London and the City of London are two entirely separate places, connected with a strange and unique history. London is the metropolis at large, the entire urban region, home to 8.5 million people with an area of 600 square miles. On the other hand, the City of London measures just over one square mile and is home to only 8,000 people. Commonly referred to as the Square Mile, or simply The City, it is geographically located inside of, but not a part of, Greater London and enjoyed a history that pre-dates the English unification by a couple of hundred years.
At first glance, the two Londons might look the same, but take another look and you will realise that there are many differences to this economic powerhouse. They each have their own city hall, with their own Mayors who preside over their own police that protect their own laws and they issue their own taxes.
The City of London dates back to Roman times when it was known as Londinium. They erected a wall around the square mile to protect against barbarians. It was here that the city lived, worked and traded for hundreds of years until William the Conqueror briskly swept into power. Rather than try and go through the trouble of seizing the City, William instead agreed to a deal that would recognise City of Londoners' special rights and privileges in exchange for their recognition of the Crown as their sovereign. This tradition is reconfirmed by every new monarch, and inside parliament, the City has a special member, The Remembrancer, whose job is to protect the special status of the City. This means that laws made in parliament might not take legal effect in the City and has left some lucrative loopholes that allow for businesses to vote, and banks to reign supreme.
The City is steeped in ancient tradition and law that is so old, that it is governed by Time Immemorial, meaning it is so old, no one can remember when it started. With these laws and traditions, a many number of quirks still exist today. For example, the Queen isn’t allowed to simply enter the streets of the City. She must first ask the Lord Mayor for permission. When the Royal carriage is about to cross Temple Bar, the Sovereign is challenged by the Lord Mayor, the City Marshal and the Aldermen. The Lord Mayor steps forward carrying his Sword of State and offers it to The Queen, who stretches out her hand and touches it. By surrendering his sword, permission to enter the City is given and the cord stretched across the road marking the boundary is lowered.
This archaic procession bleeds to so many questions that we won't have time to answer. We'll tackle one though, what is the Temple Bar? It was a historic gate to the City, located on Fleet Street at the boundary of the City of Westminster and the City of London. It was used as a physical barrier to regulate trade into and out of the City. The baroque arch gateway (with an impressive dragon holding a shield) that was built on this spot has been moved to nearby Saint Paul’s Cathedral. In its place the Temple Bar memorial has been erected, this one sports an even scarier looking dragon holding the same shield.
It isn’t the only dragon you will find in London. In fact, if you look around you will find a plethora of dragons perched across the City. All of the former gates have small dragons guarding them, as well as bridges, churches, markets and memorials. They’re so important they’re on the crest of the City. Also on the crest is the flag of the City: an English cross with the sword that was said to have slain Saint Paul, who is the patron saint of the city.
And this is only scratching the surface. If you are interested in catching dragons, you can check out an entire Photo Essay we wrote about the Dragons of London.
And what off the Aldermen, City Marshals, Sheriffs, Common Serjeant, Town Clerk, Chamberlains, Common Cryer, Chief Commoner and the Ward Beadles? Not to mention the Wards, Guilds and Livery Companies? and why the City of London doesn’t need to pay accord to all English laws and why companies can vote? and while Greater London has only had a mayor since 2000, why has the City has had over 700 Lord Mayors dating back over 1000 years? Needless to say, the legal structure of the City of London Corporation is very complex, and a story for another time. As for now, let's look into some of the sights of the Square Mile.
There is a lot of history packed into the City and a quick walk around the square mile will surprise you, for it isn’t just banks. If you take a turn off Fleet Street down one of the many alleys, you might stumble across the haunt of Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain. There has been a pub at the location of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese since 1538 making it one of the oldest pubs in London. The current building was rebuilt shortly after the Great Fire of 1666.
For all of the skyscrapers of the financial district, the dominant feature on the horizon is undoubtedly the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. It was the tallest structure in all of London until only 1967 when it was surpassed by CityPoint. The Cathedral occupies a dominant position in the hearts of Londoners. Unlike most of the city, it survived the Blitz and was the centre of celebration and mourning in 1945. It continues today to be a focal point that it is today, hosting some of the biggest weddings and funerals such as Lady Diana’s wedding to Prince Charles.
The undisputed historical commercial centre of Britain, The Royal Exchange, has burnt down twice since its construction in 1571. Until the 17th century, it was only the exchange of goods that took place within. Stockbrokers were deemed to have “rude mannerisms” and were forced to trade elsewhere. Traditionally, the steps of the Royal Exchange is where Royal Proclamations (such as the dissolution of Parliament) are read out by herald or crier.
You will find the crest of the City further afield than just the Square Mile. The City built, operate and own the Tower Bridge. Despite being only slightly larger than a Square Mile itself, the City own and/or manage over 16 square miles (42 km squared) of open space, including, but not limited to, Epping Forest, Hampstead Heath and The City Commons.
In most people’s minds, the City of London is synonymous with big banks, business and a quasi-independence that separates it from the rest of the country. A soulless place lacking culture of heart. But they forget to be a real cockney, you need to have been born within earshot of Saint Mary-le-Bow. So it ain't all bees and honey in the rattle and clank. It is modernity seeped in tradition. It is the hidden corners brimming with stories untold, in the haunts of the pubs of old. And it has dragons, what more do I need to say.
Author : Alexander J.E. Bradley
Alexander is the founder of Aperture Tours which run tours in London and across the globe. A professional photographer for over a decade, Alexander enjoys shooting the surreal by mixing dreamlike qualities into his conceptual images.