Menu Close

Echoes of the distant past in England’s modern battles to be mayor

Forced smiles? Sadiq v Zac. PA

The fight between Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan to be mayor of London following Boris Johnson’s eight-year reign has become increasingly ill-tempered. Johnson himself took over from Ken Livingston, who became the city’s first modern elected mayor in 2000. But the history of the role in British cities stretches much further back than that.

By the year 1200, larger towns throughout England were forming themselves into corporations run by a number of leading citizens, who then chose a representative leader. Most of the towns in the early 13th century who appointed their own mayor did so without royal intervention, making an important step towards representative local government. For these mayors were not merely ceremonial appointments. They had real power and stood up for the town – often against local magnates, the church, and the monarchy.

Many historians have recognised 29th September 1216 as the date on which Bristol, in south-west England got its first mayor, Adam le Page. But he was not the first person to be labelled as the town’s mayor by King John. Earlier in that same year John addressed a number of mandates to “the mayor of Bristol”, and named a certain Roger Cordwainer. Yet at this stage Bristol had not even been granted the legal right to have a mayor at all. In 1236, the people of Bristol petitioned the new king, Henry III, for permission to have a mayor elected and removable by the town, but were refused. So what was going on? How could the king in 1236 reject a plea for Bristol to have its own mayor, when his predecessor John had apparently addressed a mandate to Bristol’s mayor two decades previously?

It may have been connected to a lack of authority on the part of King John, who according to historian Professor Brendan Smith, deserved his “Robin Hood reputation” as a “bad king” who was weak, wicked, cowardly and grasping.

King John ‘the weak’. shutterstock

[Professor Smith]( expains: “Having signed the Magna Carta in 1215, King John reneged on the deal, prompting the country to revolt. "Losing ground to the rebels, the King spent part of his last year in Bristol, before dying of dysentery in Lincolnshire in October 1216. It was only when the Crown passed to his infant son, Henry III, that peace was restored.”

Historic records also show that in fact Roger Cordwainer was a valued confidant of King John, who looked after the king’s money depository in Bristol and organised shipments of the king’s wine. For most of his reign John was at odds with his barons and needed friends wherever he could find them, and Roger Cordwainer was one he seemed to rely on. So in that sense, he was probably not the first mayor to be independent of the king.

In the midst of all this conflict, double dealing and bloodshed, Bristol swiftly replaced Cordwainer with Adam le Page, a man chosen by the townsfolk themselves. But 1216 wasn’t the end of the story for Bristol. In the early years, its mayors, along with those of England’s other towns were not formally recognised by the Crown. The kings were wary of devolving power to people who might challenge their authority (although in practice, they were actually willing to deal with them).

Edward the devolver

Then in 1300, Edward I formalised the situation. The man who sought to unite Britain by conquering Wales and Scotland, was an unlikely devolver of power, but he decided to grant new charters to England’s towns, apparently in the hope that they would then be loyal to him. It was an astute move on his part, because if someone else became king, they might not recognise the rights he had already granted.

According to historian Evan Jones: “England’s medieval mayors were born in bloodshed and their powers came from desperation. But the events of the thirteenth century helped establish towns as independent corporations, governed by their citizens.

"Last year the English-speaking world celebrated the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta because the ‘great charter’ established the notion that people have rights. But changes in town governance at that time were equally important. They created the notion that leaders should be chosen by the people for the people. That made towns the cradles of democracy.”

Historic Bristol. JoeD/wikicommons, CC BY-SA

The appointment of mayors in towns and cities around the beginning of the 13th century was a major step in the development of representative local government which has repercussions today, and what happened in Bristol in 1216 is a significant example of this. George Ferguson will be trying to win a second term as mayor in Bristol in May, 800 years after his original predecessor got the job. He will no doubt be hoping for a smoother process.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 182,400 academics and researchers from 4,942 institutions.

Register now