Sometimes when Walking the City one is pleasantly surprised to encounter a ceremony taking place outside one of London’s historic buildings. Whatever is being commemorated usually gets added colour from members of the City’s Guilds in their livery.
However, what happened on Monday was no surprise. I had received a formal invitation to attend the ancient custom of presenting a rose to the Lord Mayor. Not any old rose but one from the garden of All Hallows by the Tower – a gem of a church with delights such as its Saxon arch, a Roman pavement and a crows’ nest from Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition’s boat “Quest”. Along with several other City Guides, I have the great pleasure of leading complimentary public tours of this church during the busy summer months. But that’s a story for another blog.
The Knollys Rose Ceremony is a revival of a medieval custom in which a rose is given as payment for a fine. It is organised by the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames and by the vicar and wardens All Hallows.
The ceremony dates back to 1381 and came about thanks to Sir Robert Knollys and his wife Constance. Knollys was abroad fighting alongside John of Gaunt, so leaving Constance in charge of their rather grand house on Seething Lane. During her husband’s absence, Constance became increasingly vexed about the chaff dust blowing in from the threshing ground opposite their house. So she bought the threshing ground and turned it into a rose garden.
Most of us would have left the matter there. However Constance didn’t like the idea of soiling her footwear in London’s filthy medieval streets so to get back and forth between house and garden she had a footbridge built across the lane. Yes even 600 years ago women had a thing about shoes. Unfortunately, medieval councils also had a thing - about building consent. Constance hadn’t bothered to seek planning permission for her bridge, so leaving Robert and herself open to some dire fourteenth century punishment. However the council took account of her husband’s gallant service for his country. They not only allowed the bridge to remain – “to make an haut pas at the height of fourteen feet” - but imposed only a nominal fine of one red rose per annum to be presented to the Lord Mayor. The footbridge has long since disappeared, but the payment of the fine remains a City tradition.
Yesterday the six hundred and thirty second rose was plucked by the Master of the Watermen and Lightermen. After a short speech welcoming everyone and assuring us that he had permission to “vandalise” the garden of All Hallows Church, the Master ceremoniously laid the flower on a velvet cushion held by the vicar. It was duly secured with a pin. All Hallows has pitched in because the normal source of the rose, Seething Lane gardens, is currently undergoing reservation.
Then the Company, the Knollys’ family and we assorted guests weaved our way through the sunny City streets. The liverymen, bearing oars and decked out in skirted scarlet tunics and breeches, spotless white gloves and stockings, and black buckled shoes were “clocked” by City workers, taxi drivers and tourists. Eventually we reached Mansion House where the Lord Mayor was waiting for the annual fine to be paid.
Clutching my invitation I was then welcomed with the rest of the party into the Georgian palace. Up the stairs adorned with Dutch and Flemish 17th Century Paintings and then into a chamber lit by a stunning chandelier. Here The Rt Hon The Lord Mayor, Roger Gifford accompanied by The Lady Mayoress, Dr Clare Gifford, received the rose with solemn dignity and rounded off the occasion with an amusing and well researched acceptance speech.
I’ve captured the event here on camera. What other intriguing City ceremonies have you witnessed?