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Ward Beadles

The City of London is the oldest continuous municipal democracy in the world. It predates Parliament. Its constitution is rooted in the ancient rights and privileges enjoyed by citizens before the Norman Conquest in 1066. The City of London developed a unique form of government which led to the system of parliamentary government at local and national level.

The right of the City to run its own affairs was gradually won as concessions were gained from the Crown. London's importance as a centre of trade, population and wealth secured it rights and liberties earlier than other towns and cities. From medieval to Stuart times the City was the major source of financial loans to monarchs, who sought funds to support their policies at home and abroad. In early times London was two cities – the trading and residential City of London (around St Paul’s) and the royal, administrative and religious West-minster. As London grew, the City specialised in trade.

That London enjoyed certain freedoms and had a form of civic administration before the Norman conquest, can be seen in the Charter granted by William the Conqueror in 1067, in which he promised to recognise the rights, privileges and laws that the City had enjoyed since the time of Edward the Confessor (1042-62). In Saxon London and in the medieval period, municipal authority rested principally with Aldermen ('elder' men or elderfolk), who met in the City's ancient Court of Husting - the supreme court of the medieval City, with administrative and judicial functions. There is reliable evidence of its existence in 1032, although it was probably much older, and by the mid-12th century it was held weekly. It is likely that the Court of Aldermen developed from the administrative side of the work of the Court of Husting.

Sheriffs and Mayor

London, like other cities, was subject to the authority of the Crown through its Sheriff - the Shirereeve or Portreeve. But in the 12th century, as a move towards civic independence, an association of citizens under oath - the commune - was established. At the same time the office of Mayor was created with Henry FitzAilwyn taking office in 1189 (whether by appointment or election is unclear).

In 1191, the commune was officially recognised by Prince John, while his brother Richard the Lionheart was away at the Crusades, and in 1199 John, now King, granted the citizens of London the right to elect their own Sheriffs - a particularly significant right as the Sheriff was the King's representative through whom the City was governed. The citizens' right to elect a Mayor annually was granted by King John in a charter of 1215.

The commune may have been the origins of the development of another element of local governance. Gradually, Aldermen began to summon "wise and discreet" citizens from their wards to their meetings for consultation on particular matters. In 1285, a group of 40 citizens, between one and four from each Ward, was to consult with the Aldermen on the common affairs of the City. From 1376, this assembly had regular meetings and was known as the Common Council. It gradually assumed greater responsibilities and the business of the Court of Aldermen declined.

Government today

Today the Court of Common Council (100 Common Councilmen and 25 Aldermen) governs the City of London Corporation, the oldest continuous municipal democracy in the world, which in turn acts as local authority for the geographic Square Mile around St Paul’s, among many other roles. The range of services the City provides its workers, residents and visitors and the national and international work the City is called upon to perform is unique. Common Council accomplishes this work through a committee structure.

The Court of Aldermen consists of 25 Aldermen, one for each ward of the City, elected at least every six years (separately from the Common Councilmen elections, and not all at once). Since 1834 Common Council has been elected by the 25 wards of the City. Elections are held every four years in March when all the seats are up for re-election. Each ward returns between two and ten members depending on the size of the electorate. Candidates must be freemen of the City.

Common Council meets every fourth Thursday in the Great Hall of Guildhall at 1pm. No member of Common Council is paid and all are apolitical.

The City Arms

The Armorial Bearings of the City of London were first mentioned in 1381, when it was ordered that new Mayoralty Seal should incorporate them. The seal shows the Arms of the City charged in its first quarter with what is described as a dagger or sword. This is a representation of the Sword of St Paul, the City's patron saint.

The City's Common Seal has, since 1539 born on its reverse side a shield of the City Arms to replace the image of Thomas a Becket, in accordance with a proclamation of King Henry VIII, while it has continued to bear on its obverse a figure of St Paul. The new reverse also furnishes the earliest evidence of the crest and helmet. On this seal the crest appeared as a fan shaped object charged with a cross of St. George. It developed into the dragon's sinister wing also charged with a cross.

The supporters of the Shield on the Mayoralty Seal of 1381 were two lions. It is not until 1609 that dragon's as supporters to the City Shield are found, and at the same time appears the first known use of the present City motto Domine Dirige Nos, meaning Lord Guide Us. There were many variations in representations of the City's armorial bearings in succeeding centuries. The confusion was probably made worse by the fact that there had never been any official grant of armorial bearing to the City and the crest and supporters were not recorded there.

In 1957 the City obtained from Garter King of Arms and Clarenceux King of Arms a Grant of crest and supporters and the confirmation of the arms “Anciently recorded as of right apertaining to them”.

The Livery

The City’s links to its original trading roots are still alive today in its connection with the livery companies. These were created from the early trade practices dating back to the 12th century and maintained standards in their industries, regulated their crafts and had a major say in the way the City was run.

Today there are more than 100 and new ones continue to be formed. They act as a focus for discussion within their industries and also have an important role in educational and charitable funding with around £40m donated annually.

Many Members of the Court of Common Council are liverymen and they play a key role in the election of both the Lord Mayor and the Sheriffs.​

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10 April 2012
Last Modified:
18 June 2015