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St Paul’s Cathedral, Cartulary, statute and evidence book, Liber L

​St Paul’s Cathedral, cartulary, statute and evidence book,  'Liber L'.

Archive Treasures: The Wards and their Aldermen

Matthew Payne and Jeremy Smith

The appearance of the ward as a unit of the civic governance of London is an ancient one, dating from at least the 11th century.  It was a military, judicial and administrative unit, the equivalent of the hundreds into which the countryside was divided, and ward boundaries are not usually the same as those of parishes. There were twenty four wards in the City until 1394, when one more was added by dividing the largest, Farringdon, into two (that part within the City walls, and that without).

The first notices of wards usually record them by reference to their ealdorman, or alderman, an Anglo-Saxon term of hazy antiquity. The alderman was the preeminent citizen in the ward, and represented it at City councils, later to become the Court of Aldermen.  This has its origin in Anglo-Saxon folkmoots, which also evolved into the Court of Hustings, for which there are references during the early 11th-century reign of Canute. The Aldermen have remained the most powerful figures in City governance, and the Lord Mayor is still picked from their ranks.

The oldest surviving list of these alderman and wards in London is to be found in an early 12th-century cartulary of St Paul’s Cathedral, known as Liber L, comprising a survey of the Cathedral’s London estates, made about 1127, and arranged by ward. In all about twenty three wards are recorded (some of the wording is unclear), most by reference to their alderman, but some by local names (e.g. ‘warda alegate [Aldgate], ‘warda fori’ [Cheap Ward]). It shows that such a structure certainly existed by this time, but probably dated back well before the Norman Conquest.

Simon Eyre, Lord Mayor of London 1445-1446, in aldermanic robes

​Simon Eyre, Lord Mayor of London 1445-1446, in aldermanic robes, c.1450.

​A striking mid 15th-century series of pen, ink and watercolour drawings show us the entire complement of aldermen in the Mayoralty of Sir Thomas Olney (1446-47). Each one stands holding a shield, bearing his personal arms, while above a scroll reveals his name. The left hand rests on a large tablet bearing the arms of previous officers of the relevant Ward, and the entire tablet is fitted with a nail as if ready to be hung on a wall.

The outlines of the figures have been pounced or pricked through, so that they can be copied from one sheet to the next; they are more heraldic records than attempts at accurate portraiture. The format of the drawings follows closely that of a similar series of representations of members of the Order of the Garter made around 1430 by William Bruges, the senior English herald.  Facial characteristics are uniform and the clothing changes little.  The drawings are thought to be the work of Roger Leigh, Clarenceux King of Arms, and may have been produced in connection with a scheme for panelling, hangings or other decorations within the Guildhall precinct.  Work on building the Guildhall had begun in 1411 and was well advanced by the time of Olney’s mayoralty. 

For many years these drawings were part of the Wriothsley heraldic collection but by the 20th century were in the collection of Viscount Lord Wakefield of Hythe, Lord Mayor 1915-16 and a substantial benefactor to the Library and Art Gallery. In 1938 he bequeathed them to the British Museum but they were subsequently transferred to Guildhall Library and are now held by London Metropolitan Archives.

21 October 2014
Last Modified:
28 August 2018