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.