The history of the role of Mayor and Lord Mayor
The word ‘mayor’ comes from the Latin ‘maior’ meaning ‘the greater.’ Now we use the term for the head of the elected council of a city or borough. As the word has changed, so has the Mayor’s role in the community. The first Mayor was probably London’s which dates back to about 1191. By the middle of the 13th century most boroughs appointed a Mayor.
Mayor of Chester
Historians long believed that the office of the Mayor of Chester began in 1237-8. This was when the last Norman Earl of Chester died and the Earldom was taken over by the Crown. Research however, suggests that the first known Mayor of Chester was William the Clerk. He may have held office as early as c.1229, but the first dated reference to the Mayor of Chester does not appear until 15 July 1244. In a Patent Roll, it mentions that an un-named Mayor and others of Chester were asked to lend a sum of money to the Justice of Chester for “the grievance of the King’s enemies in North Wales.”
Mayors of this time were generally selected by the burgesses or leading citizens. They wanted someone to act as leader. Unlike today, there were no set rules for choosing a Mayor and Mayors had no fixed term of office. They served as long as they were thought capable and acceptable. Their role was to govern the social and economic life of the community. They passed local laws and were in charge of enforcing law and order.
Edward I’s charter of 1300, defined mayoral authority in Chester. Crown pleas were to be tried before the Mayor in the Crownmote Court. This court dealt with serious crimes, unlike the Portmote Court. This dealt with property matters, trespass and debt offences. The Mayor also presided over the Portmote Court. From 1354 he was also to act as Escheator. This meant that he collected money from estates which had reverted to the Crown and from feudal land after a tenant had died without heirs.
It was not until Henry VII’s Great Charter of 1506 that there was any major change to the role of Chester’s Mayor. The Charter laid out the process for electing the Mayor. Every year the citizens were to vote for aldermen and councilmen, who made up the Assembly, the ancestor of the present day City Council. The aldermen then voted for the Mayor. In practice the Assembly itself elected men to fill any vacancies. The qualifications to be Mayor were to be:
“sufficient, discreet and honourable.”
Enabling him to admit freemen, enrol apprentices and act as Clerk of the Market. The Mayor, as Justice of the Peace, was also responsible for control of labourers, craftsmen and beggars. His importance was shown by the sword which was carried upright before him, except in the presence of Royalty.
Admiral of the Dee
The Charter also confirmed the regulation of the River Dee. This allowed them,
“The searching of the water of Dee from a certain place callled the Iron Bridge to another place called Arnold’s Eye.”
Admiralty powers were originally granted to Chester in 1354 by the Black Prince. These allowed the Mayor to be ‘Admiral of the Dee’, a title the Lord Mayor still has today.
16th Century onward
By the mid 16th century people were showing a reluctance to hold office, owing to the expense and other problems. A ruling in 1550 forced any who refused office to be fined £100 and those who tried to avoid office, £10.
During the Civil War government in Chester was thrown into turmoil. The siege of Chester by the Parliamentary forces in the Civil War forced the Mayor to be subject to a Royalist Military Governor. This office was held in 1643-44 by Sir Nicholas Byron and later by his nephew, Lord John Byron. Following the city’s surrender in February 1646, a Parliamentary Governor, Colonel Jones was appointed. The Mayor of Chester, Charles Walley, refused to sign the articles of surrender. He was fined and stripped of his authority.
In the 18th century the Mayoralty and the City Assembly declined in importance. Commissioners were appointed to carry out duties normally done by the Mayor. This continued until the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act was passed. This Act established the framework of modern local government. Now ratepayers were to elect councillors and the councillors elected the Mayor and aldermen. Full time paid officials were to carry out the decisions of the elected members. During the 19th century additional responsibilities were given to councils such as Chester and local government became larger and more complex. Over the years there have been many changes to the Council’s jurisdiction and responsibilities. A major reorganisation of local government took place in 1974. In that year a Petition by Chester Council led to the Queen granting the City a new charter. Chester became a District Council, but the Queen, by Letters Patent, gave Chester the status of a City.
Now, the Mayor is Chair of the Chester Charter Trustees and is neutral and non-political. Most of the Mayor’s modern responsibilities are ceremonial. The Mayor often attends as many as 15 functions a week. These can include event openings, military occasions and, sometimes, receiving royal visitors. All this is a far cry from the origins of the office 750 years ago.
The Lord Mayoralty
The status of Chester’s Mayor has recently been enhanced. On St Valentine’s Day 1992, it was announced that the Queen would grant Lord Mayoralty status to Chester. She presented the Letters Patent confirming this honour to Chester’s first Lord Mayor, Councillor Susan Proctor on 16 April 1992. Councillor Proctor was only the ninth woman to hold office. The first woman Mayor of Chester was Phyllis Brown in 1938/39.
The Lord Mayoralty was given to Chester in recognition of its historical and economic importance. The full title of the Mayor is now ‘The Right Worshipful, the Lord Mayor of the City of Chester’.
Chester shares this honour with only 24 other cities, which are: City of London, Westminster, Belfast, Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Canterbury, Cardiff, Coventry, Kingston-upon-Hull, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Norwich, Nottingham, Oxford, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Sheffield, Stoke-on-Trent, Swansea and York.