrative and religious life – the City was the economic heart of London and, as such, an important source of loans for cash-strapped monarchs. From the barons’ point of view, Hardel’s support was a powerful bargaining chip and crucial in obtaining the charter conditions from King John.
But as the elected representative of the economic powerhouse of the country, Hardel was also there to protect the liberties of the City – freedoms that were endlessly being eroded by the king. By the end of that now famous day in Runnymede, Hardel had reason to feel reassured. Though the Great Charter did not afford Londoners any new rights or freedoms, it did protect the terms of all previous agreements the City had received from the crown. And in limiting the authority of King John, who was now subject to – not above – the law, it went a long way towards protecting the all-important City purse.
William Walworth (1380–81)
Much-celebrated hero William Walworth secured his place in London’s history when, in the company of the young and inexperienced King Richard II, he decisively put an end to the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt by killing one of its leaders, Wat Tyler. Often referred to as the most dangerous event ever to have occurred in the City, the revolt must certainly have been horrifying to witness: the angry rebels descended on London, setting fire to the residences of lawyers and jurors, and beheading those who fled.
Originating as a poll tax protest and initially limited to rural areas, the Peasants’ Revolt saw the notorious Wat Tyler and Jack Straw lead a discontented mob that reduced the Savoy Palace to rubble before dragging the archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury, from prayer to be decapitated on Tower Hill.
Events finally turned against the insurgents at Smithfield when Walworth felled Tyler with a single blow, thus bringing the rebellion to an immediate and ignominious end. Earning a knighthood for his boldness, Walworth’s decisive defence also made a perfect narrative for the pomp and pageantry of the yearly Lord Mayor’s Show.
Centuries later, on 29 October 1616, six trumpeters loudly celebrating the conquest of good over evil accompanied an effigy of the City’s greatest hero as he progressed through the streets to be ‘awoken’ by a golden angel. The religiously styled resurrection of the saintly Sir William was the fifth and most keenly anticipated item on the programme that year, which was later declared the most gorgeous of all pageants ever performed.
Death of Wat Tyler at Smithfield, London, 1381, at the hand of London lord mayor William Walworth. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
Richard Whittington (May–Oct 1397; 1397–98; 1406–07; 1419–20)
Widely fabled for his extraordinary munificence, the good deeds of Richard Whittington – the real-life inspiration for the English folk-tale hero Dick Whittington – remain relevant to this day. Financing the City’s first drinking fountains, London’s four-times lord mayor also personally contributed significant sums to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, Newgate Prison, the Church of St Michael Paternoster and the almshouses known as Whittington College, most of which remarkably continue to exist. (Newgate was destroyed in 1902, though a wall of the prison remains visible at the back of Amen Court.)
But though the City of London is studded with reminders of this uniquely generous man, less evident is his association with the Liber Albus (White Book), the very first book of English common law. Enthusiastically received at the time of publication, even today it has lost none of its value. Thanks to the collaboration between Whittington and town clerk John Carpenter, for the first time the City had a blueprint for its magisterial affairs – a clear advantage for its yearly changing mayors.
Wealthy businessman, moneylender to the king, master of the mercers not once but three times – by the time Whittington died in 1423 his influence was vast.
Sir John Lawrence (1664–65)
In the dark and difficult days of 1665, when the horrors of the great pestilence swept across London, it was Lord Mayor Sir John Lawrence who, as the king, the gentry and the wealthy classes fled, made public his resolution not to leave the City. Assuring the terrified citizens that he, his sheriffs and aldermen would stay to provide order and justice, Lawrence and his men rapidly issued Plague Orders – new and comprehensive regulations drawing on the modus operandi of the Italian authorities (that country being familiar with the ravages of the plague). Lawrence swore in watchmen to oversee and attend to the needs of affected households; employed women searchers to seek out the bodies of those who had died; and appointed physicians to cure and help prevent infection.
Lawrence and his men punished the inevitable housebreakers and plunderers of the sick and dying, while also dealing with the increasingly desperate populace with the utmost care and consideration. In particular, his efforts in keeping the bread ovens baking and food supplies plentiful earned him considerable praise and attention. As The City Remembrancer later recalled:
“Everything was managed with so much care and such excellent order observed in the whole city, and suburbs, that London may be a pattern and example to all cities of the world for the good government and excellent order that was everywhere kept even in the most violent infection and when the people were in the utmost consternation and distress.”
Thomas Bludworth (1665–66)
While Sir John Lawrence was widely commended for his efforts as chief magistrate, his successor, Thomas Bludworth, is remembered in a very different light. Summoned to a fire in the Billingsgate ward of the City in the early hours of Sunday 2 September 1666, the lord mayor deemed the flames too insignificant to warrant attention, uttering the dismissive words: “Pish! A woman might piss it out!” before promptly returning to his home.
Within hours of this hasty judgment, however, the ancient ward of Billingsgate had all but burned to the ground, and the decision to leave the flames unchecked was one that would haunt Bludworth not simply for the rest of his mayoralty but for the remainder of his life. In his defence, others in the City had been equally blasé. “Jane called us up about three in the morning to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City,” wrote the 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys that night. “So I rose and slipped on my nightgowne, and went to her window, and thought it to be on the backside of Marke-lane at the farthest… I thought it far enough off; and so went to bed again and to sleep”.
With no great alarm being raised, the fire was allowed to rage unchecked through the night. By 7am, far from having burned themselves out, the flames had reached as far as London Bridge, destroying 300 houses along the way. Now, at last, the lord mayor acted, though his efforts were to little avail. “Never was a man so sorely tested,” reflected ‘Blundering Bludworth’, who remained, according to parliamentary records, “Willing, though it may not be very able to do great things in the City”.
John Wilkes (1774–5)
Of all the characters to grace the City’s civic throne, John Wilkes – member of parliament, journalist and sometime outlaw – was by far the most colourful. Variously described as a voracious wit, heady libertine and shameless self-promoter, by the time he took the seat of lord mayor in 1774 he had achieved such a formidable political reputation that even King George III was said to have declared to his ministers that he “would have nothing more to do with that devil Wilkes”.
From the very start of his chequered career, Wilkes’s name was linked to the burgeoning cause of liberty of speech. His own controversial publication provided a platform for his views: the North Briton was first launched on an unsuspecting public in the June of 1762 with a ferocious attack on the Scottish nation, its 12th edition led its reckless editor into a highly publicised duel with Lord Talbot, and its 45th edition libellously commented on what Wilkes saw as the inept rule of the king.
Being imprisoned in 1768 only added to Wilkes’s popularity, and his name became synonymous with the struggle for liberty. Though many in London were sympathetic to his cause, it wasn’t until much later in his career that Wilkes achieved the City’s ultimate prize. His year-long ‘reign’, which was largely free from controversy, saw Mansion House “resound with the sound of balls and elaborate dinners”.
Charles Johnston (1914–15)
When asked to identify his greatest achievement in office, Charles Johnston didn’t hesitate in responding. Referring to the pride he felt in having fathered the hugely successful volunteer force, the National Guard of the City of London, he spoke in glowing terms of his volunteers’ achievements, concluding: “I rejoice to have taken the leading part in its inception and incorporation.”
Johnston had every reason to feel proud. What started as a speculative concept during the course of conversation with Mr Henry Bell, general manager of Lloyd’s Bank, grew to become the most valuable asset in the City’s home defence, not only providing precious manpower on the home front but also freeing up eligible men to fight abroad. Hour after hour, day after day, as the First World War dragged on for weeks, months and years, the volunteers of the National Guard came together to watch over the metropolis and its citizens, digging trenches, helping with air-raid duties and even guarding prisoners of war.
Yet the scheme wasn’t without its problems. Expected to pay a subscription, provide their own uniforms and even supply their own arms, the sheer amount of time the men were asked to commit to the cause meant that the drop-out rate was initially high. Nonetheless, men in their hundreds answered the City’s call to arms and their efforts were highly commended.
“God will bless you for looking after the men returning from the Front,” said Johnston’s successor, Charles Wakefield, speaking at the Guildhall in 1916. “It will remain a fragrant memory for all time, and when the war is over you will have the consciousness of knowing that in the days of darkness and difficulty you responded to the call and did your best here, as our brave boys in khaki have done their best in other spheres”.
Emma Hatfield is author of London’s Lord Mayors: 800 Years of Shaping the City (Amberley Publishing, 2015).