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The Mayor of London: The First, The Cursed, and the Worst Mayor in London’s History

London is an old city, with over 2,000 years of history under its belt. When did London have its first mayor? Who were some of Londons best loved, most reviled, and scandalous mayors from days gone by? The role of mayor has a long and rich history going back over 800 years to the reign of Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199). We’re hoping back in time to take a look at three of London’s more memorable mayors.

The current Lord Mayor of London: Jeffrey Richard de Corban Evans, 4th Baron Mountevans at the Lord Mayor's Show. (cityoflondon.gov.uk)

The current Lord Mayor of London: Jeffrey Richard de Corban Evans, 4th Baron Mountevans at the Lord Mayor’s Show. (cityoflondon.gov.uk)

A Little Background…

Last Thursday, Londoners went to the polls and voted to elect their next mayor. On Friday, May 6th, Labour incumbent, Sadiq Khan, won that coveted title. One week later, we’re taking a look at the history behind the Mayors of London.

First off, it’s important to know that the position Sadiq Khan won last Friday wasn’t “Lord Mayor of London”, he won Mayor of London. Sound a bit strange? It can be a bit confusing, but it’s an important distinction. London technically has two mayors:

1.) The Mayor of London: a publicly elected official with a political affiliation, who oversees the day-today working of the Greater London Area., i.e., Mr. Khan.

2.) The Lord Mayor of London: apolitical, appointed at Common Hall on Michaelmas (September 29th), beginning the job on the Friday before the second Saturday in November. It is now considered a mainly ceremonial post that consists of meeting with dignitaries and promoting the city to stimulate business. The Lord Mayor also hosts fun historic events like the annual Lord Mayor’s Show held in early November that displays the pageantry, pomp and history of the role. The current Lord Mayor of London is Jeffrey Richard de Corban Evans, 4th Baron Mountevans.

The role of the Mayor of London, as a freely elected official, didn’t actually exist until a referendum was held by the Greater London Authority in 1998. In 2000, London finally had its first officially elected Mayor. So what came before that? The Lord Mayor of London did, and to make it more confusing, before 1300, they were just styled as mayors. Then in the fourteenth century, the title reverted to Lord Mayor once again. Many of these men came from mercantile families, and had former positions as Drapers, Goldsmiths, Fishmongers, Grocers, and Mercers (merchants who dealt in the trade of luxurious goods like silk, velvet and expensive wool). During the Middle Ages, the Lord Mayor wasn’t just a ceremonial role; it was once the most coveted job in the city.

Statue of Henry Fitz-Aillwin de Londonestone, first mayor of London. The Holborn Viaduct. (Wikipedia)

Statue of Henry Fitz-Aillwin de Londonestone, first mayor of London. The Holborn Viaduct. (Wikipedia)

The Good: The First Mayor of London

So who was the first mayor of London? London’s first mayor was Henry Fitz-Ailwin de Londonestone (1135-1212). The position was created in1189 by King Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199), in exchange for vast sums of money to fund his wars. Fitz-Ailwin de Londonestone served an impressive twenty-four terms as mayor until his death in 1212. Sadly, in spite of his long tenure, relatively little is known about him. What we do know is that he married, had four sons, and was an alderman prior to becoming mayor. He is best remembered for settling boundary disputes between neighbours, and ensuring Londoners used materials in the construction of buildings that were made of stone in order to prevent death and damage from fire.

On neighbours: In the year of Our Lord 1189, in the first year, namely, of the reign of the illustrious King Richard, Henry Fitz-Aylewin (who was the first Mayor of London) being then Mayor, it was by the discreet men of the City [thus] provided and ordained, for the allaying of the contentions that at times arise between neighbours in the City touching boundaries made, or to be made, between their lands, and other things; to the end that, according to the provisions then made and ordained, such contentions might be allayed. And the said Provision and Ordinance was called an “Assize.”

On building in stone: It should be remembered, that in ancient times the greater part of the City was built of wood, and the houses were covered with straw and stubble, and the like. Hence it happened, that when a single house had caught fire, the greater part of the City was destroyed through such conflagration; a thing that took place in the first year of the reign of King Stephen, (as (fn. 10) set forth in the Chronicles before-written in this Book,) when, by reason of a fire that broke out at London Bridge, the Church of Saint Paul was burnt; from which spot the conflagration extended, destroying houses and buildings, as far as the Church of Saint Clement Danes. After this, many of the citizens, to the best of their ability to avoid such a peril, built stone houses upon their foundations, covered with thick tiles, and [so] protected against the fury of the flames; whence it has often been the case that, when a fire has broken out in the City, and has destroyed many buildings, upon reaching such houses, it has been unable to do further mischief, and has been there extinguished; so that, through such a house as this, many houses of the neighbours have been saved from being burnt. Hence it is, that in the aforesaid Ordinance, called the “Assize,” it was provided and ordained, in order that the citizens might be encouraged to build with stone, that every one who should have a stone-wall upon his own land sixteen feet in height… ~Chronicles of the Mayors and Sheriffs of London 1188-1274, Additions to the Chronicles: Assize of buildings (Richard I).

While not exactly salacious, or exciting, Fitz-Ailwin de Londonestone certainly had a long, illustrious, and a solid career as London’s first mayor.Today, you can find his stoney visage gracing the Holborn Viaduct near Farringdon Street.

Richard II meeting with the rebels of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Jean Froissart, Chroniques, 154v, 12148 (Wikipedia)

Richard II meeting with the rebels of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Jean Froissart, Chroniques, 154v, 12148 (Wikipedia)

The Bad: Cursed by Connection

Sometimes, cronyism won’t always save you, and connections can be a curse. You can stack the decks, and make friends in high places, but Lady Fortune has a way of surprising even the most self-assured figures, like one Sir Nicholas Brembre (†1388). Clearly not everyone who became Mayor of London enshrined the principles of decency and ethical behaviour. One of these less-than-upstanding mayors was Nicholas Brembre. We don’t know much about his early life, but we do know that during his time as mayor, he was embroiled customs corruption and accused of fixing elections to place his friends in lucrative positions. He was the Sheriff of London, and then in 1376, became an Alderman. Interestingly enough, Brembre hired none other than Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) to be his comptroller while he ran customs. Brembre seemed to have run London like medieval Tony Soprano, and in the end, made more enemies than friends, ultimately leading to his demise.

Brembre lived during a tumultuous time in London. He was involved in the ill-fated Peasant’s Revolt, helping his friend and defender, Richard II (1367-1400) quell the rebellion. For his assistance, he was rewarded with a knighthood by the king. Unfortunately, his close ties with the Richard would be his undoing. He made enemies of the Lords Appellant, a group of nobles who brought down Richard’s court favourites, Brembre being one of them. Brembre was seized and accused of treason. He was sentenced to death by hanging on February 20, 1388. Brembre, a knight, asked for Trial by Combat, which was his right, but he was so detested by Richard’s opponents that his request for an honourable end was denied and he was promptly sent to the gallows. Richard tried, but even he couldn’t save Brembre. Richard had him exonerated posthumously when he exacted his revenge on the Appellants in 1397.

The following is an excerpt from the Calendar of the Close Rolls Preserved in the Public Record Office : Richard II, 1385-1389, detailing Brembre’s arrest and the charge of treason brought against him.

Feb. 15. To the constable of the Tower of London and to his lieutenant. Westminster. Order by advice of the council to cause Nicholas Brembre knight, who by virtue of the king’s writ was delivered in the king’s name to the constable’s custody it is said, to come before the king and council at Westminster in this parliament on Monday next ; as order was lately made by the king and council that the said Nicholas, who is appealed by Thomas duke of Gloucestre, Henry earl of Derby, Richard earl of Arundell, Thomas earl of Warrewyk and Thomas earl of Notyngham before the king and the great council of treasons affecting the king and the estate of the realm, should for a time be kept in custody in the Tower, and the king commanded the constable and lieutenant to receive and so keep him until further order of the king and council, as they would answer for his body. By K. and C.

To the constable of the Tower of London and his lieutenant. Order
to receive Nicholas Brembre knight and, as they will answer for his
body, to keep him in safe cu.stody in the Tower until further order of
the king and council ; as Thomas duke of Gloucester etc. {as above)
have appealed him before the king and the great council etc., wherefore
order is made by the king and council that he be kept for a time in
custody in the Tower. By K. and C.

This painting shows the enormous scale of The Great Fire. Unknown artist, c.1700. (http://www.london-fire.gov.uk/great-fire-of-london.asp).

This painting shows the enormous scale of The Great Fire. Unknown artist, c.1700. (http://www.london-fire.gov.uk/great-fire-of-london.asp).

The Worst: Fire! Fire! Wait no…Let’s Just Pee on it and Go Back to Bed…
While Nicholas Brembre was corrupt, and a royal crony, there have been worse mayors in London. Jumping forward a little to the Early Modern period, we have Sir Thomas Bloodworth (1620-1682). Like many mayors before him, he also had a merchant upbringing; his family belonged to the London Company of Vintners. Prior to becoming Mayor of London, he had a strong career in the city. Bloodworth was a prominent timber merchant, a member of the famous East India company, an MP for Southwark, a Sheriff, and an Alderman! Quite the career before taking the helm as London’s mayor in 1665. Bloodworth seemed poised to retire from a solid political career except for one poor decision, on one fateful, night that wiped away all his previous efforts and achievements.

In the middle of the night, on September 2, 1666, a fire broke out in the home of baker, Thomas Farriner. As the fire began ravaging the city, efforts were made to stop it by destroying buildings in the path of the flames to create pockets that would deprive the fire of further fuel. Since buildings were to be levelled, Bloodworth, as mayor, was asked to give his permission to destroy them. Bloodworth said no. He didn’t deem the fire a great enough threat and was more concerned about the amount he would have to pay to the building owners than about stopping the fire in its tracks. That “no” cost Bloodworth dearly. London diarist, Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) famously jotted down Bloodworth’s failure to act and save the city. Pepys himself went to see King Charles II (1630-1685) and only after the king commanded Bloodworth to destroy the buildings, did he make his move. Alas, it was too late, the flames decimated 75% of the city. Pepys captured his ineptness for all time in the following passages of his diary:

Painting of Samuel Pepys by John Hayls (1600-1679). (Wikipedia)

Painting of Samuel Pepys by John Hayls (1600-1679). (Wikipedia)

September 2, 1666
At last met my Lord Mayor in Canningstreet, like a man spent, with a handkercher about his neck. To the King’s message he cried, like a fainting woman, “Lord! what can I do? I am spent: people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses; but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it…They seemed much troubled, and the King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor from him, and command him to spare no houses, but to pull down before the fire every way.

Friday September 7, 1666
People do all the world over cry out of the simplicity of my Lord Mayor in generall; and more particularly in this business of the fire, laying it all upon’ him.

Bloodworth was blamed for allowing the fire to get out of control due to his refusal to act when he had the chance. He tried to put it behind him and continued on in politics but was never able to live the stigma down. When Parliament met after the fire, Bloodworth was a laughing stock, and was named to the committee, “…’for providing utensils for the speedy quenching of fire’, no doubt ribald references to the lord mayor’s chamber-pot, and to recommend tax abatements for the stricken metropolis. His own house and stock in Gracechurch Street had been destroyed, but he was able to build himself a splendid replacement in Maiden Lane.” He is now forever remembered as the infamous mayor who let London burn on the night of the Great Fire in 1666.

Hopefully, London’s newly minted mayor will read this and opt for a more Fitz-Ailwin de Londonestone mayoralty, and less of a Brembre and Bloodworth approach to city management. London remains ever watchful, ever hopeful, and always judgemental! Good luck Mr. Khan, your city awaits!

~Sandra Alvarez

Resources

“Additions to the Chronicles: Assize of buildings (Richard I).” Chronicles of the Mayors and Sheriffs of London 1188-1274. Ed. H T Riley. London: Trübner, 1863. 179-187. British History Online. Web. 4 May 2016. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/london-mayors-sheriffs/1188-1274/pp179-187.

“1388: Nicholas Brembre, Mayor of London.”, ExecutedToday.com, Web. 20, February, 2010. http://www.executedtoday.com/2010/02/20/1388-nicholas-brembre-mayor-of-london/

“Sir Nicholas Brembre, Lord mayor of London c.1375.”, Brebner.com, Web. 1999-2003.http://www.brebner.com/biographies/brembre_mayor.pdf

“Henry FitzAilwin – the first Mayor of London”, Web. thehistoryoflondon.co.uk, 2016.http://www.thehistoryoflondon.co.uk/henry-fitzailwin-the-first-mayor-of-london/

“The Lord Mayor”, Web. cityoflondon.co.uk, 2016.

http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/about-the-city/the-lord-mayor/Pages/default.aspx

“Calendar of the close rolls preserved in the Public Record Office : Richard II ; prepared under the superintendence of the Deputy Keeper of the Records”, Topic: Closed Writs. Web.Great Britain. Public Record , 1914, https://archive.org/stream/calendarofclo03grea/calendarofclo03grea_djvu.txt

“Diary Entries from September 1666.”, Daily Entries from the 17th century London Diary. Ed. Phil Gyford, 2016. Web. pepysdiary.com http://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1666/09/

“Member Biographies: BLUDWORTH, Thomas (1620-82), of Gracechurch Street, London and Thorncroft, Leatherhead, Surr.”, The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, Ed. B.D. Henning, 1983., Web. Eveline Cruickshanks,The History of parliament: British Political, Social & Local History, historyorparliamentonline.org., 2016. http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1660-1690/member/bludworth-thomas-1620-82

“The Lord Mayor’s Show”, Web. lordmayorsshow.london, 2015. https://lordmayorsshow.london/day/

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