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Fire, Plague and Dick Whittington: The Hidden History of the Lord Mayor’s Show

Billie Manning

It’s the biggest event in the city’s calendar, but do you know why we take part in this awesome celebration every year, and how it all started in the first place?

Today, the Lord Mayor’s Show consists of a three-mile long show of pageantry and parades. But when it started more than 800 years ago, it was slightly different to the Lord Mayor’s Show we know now.
 
Its beginnings are all down to the raging unpopularity of King John, who had been excommunicated by Pope Innocent III and, more importantly, lost many of England’s lands in France. The City of London was growing bigger and bigger, and wasn’t keen on King John being the only one to make all their decisions, so they convinced him to let them elect their very own lord mayor. King John, always looking for ways to reverse said raging unpopularity, saw an opportunity for a hot deal, and the deal was thus: the lord mayor would have to travel from the City to Westminster (then a small village) to profess loyalty to the crown.
 
A little while afterwards, the Lord Mayor of London was one of just 25 barons to put his signature to Magna Carta – considered by some to be Britain’s most important historical document. From then on, the Lord Mayor’s journey from the City to Westminster became an annual event, which eventually evolved into a procession in the 14th century. The end of the 14th century saw the reign of Dick Whittington as Lord Mayor. Yep, he’s real – in fact, he was Lord Mayor of London a whopping three times. The bit about the magic cat, though – that’s up for debate.

The Lord Mayor’s Show has been an annual occurrence – almost without a single exception! The only disruptions to the tradition have been due to things like the Great Plague and Great Fire of London, which seems only too fair, really. In 1639, the Puritans, famously opposed to anything that sounds like a bit of fun, outright banned the thing. However, that was back in 1640, and since the 17th century has only been cancelled once: in 1830 due to the Reform Bill riots. The show has even gone on through two world wars – including during the Blitz.
 
The Show has featured in pop culture several times, appearing in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 film Sabotage and Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel Dr No in 1958. It was also one of the first events televised by the BBC after coronations, in 1937, when it was much closer to the event we know and love today.
 
In this day and age, the procession and its surrounding events get a refresh every year – it might be 800 years old but that doesn’t mean it has to be boring! This year, there will be a brand new range of activities taking place alongside the parade including a funfair and street artists to entertain you, a food market for when your tummy starts rumbling, and tours of Cheapside so you can learn even more about the history of the area.
 
The parade itself involves more than 7,000 people, 200 horses and 150 floats, including floats from London-based charities such as Barts Hospital volunteers. The parade follows a 1.7 mile-long route from Mansion House, close to Bank, to the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand in Westminster. Come rain or shine, the parade is always a highlight for the many children and their families in attendance, with ample time to enjoy the sights of the parade with a hot choc in-hand – which range from military bands and vintage buses to a combine harvester and a giant nodding dog. Kids will get particularly excited by the giant articulated retro-robot. Of course, you’ll also get to see the new Lord Mayor of the City of London, Peter Estlin, come by in his golden carriage – it is the Lord Mayor’s Show, after all!
 

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