Some 700 men and two women have over the centuries held the position of head of the City of London.
Lord Mayors are elected for one-year terms; today by custom they do not serve more than once. Numerous individuals have served multiple terms in office, most recently William Russell in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. Prior to that the last to do so was Robert Fowler in 1883 and in 1885.
The title 'Lord Mayor' is of great age. In the Latin of the 13th century 'dominus major' is found, and in English 'Lord Mair' in 1414. By the 16th century the prefix 'Right Honourable' was in use.
"The first recorded Mayor of London was Henry Fitz-Ailwyn in 1189"
Through history, though many have considered it an honour to become Lord Mayor or take other civic office as Alderman or Sheriff, others fought to avoid it because of the expense of these unpaid positions: and many preferred to pay fines rather than take office.
Some unfortunate Lord Mayors even ended up in debtors' prisons. Some distinguished themselves greatly, such as Dick Whittington and William Hardel, who played a part in Magna Carta; others were less fortunate, like the hapless Sir Thomas Bludworth, Mayor during the Great Fire of London.
Significant Lord Mayors and related events
Probably one of the most famous Lord Mayors, Dick Whittington held office multiple times in 1397, 1398, 1406 and 1419.
Contrary to popular belief, he was not a poor, ill-treated orphan who managed against all the odds to work his way up to Lord Mayor. Coming from a wealthy family, Whittington had a successful business and civic career before becaming Lord Mayor.
A liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Mercers, a wool merchant and royal financier, Whittington was also a tremendous philanthropist who set a standard for the well-to-do of the City ever since.
It was the custom of the day that wealthy men would leave around a third of their money to their wife, a third to their children and a third to charity. When Whittington died childless, he left everything to charity, endowing and building a number of almshouses, libraries, civic buildings and public amenities that continue to serve London today.
As for the black cat which supposedly helped him found his fortune by ridding the King of the Barbary Coast of a plague of rats, no-one is quite sure if this is myth or reality.
John Wilkes (1774)
In his political life, Wilkes fought for the right of voters to determine their representatives, was instrumental in allowing printers to publish records of parliamentary debates, and introduced the first Bill for parliamentary reform in the British Parliament. However, his popularity with the voting public evaporated after the Gordon Riots in 1780, (anti-Catholic riots) when Wilkes was in charge of the soldiers defending the Bank of England from the rioters. Under his orders the troops fired into the crowds, and several hundred were killed or wounded.
David Salomons (1855)
Salomons was a Jewish reformer who set out to ensure that practising Jews could hold public office: he was elected Sheriff in 1835 and the Government changed the law so that he did not have to take a Christian oath on taking up his office. Elected Alderman to Cordwainers Ward in 1847, he was elected Lord Mayor in 1855. David Salomons was later went on to become the second Jewish MP, after Lionel de Rothschild.
Benjamin Phillips (1865)
Phillips was spectacle maker, who became Lord Mayor in 1865. He was an impressive linguist and orator, and a progressive who supported the second Reform Bill in parliament in 1867.
Dame Mary Donaldson (1983)
The first female Lord Mayor was a nurse, who later took an interest in the City. She was elected to the Court of Common Council in 1966, became the first female alderman in 1975, and the first female Sheriff in 1981.
Fiona Woolf (2013)
Alderman Fiona Woolf CBE She has advised over 28 governments on reform strategy and infrastructure development, with much of her work for the World Bank on regional electricity markets, regulation and infrastructure. She has held a number of public offices, including President of the Law Society. She is Alderman of the Ward of Candlewick and served as Sheriff in 2010-11.
In 1984, the Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors presented the Court of Aldermen with the ‘Treloar Brooch’, for the use of female Lord Mayors. In 1989, it was agreed that the brooch could be worn by Aldermen representing the Lord Mayor in the daytime, or by a Lady Mayoress. In 2013-14, the Treloar Brooch was worn by the Lord Mayor, fulfilling its original purpose. More about the ceremonial offices of the mayoralty.
The right of London's citizens to elect their own Mayor dates from the Charter granted by King John to the City in 1215.
The Magna Carta specified that the City would retain all its ancient liberties: "That the City of London shall have all its ancient liberties by land as well as by water.’ Mayor William Hardel was appointed Sheriff of the City of London in 1207 and elected Mayor of London in 1215. He was on the committee of 25 barons appointed to see that the Charter provisions were carried out. He was also the only commoner involved.
Sir Thomas Bludworth was Mayor in 1665-6, and had "the severest year any man had" in this office.
His year was blighted by the Plague of 1665, which was still killing thousands every week, and then by the Great Fire of London in 1666. Bludworth, who had been an apprentice vintner and then a successful merchant, a member of the Levant and Africa companies, sadly underestimated the severity of the fire and failed to create a firewall.
Pepys writes in his diary that when the Fire broke out on 3 September, Bludworth said, "pish, a woman might piss it out." Later, he was to lose his cool entirely: ‘At last met my Lord Mayor in Canning Street, like a man spent, with a handkerchief around 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 pull(ing) down houses. But the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.’ Bludworth's own house in Gracechruch Street was also destroyed.
In 1380 the King introduced a new Poll Tax, to the dismay of many of his subjects who thought the new tax too heavy and unfair.
Rebels gathered on the northern parts of the City and Blackheath to march on London, in what became known as the Peasants' Revolt.
While the 14-year old King Richard II, Mayor William Walworth (a fishmonger) and Chief Officers were holed up into the Tower, some supporters let the rebels into the City and scenes of murder and pillage ensued. The King, Mayor and supporters rode out to Mile End where he made several concessions.
The next day the King met the remaining rebels in Smithfield, with William Walworth at his side. Walworth was watching for a possible attack, and single-handed he rushed upon Wat (Walter) Tyler and 'first wounded him in the neck with his sword, and then hurled him from his horse mortally pierced in the breast." It was a coup which astonished the other rebels, who, their leader lost, gave up and agreed to follow King Richard II. Walworth and others in the City were knighted and today Walworth's dagger is kept in honour at Fishmonger's Hall.
The City of London and the Lord Mayors of London took part in the empire-building of the 17th century.
From 1609, they helped establish a colony across the Atlantic, in Virginia: the Lord Mayor Sir Humphrey Weld, a Grocer, sent seven ships and other Livery companies followed suit.
Under pressure from King James I, the City and several Livery companies funded settlements in Northern Ireland, Ulster, in the 1610s. The companies built up Derry which was fortified and renamed Londonderry, and lands were parcelled out to companies who undertook to develop them.