I remember when I moved into my freshman dorm at Harvard, and there was a list on my pillow of everyone who had lived in my room since 1804. (Nobody famous, but Ralph Waldo Emerson had lived down the hall.)

I’m reminded of this as I look at the list of the Lord Mayors of London. It’s kind of boggling to imagine being elected to an office that stretches back in an unbroken line to 1189. (Well, the elections go back to 1215. The two guys before that were appointed.) I won’t count them myself, but Wikipedia says almost 700 individuals have served.

Stop and think about that for a moment. Monarchical dynasties come and go; they overthrow each other, die out, pass to collateral lines. Sometimes they even get abolished and re-instituted. And those who occupy thrones are put there by birth, not by merit. I’m less impressed by that than I am by this, a tradition of annual elections stretching back nearly 800 years.

This is the kind of thing that makes me realize how American I am. We’ve had forty-three presidents over 219 years. Whoop-de-doo. 219 years is an eyeblink, by the standards of European history.

Brits think 100 miles is a long distance, and Americans think 100 years is a long time.

Back I go to making a list of the aldermen of London in 1640 — another institution that’s been around for eight centuries or so.

Edited to add: I also get brief flashes of what it’s like to be a historian, reading meaning between the lines of incredibly boring information. List of aldermen? Boring as hell. But then you notice things like the sudden turnover in 1649, the year they cut the king’s head off. Normally there were maybe one or two vacancies in a year; maybe four or five, maybe none. The list for 1649? Stretches nearly four pages. John Smith of the Drapers’ Company was selected for Walbrook on June 12th, sworn in the 19th; on June 20th they selected William Nutt of the Grocers’ Company. He got sworn in on July 10th, four days before the selection and swearing-in of Hugh Smithson from the Haberdashers. Smithson in turn lasted five days, to be succeeded by William Bond, also of the Haberdashers, who made it all the way to 1650 before vanishing. And that’s not the worst of it; Cornhill Ward alone went through nine aldermen in 1649.

I know seven aldermen were forcibly booted for Royalist sympathies, but I don’t know why the rest of them had the political lifespan of mayflies. What aspect of the unrest had them coming and going in a matter of days?

The list doesn’t say. But it raises the question, and I think that’s how historical inquiry gets started.

Edit #2: Also, my apologies to Richard Martin of the Goldsmiths, who is apparently the real-life individual I booted off the historical stage when I made Deven’s father the alderman for Farringdon Within. (There was a limit to my historical accuracy, but you have to dig pretty far to find it.)

Since Martin got to be Lord Mayor in 1589, I’ll just pretend he was busy with that instead.

0 Responses to “tradition”

  1. diatryma

    I am now research-wibbling. This is really cool.

  2. sartorias

    I’m still back at the Harvard record keeping, and the list on your pillow. How very cool is that?

  3. m_stiefvater

    It’s one of the reasons I chose to major in UK history instead of American history at a school that had a very strong American history program and a . . . not so strong British one. Something about the . . . gravitas of all that history, the weight of all those years, just seemed to make it more important to study it.

    And going over there and visiting some of the historical places was even more incredible. Standing someplace like Sterling Castle where so much had happened . . . just incredible.

    • Marie Brennan

      I don’t know that I would say it’s more important, but I know that I find it a lot more interesting.

      • m_stiefvater

        Well — yes — I just meant, it seemed more important to me. Obviously the fate of history will not rest upon whether or not I study it or not. 😉

        Awww, now you’re making me miss my history papers and reminding me of what a geek I am. I want to go read my primary sources again! (I have an embarrassing number of them still on my shelf and I’m guessing you do too)

  4. unforth

    Neat stuff! It reminds me why I wanted to be a historian…and simultaneously why I don’t want to be any more. 😉

    And one of those 17th century Lord Mayors is a direct ancestor of mine, or so my dad says, though I can’t recall which. 😉

  5. dsgood

    “Americans think 100 years is a long time.” The house where I spent much of my childhood (1940s-1950s) was of uncertain age — the courthouse had burned down in 1849, and the records were lost.

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