Tomorrow is the Lord Mayor’s Show – and 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of this annual London pageant (which, by the way, has nothing to do with the Mayor of London – that’s only been a thing since 2000; this is to do with the Lord Mayor of the City of London, an office which dates back to the twelfth century). I’ve been delving into the history of this – it includes disputes between Livery Companies, broken legs, plague outbreaks and James Bond – and the resulting article can be seen on Londonist:
One thing that I didn’t have space for was the tale of one of London’s most controversial Lord Mayors. John Wilkes (1727-97) was an eighteenth century radical politician who makes today’s lot seem rather tame – for a start, he was a member of the notorious Hell Fire Club. As well as being an MP, he published a weekly anti-government newsletter which was closed down for libel after insulting George III. This episode saw Wilkes expelled from Parliament but he became a popular hero after the actions taken by the government in arresting people involved in publishing the paper were judged to be unconstitutional (popular in England at any rate; Wilkes was loathed north of the border on account of his violently anti-Scottish rhetoric). After fleeing the country, he was (in his absence) found guilty of obscenity after publishing a pornographic poem. When he returned, he was locked up for two years and then tried to get re-elected to Parliament; despite getting voted in three times they refused to allow him to take his seat.
He subsequently became a City alderman and was elected Lord Mayor in 1774; the Lord Mayor’s Show of that year was accompanied by riots and there were apparently many empty seats at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet because lots of respectable politicians and noblemen who didn’t want to be associated with him boycotted the event. He’s also credited with one of the finest political put-downs – when Lord Sandwich, an opponent, said to him that he would most likely die either on the gallows or from a sexually-transmitted disease, he replied: “That depends, my lord, on whether I embrace your lordship’s principles or your mistress”. Coming in a close second is his response to a constituent who said that he would rather vote for the devil, to which Wilkes replied: “Naturally. And if your friend decides against standing, can I count on your vote?”
There’s a statue of him on Fetter Lane in the City. It is said to be the only cross-eyed statue in London – an accurate depiction if the contemporary prints of Wilkes are anything to go by.