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Eight centuries of elected mayors

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The Local Government Association’s Magna Carta webpages have recently featured a delightful homophone.

Among this summer’s many commemorative events will reportedly be “a programme of inciteful lectures and talks”.

Excellent; insight is for wimps. Rousing incitement is what’s needed if we’re to model today’s struggle for devolution on that of the 13th-century rebel barons.

Given the countless products being promoted around June’s 800th anniversary, from Jay Z’s free-to-smartphone album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, to the British Library’s ginger fudge, cynics might accuse the LGA of similar bandwagon-jumping.

However, Magna Carta contained much more local government than many realise. There’s a main local government clause about the City of London and “all other cities, boroughs, towns and ports” being assured all their “ancient liberties and customs”.

But there are also clauses 23-31. Although ostensibly about county farms, commandeering timber, and suchlike, they actually refer to malpractices of the king’s local agents. And clause 25, perhaps most relevantly to modern concerns, limits the financial burdens placed by the king on the counties.

Then there’s clause 48, empowering 12 knights elected in each county to abolish those malpractices as part of a wider local self-government campaign.

There’s an even better instance of early local self-government, though, in a less known contemporaneous charter that also contributed to the Runnymede agenda: the King’s Charter for London of 9 May 1215.

The London here is the famous Square Mile – today’s City of London Corporation – some of whose ancient liberties predated the Norman Conquest. From 1067, in exchange for supporting the king, these liberties were extended, including exemptions from certain taxes, right of trial by the City’s own courts, and the right to appoint civic officials.

Richard I (1189-99) was particularly indebted to Londoners, who funded his crusades and defended his cause against his baronial opponents. This earned them both a recognised body of self-government – a Norman-style ‘commune’, precursor of the City Corporation – and their own mayor instead of the king’s sheriff.  

Henry Fitz-Ailwin de Londonestone became the City’s first mayor in 1189 and served 24 terms – his longevity alone suggesting he was the King’s appointee, and probably his creditor. The appointment supposition is explicitly confirmed in the May 1215 charter, John’s desperate (and doomed) attempt to detach London from the baronial insurgency that would culminate in the Magna Carta.

In a key concession and, it seems, the first documented reference to a popularly elected mayor, the charter grants “to our barons of the City of London, that they may choose to themselves…every year a mayor”.

Eight centuries of elected mayors: whatever you think of them, that’s an anniversary surely worth commemorating.

Chris Game, honorary senior lecturer, Institute of Local Government Studies

An extended version of this article is available on the Inlogov blog


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