Tuesday 15 June 2010

On Calendar Customs, the Knollys Rose ceremony and 'Posh'

I've always been a sucker for calendar customs, especially in London. Whether it's a hot cross bun preserved for a widow's son lost at sea, or a blessing of sore throats near Holborn, if it happens once a year and has a bit of history, I'm there.

Which is why, last Monday, I found myself outside the church of All-Hallows-by-the-Tower, waiting for the Master of the Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames to emerge, cut a rose from the garden in Seething Lane, and take it on a velvet cushion to Mansion House, with an official escort of Thames boatmen, and an unofficial one of American tourists and people like me.

The Knollys Rose ceremony goes back originally to 1381, and owes its existence to Lady Constance Knollys, who owned houses on both sides of Seething Lane and built a footbridge between them. Because she hadn't obtained any kind of official permission, the Lord Mayor imposed a fine of a single red rose, payable once a year on the feast of St. John the Baptist.

These days, the ceremony's an excuse for a dinner and a photo-opportunity. The suited and behatted congregation make their way from the church to the garden, where the Master cuts the rose, assuring us that he has permission from the City Gardener to do so. The rose is then pinned on a velvet cushion and taken to an official dinner hosted by the Lord Mayor. The whole public part is over in about fifteen minutes and, on a nice day, it's quite pleasant.

(This, by the way, was not my first encounter with a Lord Mayor. In 1981, one of his predecessors presented the books at my school prize day. I'd selected a volume on 'Who Played Who in the Movies' with a cover picture of Theda Bara as Cleopatra. When it came to my turn, the Lord Mayor picked up the book, pointed to Bara's cleavage and said 'Well, what about that, then?' I'm still not sure what he expected me to say.)

The Master also made a small joke about Lady Knollys' punishment 'for failing to get the equivalent of planning permission - how times have changed!', which elicted an appreciative, Littlejohnesque murmur from the well-heeled guests. Of course, an annual rose is hardly punitive - it's barely a slap on the wrist. The story is less one of punishment, more of complicity between old pals. Lady Knollys is a medieval equivalent of those who complain because 'Elf and Safety' won't let them build an extension on their houses, or the dining-club boor of Laura Wade's Posh who tells a prostitute 'One would assume we pay you and you do whatever's required.'.

In this connection, a little history is instructive. Like most British traditions, the ceremony's a lot younger than it appears - it stopped in the seventeenth century, and was only re-established in 1924, soon after the First World War and the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which first brought in universal adult suffrage (for men, at any rate - most women still had to wait another ten years).

I begrudge no one their customs, and, lord knows, there are more important things to worry about, but you do at least have to wonder why, at that point in history, someone elected to revive a ceremony that is, when you get right down to it, about the entitlement of the rich and powerful to do whatever they damn well want.


  1. But why is it called Seething Lane?

    Incidentally, a few rich and powerful women were entitled to vote before 1832 when the Reform Act specified that all voters should be male.

  2. Theda Bara - now you're talking: http://previouslyowned.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/theda_bara.jpg