The City of London: Where medieval silliness meets modern finance 

English place names strew confusion with all the restraint of a four-year-old trapped in a confetti barrel, so let’s start by sorting out what we’re talking about: The City of London isn’t the same as the city of London. Give city a small first letter and you’re talking about the place the world (sillly thing that it is) knows as London. Give it a capital letter and it’s not London but a square mile of high finance, non-resident voting, and that all-around oddity that the English do so gloriously. 

That capital-letter City calls itself the City, as if it was the only city the world ever knew. It’s also called the Square Mile because it’s not a square mile, it’s 1.2 square miles.

Follow me through the looking glass, kiddies. Let’s find out about the City of London. I’ll tell you everything I know. And much more. The sign that I’m telling you more than I know is that I quote big chunks of text from people who do know. Trust them. Ignore me.

Irrelevant photo: I have no idea what we’re looking at here, but I do know it’s a wildflower.

History

We pick up our tale in Anglo-Saxon England, at a time when London was England’s biggest city. It wasn’t the capital, but it was a center of trade and commerce. Which are the same thing but doesn’t it sound more important when I use both words? 

The city was important enough that Edward the Confessor–the almost-last of the Anglo-Saxon kings–thought it would be a good place to build a castle, not to mention a church that became known as Westminster so it wouldn’t get itself confused with the east minster, a.k.a. St. Paul’s. 

Then the Normans invaded, and even though William upended the box that was England and gave it a good hard shake, rattling everything and breaking some of it, he was careful not to break London. He granted it a charter and promised its citizens that they’d live under the same laws they’d had under Ed the almost-last Anglo-Saxon king. 

That’s important, because its special status continued under his successors and London grew to be wealthy, self-governing, self-taxing, self-judging, and surprisingly independent of the crown. It had its own militias, called the trained bands, which played a pivotal role at assorted turning points in the country’s history.

Fascinating as that is, though, it’s a tale for another post. I tried to work it into this one but it’s a rabbit hole. It was when I found a bottle labeled “Drink Me” that I realized how much trouble I was in. 

In 1100, London had a population of 18,000. By 1300, that had grown to 80,000. (That’s from the Britannica. WikiWhatsia says it was 100,000. Fair enough. Nobody was counting noses.)

Nearby Westminster had also grown, but not as much. Westminster was for the bean counters and administrators. You wouldn’t have wanted to move there. London was where the action was.

Within London, guilds formed and gained charters from the king. Their role was to defend the interests of their members, set prices and standards in their industries, settle disputes, control apprenticeships, and limit their membership (which just happened to limit competition). By 1400, the City had 100 guilds, and at least some of them were powerful beasts indeed. When a monarch needed money–and rich as they were, monarchs always needed money–the guilds could bow a few times, then finance a war or two and buy themselves and their city increased freedom from royal meddling.

Some of the guilds took to wearing livery–basically uniforms for their trades–and called themselves livery companies. Make a note of that. It’ll be on the test.

With all that history, though, there’s no piece of paper we can turn to that marks the City’s beginning. According to an article by Nicholas Shaxson in the New Statesman, “No charter constitutes [the City] as a corporate body. It grew up beside parliament and the crown, not directly subordinate to either but intertwined with both.”

 

More History

Around London, a patchwork of settlements grew up. In 1550, three-quarters of Londoners lived in the City. Among other things, this means the definition of a Londoner is getting hazy already. By 1700, only a quarter of them did. By 1800, that was down to a tenth. 

Even so, the City was crowded–enough so that at one point the Court of Common Council (that’s a fancy phrase for the City government) tried to stop houses from being subdivided into smaller, even more crowded units in a process called pestering. That doesn’t have much to do with our tale, but I had to sneak it in. It’s a very shallow rabbit hole. We’ll climb back out now.

In the seventeenth century, the crown asked the Corporation–that’s also the City government, and please don’t ask me to explain why it needs two names–to extend its jurisdiction to the new settlements. If it had said yes, London would be one city, but it refused. That’s called the great refusal of 1637 and it set up the odd, two-city structure London still has. Inside the large city that we naive fools think of as London sits the City of London, like the pit inside a peach. It left the sprawling settlements outside to solve their own problems so it could continue as it always had.

This decision eventually turned around and bit it on the ass. The guilds that had controlled competition by limiting their membership? They had no sway outside the City, and competitors were free to offer cheaper goods and services. 

Time passed, and we’ll let the Financial Times article provide a bridge to the present day: 

“Even as Parliament displaced the Crown as the fundamental unit of sovereignty and democracy displaced the Divine Right of Kings as the principle of legitimacy, the state still refused to subordinate the Corporation of London to national laws and practices. Its assets and its ancient privileges remained untouched. . . . The Corporation’s assets, its property inventory and financial portfolio remain unpublished.”

 

Government and Independence

So here we are in the modern City of London. How’s the place governed? 

The guilds have been central from the start, and they still are. The lord mayor, who heads the City of London Corporation, has to belong to one of the livery companies. And he or she has to have been a City sheriff. Both positions are elected by the senior members of the livery companies, who also elect bridge masters, auditors, and ale conners. 

Ale conners? They’re essential. They taste the ale. Also the beer. It was a fairly standard medieval position that most towns and cities have been happy to let sink into quiet obscurity. Not the City.

The livery companies also approve the candidates for alderman. 

After the livery companies have made sure the alder-candidates are acceptable, what happens? Why, the people get to vote, of course. It’s a democracy, isn’t it?

Who are the people? That’s where it gets interesting. Some 8,000 people live in the City, but almost 19,000 people vote there. And it’s all legal

How? If a business has up to nine staff members, it gets one vote. Up to fifty, it can appoint one voter for every five staff members. Above that, it gets ten voters plus one for every additional fifty. 

Anyone want to place bets on how independent those voters are?

The City has twenty-five wards, but the residents are concentrated in four of them, which limits resident impact even more.

As a City spokesperson explained,“The City is a democratic institution. All of its councillors are elected.” 

They pay people a lot of money to say things like that with a straight face.

The spokesperson also said, “As the local authority we provide public services to both 7,400 residents and 450,000 City workers. Therefore to reflect the needs of the workers who come to the City each day, businesses located in the City can appoint people to vote in our local elections.”

Okay, we now have an elected government. What’s its purpose? According to several non-radical sources, its purpose these days is to represent international finance.

An article in the New Statesman says, “By the 1980s, the City was at the centre of a great, secretive financial web cast across the globe, each of whose sections–the individual havens–trapped passing money and business from nearby jurisdictions and fed them up to the City: just as a spider catches insects. So, a complex cross-border merger involving a US multinational might, say, route a lot of the transaction through Caribbean havens, whose British firms will then send much of the heavy lifting work, and profits, up to the City. . . .

“Thus, the role of the City of London Corporation as a municipal authority is its least important attribute. This is a hugely resourced international offshore lobbying group pushing for international financial deregulation, tax-cutting and tax havenry around the world.” 

To make sense of how a city can be a tax haven when it’s inside a country that isn’t a tax haven, we have to go back to the City’s independence. Parliament (and I keep checking this because I can’t entirely believe I have it right) doesn’t have authority over the City. The City functions, basically, as an autonomous state within the U.K. International banks can do things within the City that the governments of their home countries don’t allow. Even if their home country is Britain.

According to a paper called “The City of London Corporation: The quasi-independent tax haven in the heart of London,” “Parliament has powers to make legislation affecting the City of London; however, any suggestion brought forth to the Corporation of London falls within its discretion, without liability of enactment. [No, I didn’t get that the first or third time around either. It has to do with parliament not having authority over the City.] To keep a watchful eye on all legislation passing through Parliament, and to safeguard its exclusive rights and privileges, the City of London has a permanent representative, called the City Remembrancer, who sits in Parliament beneath the Speaker’s chair to observe House of Commons proceedings. The Remembrancer is the City of London’s envoy. Should Parliament contemplate any legislation against the City’s interests, the Remembrancer is duty-bound to communicate such matters to his peers, whereupon it shall lie within the Guildhall’s purview to engage a City Sheriff to petition Parliament against any unsavoury bill.”

To explain how this happened, the New Statesman article says, “Over centuries, sovereigns and governments have sought City loans, and in exchange the City has extracted privileges and freedoms from rules and laws to which the rest of Britain must submit. The City does have a noble tradition of standing up for citizens’ freedoms against despotic sovereigns, but this has morphed into freedom for money.”

Britain being Britain, the City’s independence plays out in outdated costumes and obscure ceremonies that everyone performs as if they made sense. Again, the New Statesman:

Whenever the Queen makes a state entry to the City, she meets a red cord raised by City police [the City has its own police force; London’s police have no authority there unless they’re invited] at Temple Bar, and then engages in a col­ourful ceremony involving the lord mayor, his sword, assorted aldermen and sheriffs, and a character called the Remembrancer.” 

The surviving livery companies include the Worshipful Company of Mercers (its coat of arms looks like it was drawn by a twelve-year-old obsessed with blond-haired princesses; I looked for a unicorn but didn’t find one), the Worshipful Company of Tax Advisers, and the Worshipful Company of International Bankers.

No, I didn’t make any of that up. 

More than one government has tried to democratize the City. So far, they’ve all failed.

71 thoughts on “The City of London: Where medieval silliness meets modern finance 

  1. I knew hardly any of that. In fact, all that I really knew is that there’s a corporation, some aldermen and the City police. Worse, I didn’t even know that Westminster was called that to differentiate it from the east minster. I’m going to have to lie down in a darkened room for a couple of hours to get over it.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. The Lord Mayors show/procession (newly ‘elected’ City of London Mayor pops off to the palace to pledge loyalty to the monarch) used to be live on the BBC (probably as an integral part of your ‘Great British exceptionalism, aren’t we just so special’ brainwashing) when I was growing up. Don’t know if they still show it because I got beyond caring about watching horses pulling gold coaches with the people inside waving to the adoring serfs. https://lordmayorsshow.london/history/origins

    Liked by 2 people

  3. On the back of that article I guess you know more about London than most Londoners. It was very interesting but I am more con-fused than ever. I got the bit about increased London population resulted in massive sub-letting with more people being crammed into a smaller space. Pestering seems a superb way of describing it. When I first lived in London the population was 7 million and the place was borderline bearable. When I was priced out ten years ago the population was 8 million and the only thing you weren’t charged an arm and a leg for was breathing the toxic air (equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes a day). Now the population is 9 million (12 million by day). Anyone living in a cupboard size flat for a luxury priced rent under lockdown with neighbours from hell above, below and every side definitely knows about pestering.

    Liked by 4 people

    • If you’re confused, you probably understand the situation.

      A friend’s son and his partner live on a narrowboat and have to move every two weeks. It’s the only way they found that they could afford. I have a picture of them coming from a friend’s house/pub/whatever some night and looking at each other blankly and asking, “Where’d we park the boat?”

      Liked by 3 people

      • I have to say when I first moved to London and appalled at the joke rents (my husbands bed sit was the size of our bathroom up North) I researched every angle to find a reasonable place at a reasonable rent, obviously without success. I found the London-rent-blight extended about a hundred miles from the capital so to get a lower rent the saving would be wiped out by the price of the commute. Looking back I am sure there are some nice prisons which would give equivalent quality of life for free and without working for it. (I did look at houseboats but hubby vetoed although he did give serious consideration to an offer by his boss to allow us to live in a storeroom. A really generous offer).

        Liked by 3 people

        • The problem with prisons is access. And–what’s the equivalent word for leaving? Excess? Anyway, I don’t recommend them.

          I’m originally from New York, and after I left–oh, a hundred or so years ago–rents went so crazy that I could remember what people were paying. It was so insanely high that I was sure I’d misremembered it.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I once temped as a legal secretary for a criminal defence lawyer. Burglars didn’t get sent to jail until they had been caught about twenty times and then for only about 3 months – to perfect their skills I suppose. On that basis it is about as hard to get into prison as it is to find affordable accommodation in London. I don’t know what you have to do to get a sentence of one year which gives you priority for council housing when you leave.

            Liked by 2 people

            • Okay, I did a quick troll through what Lord Google knows about housing people who’ve been released from prison, and enough of them are homeless that hostels and night shelters comes up pretty quickly. With so little council housing available, getting on a priority list–well, as we used to say in New York, that and fifteen cents will get you on the subway.

              Not that fifteen cents will get you anywhere near the subway anymore. https://england.shelter.org.uk/housing_advice/homelessness/your_situation/ex-prisoners_get_help_if_youre_homeless

              Like

              • The housing situation is an ongoing increasing catastrophe. I read recently there has been an upsurge in pensioners becoming homeless as their fixed incomes cannot cope with extortionate rent rises. Among others. Housing seems to be the exception to increased demand leading to increased supply. Desperate needs sets competing groups against each other instead of focusing on the structural failure. Pestering as a word describing the situation is apt.

                Liked by 2 people

              • Exactly–if you (using you in the most generic possible way) can only let one group compete against another, and then blame each other for taking what should be yours, no one will blame you for not building enough housing.

                Liked by 1 person

  4. I have an opposition to politics and history, and didn’t expect to actually enjoy the post. Now, after a few chuckles (and not much that I can safely paraphrase without going back and rereading, or making a fool of myself) I wonder if my lifestanding disinterest in history would have been different had I had a teacher like you. I actually look forward to your posts, and even check previous ones if I miss any.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Sounds like The City is akin to the Vatican and Rome.

    Trade and Finance. What I had learned is that the difference goes back to Roman times when money was a difficult thing to take from empire to empire. Trade referred to goods brought in from outside the empire for which it would be “traded” for other goods that would be taken out of the empire. Finance referred to transactions in the same market where the coin was exchanged for goods. The reason, from what I learned, was the Finance was taxed, Trade was not. So a merchant dealing in Finance would have to pay taxes to the empire, while a merchant (could be the same person) could Trade without having to pay taxes on the transaction.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Another little snippet for you. Epping Forest, near my home, was designated as a Royal Forest in the 12th century by Henry II and stayed that way until 1878, when the Epping Forest Act transferred management to the City of London Corporation, and it ceased to be ‘royal.’ Shortly after, Queen Vic designated it as a forest for all her people. No doubt my forebears were ecstatic. There is still a Royal Forester pub near Chingford, though I doubt any of the toffs visit it these days.

    Not funny, but of local interest for me 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    • A forest for all her people? In the context, that’s radical.

      How far from London is Epping Forest? I ask because I’m wondering how far the City of London’s interests and tentacles reached. I didn’t get into it, but I did read that they we instrumental in settling Protestants in Northern Ireland, which you’d have thought was a bit outside the city walls.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Who knew Queen Vic was a socialist before she bequeathed her name to a pub in Walford?

        I’m guessing here, but I live in Epping, which is just over 20 miles from central London and is at the northern end of the forest. I think the forest stretches about 12 miles south of here, which would make it 7 or 8 miles from the City. Quite a long trek in earlier days, before they built the Central Line.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. Somewhere in “A Christmas Carol” Dickens refers to the fact that Scrooge “had about him as little fancy as any man in the city of London, including – which is a bold word – the Corporation. Aldermen, and Livery.”
    I always enjoyed reading that sentence when I read the story out loud, and now I know what it means !

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Who would have thought that Alice in Wonderland wasn’t fiction after all and that guilds were little more than a protection racket? The next thing you’ll be telling us, Ellen, is that the monarchy isn’t there for the benefit of the citizenry. On my first work-related trip to London I met with The Worshipful Company of Information Technologists. Three of their number have become Lord Mayors of London. https://www.wcit.org.uk/members/anon/new.html?destination=%2Findex.html

    Liked by 2 people

  9. This is so interesting. And so English. I never knew any of this (or have long forgotten if I did). I just thought the City was London’s equivalent of Wall Street. Heh. And I never did know who the Lord Mayor was (and never looked it up either). I am enriched!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Sorry, I’m confused. The City has a lord mayor and the city has a mayor? Is the City part of England or could it have escaped Brexit? Can City residents vote in local, non-city elections? (That may be an extra-dumb question. I don’t know if you have the equivalent of a state election there.)

    Liked by 2 people

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