The Guildhall in the City of London can be one of the overlooked attractions of the great metropolis. Possibly because it is hidden from the main streets or simply regarded as an administration centre for the Square Mile, the oldest part of London and the enigmatic area run by the Corporation of London. The City of London is not a borough like the other London districts; it’s a business area with its own laws, police force, voting system and very small residential population compared to the thirty two other London boroughs. The Guildhall is a great place to chart the history of the city, the wider country and even Europe and beyond……
I have read Guildhall, City of London, History Guide Companion by Graham Greenglass & Stephen Dinsdale published in 2018 by Pen & Sword History. Graham is a London black cab driver, a history graduate and tour guide, Stephen is also a guide and works in TV and theatre production. Armed with their well thumbed book, digested six months earlier, I headed off to the Guildhall using their book as my companion. This, I believe, may have been their intention….
So you want to start at the beginning, which is why I headed straight to the remains of the Roman Amphitheatre. The remains lie below the Guildhall Art Gallery on the east side of the impressive courtyard. The theatre is evidence of the Roman city from around two thousand years ago. Visible are parts of the walls, gates, the tunnel entrance and wooden drains. Drains for the animals and poor soul’s blood that were killed in gladiatorial combat....Brutal....
Life size graphics are used to create gladiators or possibly athletes? There is also representation of the seating for 6,000 spectators. It is well done and the sense of history of people being there two thousand years ago grabs the visitor.
The place disappeared with the collapse of the Roman Empire in 400AD only to be discovered when the art gallery was rebuilt in the 1980’s.
The gallery opened in 1999. An interesting collection hangs on the walls. The art spans many years. The picture which grabbed my attention were Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar by American artist, John Singleton Copley, a painting so large it may have taken four years to complete, 1779 to 1783. Clearly relating to the Gibraltar campaign when 5,000 British troops repulsed a Spanish and French force of 65,000. The picture is so large it hangs in a specially constructed area between two floors. The cute little girl, Sermon, pictures warrant attention too, along with the Rossetti’s in a collection that is very wide ranging.
The Lord Mayors of London feature in the book, as would be expected. John Wilkes is one of the more colourful characters. Taxi drivers pass his statue in Fetter Lane each and every day. He was Lord Mayor in 1774, a radical politician who was a member of parliament, a writer of articles, some considered seditious libel and landed him in jail for a while, although many of his supporters campaigned for his release. He was a member of Sir Francis Dashwood’s notorious Hellfire Club, famous for its well-to-do rakes and hell raisers. A duelist said to be witty and charming and a serial womaniser although he was often referred to as “the ugliest man in England”.
He reminds me of a current politician who has unleashed mayhem in our politics, yet appears to survive and prosper.
Pantomime hero Dick Whittington, or more formally, Richard Whittington, was Lord Mayor on four occasions under kings, Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V, in the years 1397, 1397-8, 1406-7 and 1419-20. Whittington is said to have lent Henry V money to fund the war against France that saw victory at the Battle of Agincourt. King Henry praised him as a good subject. Whittington responded by throwing the King’s bonds of debt onto the fire in the Great Hall at the Guildhall while a banquet was taking place. The City saw opportunities in military victories as good for commerce and relations with the monarchy.
The pantomime bears little reality to Whittington’s real life. Although he did marry an Alice Fitzwarin, he hailed from a wealthy family in Gloucestershire, trained as a mercer in the City and eventually became a money lender. Upon his death much of his fortune was left to charity as he and Alice had no children.
Turning again to the Great Hall, Whittington is honored in its wonderful stained glass windows along with other noted characters. Sculptures of Churchill, Nelson and Wellington are housed in the Great Hall where council meetings are still held and roof interior has the banners of the livery companies hanging from the rafters. There is an order of precedence for the Livery Companies which is as follows:
Mercers – Luxury fabric and accessories
Grocers – originally ‘pepperers’ who dealt in spices
Drapers – woollen clothFishmongers
Merchant Taylors – tailors (interesting spelling, authors thought)
Skinners – fur
Haberdashers – ribbons, gloves, caps and hats
Salters – salt
Vintners – wine
Clothworkers – cloth preparation
I never knew there was a hierarchy with the companies, but it has certain logic to it factoring in products of medieval times…..
Gog & Magog look over the Great Hall from a balcony above the west door. These fearsome sculptures date from 1953 replacing ones destroyed during the Blitz of World War ll. Gog & Magog are mythical guardians of London, warriors of Roman Britain, here to protect the ‘New Troy’.
Leaving the Great Hall visitors will look out onto Guildhall Yard. A splendid piazza, a plaza as good as any in Europe, the word yard does not seem to do it justice. Venturing forth, on the south west corner of the yard is the church of St. Lawrence Jewry, so called because it is located in an area where Jews lived until being expelled in 1290. The stained glass windows are the overwhelming attraction of this church. It is worth spending a little time inside seeing the saints and one window of the little known William Grocyn. He was vicar here from 1496 until 1517. A friend of Thomas More and a Greek scholar, he reintroduced the language for study. Erasmus is quoted on the window, calling him ‘The patron and preceptor of us all’.
The final place to visit is the City of London Police Museum. It isn’t big, but then, it does tell the story of the smallest police district in the world.
Exhibits of uniforms, weapons and equipment are placed in glass cases and there are plenty of photographs and written information. The history of the City Police is all there from Charlies and Watchmen to the more familiar present day. I gleaned around 1837 all men who lived in the City had to serve one year as a Watchman. There are official police notes and paperwork concerning Jack the Ripper and one of his victims Catherine Eddowes, who was murdered in Mitre Square on the eastern edge of the City. The museum, as stated earlier, is very small so not too much time is needed to visit.
Time spent in the Guildhall and its environs is illuminating and thought provoking. Graham and Stephen’s guide is invaluable for getting the most from your visit. I find the City enigmatic with its power, influence and politics that could draw comparisons with Rome and the Vatican City state. The guidebook diplomatically sidesteps my reservations. The City is like no other place in England with a voting system that gives businesses votes and has Aldermen, Councilmen rather than Councillors plus a Lord Mayor. The Lord Mayor’s show is the archaic embodiment of the City’s removed existence from the wider country. Set foot there, ask questions and you begin to scratch the surface of something very different….