The City – Square Mile

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Historically, London has always been split into two distinct districts – The City, or Square Mile, which deals with financial matters, and Westminster – which is the political heart of Britain.

Back in the 1700s there was close to a quarter of a million people in the City, but it dwindled down to 8,000 as the homes were replaced by corporate office blocks.

The number of workers who arrive by day is close to 300,000 – but they all tend to disappear by 5.30. If you visit during the weekend, then you’ll find it eerily empty.

The City of London

The City stands on the ancient site of Roman Londinium and was built in 43 AD. It was originally protected by a long wall that stretched right around the city limits. Small parts of it are still visible at St. Alphage, and near the Museum of London.

The wall extended westwards to the Victoria Embankment, and then east along the Strand and Fleet Street. Then it runs north to Chancery Lane and Camden. After Islington it goes to Aldersgate and Goswell Road, and once it reaches Tower Hamlets it turns south into Bishopsgate. It then ends at the river, near the Tower of London.

The Romans pulled out in 410 AD, and the Saxon Kings arrived two hundred years later. When Edward the Confessor moved his base to Westminster it quickly grew in power until it had its own mayor and aldermen.

Power ebbed and flowed between Westminster and the City, with the City always coming out on top when there was a war to be fought. Most of the King’s money stemmed from City business, so the monarch had to play along. There was even a time when the King was barred from entering the city limits at all!

Lord Mayor of London

The first Lord Mayor of London was Henry Fitzailwyn, way back in 1189 – but he was chosen by the monarch. It wasn’t until 1215 that the City got to choose their own.

The voters were selected from the various livery guilds that represented the main trades in town. The twelve original guilds were as follows: Mercers, Grocers, Drapers, Fishmongers, Goldsmiths, Skinners, Merchant Tailors, Haberdashers, Salters, Ironmongers, Vintners and Clothworkers. Many more have been added down the years – the latest one being ‘Information Technicians’ in 1992.

Believe it or not the same vote still takes place today, on the 29th September of every year (Michaelmas Day). The winner straight away becomes the most important person in the City – second only to the monarch. He also gets an automatic entry into the Privy Council, and theoretical access to the King or Queen. (This aspect of the role, however, has been much diluted down the years, and the Mayor has no political power.)

Two days after the swearing in, the Mayor holds a grand banquet at the Guildhall, attended by the major political figures in Westminster. It has become customary in recent years for the Prime Minister to make a speech outlining Britain’s place in world affairs.

[N.B.: It should be noted that the Lord Mayor is not the same post as the Mayor of London. The Lord Mayor just deals with the Square Mile, but the other one watches over the entire expanse of Greater London.]

The Guildhall, Bank of England, and Royal Exchange

The Guildhall has been the seat of municipal power since 1192. It was built by the Guilds in 1411, and demolished in the Great Fire of 1666, and once again during the Blitz. The only part that remains today is the porch, and walls of the hall. The rest has been rebuilt in modern times.

The Lord Mayor is elected every year in the Great Hall, and visitors can see the banners and liveries of the original City Guilds hanging on the walls. There are also statues to the great and good: Admiral Nelson, Winston Churchill, and the Duke of Wellington – to name but a few.

The building also boasts the oldest surviving medieval crypt in London, and a very fine library – containing centuries-old documents relating to the City. This was founded in 1420, under the terms of Dick Whittington’s will.

The Bank of England was established in the 17th-century to fund James II’s war against the French. The Bank’s main role today is to oversee the printing and issuing of currency, supervise the nation’s banking establishments, and set interest rates up and down the country.

The Royal Exchange is a fine building, with eight Corinthian colonnades. It was originally built in 1567, and destroyed in the Great Fire of London. It fell down again in 1838, and the building that you see today dates from the reign of Queen Victoria.

The celebrated Lloyd’s of London building was designed by Richard Rogers in 1986. His simple idea was to place all of the building’s inner-workings on the outside (a feat he repeated at the Pompidou Centre, in Paris). So the air-vents, ducts and elevators can be seen snaking their way to the roof.

Sadly, the building is not open to the public.

Temple Bar, and Temple Church

The Temple Bar monument marks the western edge of the City. It originally stood just outside the city walls, and separated the center of trade from the political heart of England – Westminster.

The first bar was literally just a chain attached to two bits of wood but this was replaced by a stone gateway in 1351, and rebuilt by Christopher Wren in 1670.

The steady increase in horse and cart traffic on Victorian roads led to complaints that Temple Bar was becoming a bottleneck. So in 1878 it was taken down and a stone memorial was put in place, marking the spot where the ancient gate once stood.

Temple Church dates back to 1185 and was built by the Knights Templar, a group of military monks who fought in the Crusades.

The Knights were a famously secretive sect, and had political power far and above their official status. They were originally formed to protect pilgrims as they travelled to the Holy Land, but sidelined out to take the land back for the Christians.

Eventually the Templar’s wealth fell foul of the Pope, and they were forcefully disbanded in 1312. The Temple grounds then passed to the Knights Hospitaller, who leased it to lawyers.

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  • josh – “Sure there are some awful new buildings, but you can say that about any city. But the city of London is packed full of old classic buildings. St pauls, the tower of London, tower bridge.. There is plenty of good stuff around if you look for it. You just have to avoid the bits where workers like holborn because that is just boring offices. Stick to the area around fleet street and the tower of London and there is plenty of good stuff to enjoy.”

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If you enjoy this then try: Bank of England (you can walk it in less than 2 mins); Guildhall (you can walk it in 6 mins); Mansion House (you can walk there in less than 1 min); Royal Exchange (you can walk there in less than 1 min) and St. Paul’s Cathedral (you can walk it 10 mins).

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