London’s Lord Mayor’s Show

Lord Mayor's Show, City of London, State Coach, eventsWhat are you doing on the 2nd Saturday in November?  If you want to experience a little pageantry – well, quite a lot, actually – get yourself up, down, over, across, or whatever, to the City of London for the 800-year old annual Lord Mayor’s Show.  Other cities may well have their own, rudimentary, mayoral celebrations, and jolly fine they undoubtedly are.  But the Lord Mayor’s Show is claimed (by its organisers) to be the oldest, longest and best prepared in the whole, wide, world.

City of London Police, Police bicycles, Lord Mayor's ShowDo not confuse the Lord Mayor of London, a title first recorded in the year 1189, with the new-fangled, plain, Mayor of London, a tedious political post which has existed merely since the year 2000.  The City of London is a distinct local authority area within the wider metropolis, based on London’s historic heart, and these days the main financial and business district.  It is often referred to simply as, the City and, sometimes, as the square mile (surprisingly, because it’s about that small).  You can identify a City of London address by its ‘EC’ post code.  In the City, only the Sovereign takes precedence over its Lord Mayor, who is the annually elected head of the City of London Corporation – reputedly the oldest continually elected body in the world.  The most famous Lord Mayor of London is probably Dick Whittington – an actual, not a pantomime, figure who really was mayor three times in the late 14th and early 15th centuries.  The recently invented Mayor of London, a post held by Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson and, more recently Sadiq Khan, is directly elected every four years and, as well as introducing a popular additional level of costly bureaucracy, is meant to have a serious strategic remit for the greater London area as a whole.  The theoretically non-political Lord Mayor of London’s role, on the other hand, is less news-hungry, more ceremonial and ambassadorial – and focussed on the City.  Got it? I do hope so.

Royal Marines, march past13th century London was the largest city in Northern Europe, with a population somewhere between 15 and 20,000.  As an institution, it was rich, influential and hard to control.  Possibly hoping for powerful support in his disagreements with virtually everyone, King John confirmed the office of Lord Mayor by a charter in 1215, which granted Londoners the right to choose their own mayor each year.  It was a condition of this that each newly elected mayor should travel upstream, beyond the security of the City boundaries through what was then countryside, to the much smaller town of Westminster, in order to pledge loyalty to the Crown.

Lord Mayor's Show, flotilla, River Thames, London eventsShortly after this, the Lord Mayor of London was one of the 25 barons – and the only one there in an official capacity – to put his signature to Magna Carta.  Clause 13 of the Great Charter confirms that “The city of London shall enjoy all its ancient liberties and free customs, both by land and by water.”  It then goes on to confirm similar rights to “other cities, boroughs, towns and ports”, so I’m not sure of the particular significance of this clause; nor does there appear to be any reference to precisely what ancient liberties etc London enjoyed before 1215.  This could keep a lawyer happy for hours. That said, the William Charter of 1067 confirms the rights and privileges of Londoners too; even then, almost a thousand years ago, the unique importance of London, the value of its trade, and the need to protect it, was recognised.

Lord Mayor's flotilla, Blackfriars BridgeRoyal Barge, Gloriana, Lord Mayor's Show, LondonI digress, slightly.  The journey the Mayor first made to Westminster to swear his fidelity to bad King John in 1215 has, so they say, been repeated every subsequent year without fail, whether at time of war, peace, plague, or whatever, to swear loyalty to the 34 monarchs who have reigned ever since.  Presumably, the Lord Mayor swore allegiance to Parliament during the interregnum.  And, every year, there has been a grand procession, albeit it was somewhat muted during the dark days of the Blitz and cancelled once, in 1852, to make way for the Duke of Wellington’s funeral.  In any event, it is from these old roots that today’s Lord Mayor’s Show, part pageant, part carnival, has evolved.

Royal Navy, Lord Mayor's ShowDetails vary from year to year, but in recent times there have been three main parts to the show.  It begins with a flotilla of boats and barges on the Thames, a river pageant. This celebrates the mayor’s original journey, which would have been made by boat.  Next comes the parade, a procession of something like 7,000 participants in the region of 3 miles long, crammed into a 1.7 mile route from Mansion House, the Lord Mayor’s official residence in the City, near Bank, to the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand in Westminster.  In the evening, the grand finale is a spectacular firework display over the Thames.

Omnibus, Lord Mayor's Show, City of LondonThe Lord Mayor’s Show is a key event in the London Calendar and always takes place on the second Saturday of November.  Most roads in the City are closed all day and the Embankment is closed until the evening.  Trying to move around by road in the area is hopeless – it has always been a day to avoid when coordinating weekend work in the capital.  Sometimes, the weekend of the Lord Mayor’s Show coincides with that of the National Service of Remembrance, held in Whitehall on the Sunday closest to Armistice Day, 11th November, which causes further road closures around that part of Westminster.

Lord Mayor's Show, procession, City of LondonIn any event, despite living and working in and around London for many years, I had never seen the Lord Mayor’s Show until we visited London for other reasons in 2014.  In fact, it was only when we spotted the grandstands near St Paul’s the night before that we realised the Lord Mayor’s Show was taking place.  So in the morning we took the opportunity to stand on the Millennium Bridge to watch the flotilla, grabbed some breakfast and then parked ourselves on Ludgate Hill and saw the entire procession go by – which I can tell you took about 2 hours.

Gog, Magog, City of London, Lord Mayor's ShowThe first carnival floats ever were the decorated barges that took part in the medieval Lord Mayor’s procession centuries ago; that’s where the term float comes from.  The flotilla we saw was astonishing.  Like a scene from a bygone age, the Queen’s Royal Barge, Glorianna, carrying the Lord Mayor, was surrounded by the traditional craft of London’s livery companies and port authorities.  It reminded me of an old oil painting – the Venetian artist Canaletto painted the Lord Mayor’s Show five times.

Lord Mayor's Show, livery companies, Invictus Games, Jaguar F-Type, vintage carsLord Mayor's Show, Light Cavalry, HAC, Honourable Artillery CompanyLondon’s livery companies have evolved from the medieval guilds – essentially trade associations regulating standards and training, which were once extremely powerful.  The oldest is the Worshipful Company of Weavers, which was founded in 1155.  According to the Corporation of London, there are 125 livery companies, covering every trade and profession you can think of, as well as many that don’t immediately spring to mind: grocers, ironmongers, drapers, actuaries, mercers, fletchers – even the more modern information technologists and world traders.

Lord Mayor's Show, costumes, Battle of WaterlooThe Household Cavalry, London, pageantryThe colour and flamboyance of each company’s livery (yes, that’s why they’re called livery companies) is an essential part of the procession.  This also includes units of the armed forces with London associations, educational establishments, marching bands, civilian services, figures from history, costumes – a mixture of all sorts of things.  It is a glorious, joyful, cacophony of music, noise and colour, which changes every year.  Somewhere near the front, ever since the reign of Henry V (1413-1432), will be Gog and Magog, traditional guardians of London, descended from the pagan giants who once inhabited these islands.  You’ll be glad to know that the ones in the parade are just effigies.  Somewhere near the end comes the Lord Mayor in the State Coach, a completely over-the-top fairy-tale vehicle built 250 years ago, which can be seen in the Museum of London when not in use.

Christ's Hospital Scool Band, Lord Mayor's ShowHorses, carriages, Lord Mayor's Procession, St PaulsSo, if you can, you might want to take a peek at the Lord Mayor’s Show.  It’s a piece of living history – and particularly interesting if you’re in any way fond of men in funny hats and tights.  Mind you, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.  Samuel Pepys, the 17th century diarist, allegedly found it quite irritating and wrote that he regarded the pageantry as “poor and absurd”.  But what did he know?

I hope my pictures capture something of the atmosphere of the event; quite frankly, it was hard to make representative selection.  As usual, hover your cursor over an image to see an explanation.

Lord Mayor, State Coach, Lord Mayor's Show

To find out more, visit the official website for the Lord Mayor’s Show.

31 thoughts on “London’s Lord Mayor’s Show

  1. Tina

    What pageantry indeed! I learn so much from your site and it makes it hard to pick what time of year to visit. Now I know I want to be in London to see this event, it’s just the planning of the trip.

    Love the photos and history.

  2. Lesley

    What a show! I understand that the Lord Mayor has to have rather deep pockets! In the last few years, relatively, there have been more road closures for Marathon running and cycling events. I think that London knows how to put on a spectacle.

  3. Lavender Dreamer

    You tell us so many interesting things! I in awe! Love your photos and learning more about your country. I’m going to put your blog in my favs. I would like to spend more time here…I have a lot of reading to do to catch up! Thanks!

  4. pollymacleod

    This has been on my “To visit” for a long time now, but I won’t be going this year because I will be in Australia. Maybe next year (if I remember!). It looks brilliant, and your photos are great. Love the household Cavalry. There’s always someone getting in the way of a good photograph. There’s a very good website at https://pixlr.com/editor/ where you can clone one are onto another (like photoshop but not as good). it’s best when the area isn’t too busy.

  5. Carla TePaske

    WOW, this would be a fun event.
    What are the poppies made of that some wear during the month of November. I just read another post about the poppies. I think it is amazing how so many of your people wear and support Remembrance Day. Sadly, not true over here.

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Hi Carla. The poppies themselves are made of a special paper and many have a little green leaf too. The stem and centre are made of plastic these days. They’re normally worn in the lead up to Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day (11th November). The poppies are made and sold for the Royal British Legion, which supports servicemen and women and organises remembrance events. It’s becoming quite common to see more permanent poppy broaches, presumably made of ceramic or enameled metal.

  6. Clare Pooley

    I am sure it used to be televised when I was a girl. I was always doing something on a Saturday morning and could never go to see it. One day maybe, if I’m very lucky!

  7. hilarymb

    Hi Mike – brilliant post and I’m so glad you were able to take advantage and see the Parade in 2014 … I’d love to see it … but something that’s unlikely to happen – though I did see the Lord Mayor’s State Coach parked up near the Guildhall one year as I was visiting an exhibition … the Crystal Sceptre and Hedon Mace – wonderful post – thank you … cheers Hilary

  8. John

    My mother, who grew up around Kings Cross, always said that the Lord Mayor’s Show and the Boatrace were the two highlights of the years when the whole family would have a day out. Shamefully, although I’ve lived within 50 miles of London all my life, I’ve never been to either.

  9. fun60

    Thank you for the timely reminder. Have yet to see the pageant but will be in London on the 11th so hopefully will be there in person this year to witness the event.

  10. Helen Devries

    Mother gave me the explanation for the saying…she saw the Show every year after the war and one of the highlights for her was the dustcart following up to clear the horse droppings, the dustmen – as they were then called – shouldering their brooms and shovels and bowing and waving to the crowds who gave them a great cheer.

  11. Karen S.

    Oh I wish I could say that I’m attending this event, but sadly I can’t. It looks like such an interesting event, and just my kind of style. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  12. AC

    Thanks for your comment about autumn, which has also not been as fine here as in many other years.

    I found this post fascinating, since one of Sue’s grandfather’s favourite phrases was, “After the Lord Mayor’s show comes the garbage wagon.”

    He would say this when he got a poor cribbage hand after a good one when playing cards with Sue’s dad. I have come across at least one variation of the phrase which substituted another word for garbage.

    So thanks for the info and memory.

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