London and Britain is full of obscure ancient traditions and on Monday I bore witness to a ceremony that I did know about but never expected to see and it all has its foundations in events 619 years ago. As sometimes dirty as London is these days, in almost every way (except perhaps for air), it was infinitely more filthy in days gone by.
The Knollys Rose Ceremony is held in June each year and is organised by the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames. On that day one red rose will be plucked from the garden in Seething Lane and taken to the Mansion House on the altar cushion of All Hallows by the Tower, where it will be presented to the Lord Mayor.
The ceremony commemorates an ancient City judgement dating from 1381. Sir Robert Knollys owned a house on Seething Lane. He was sent abroad to fight alongside John of Gaunt. While he was away, his wife, Constance, is reputed to have become annoyed with the chaff dust blowing from the property opposite their house which was being used as threshing ground. As anyone super-rich would do, Constance bought the offending property and turned it into a rose garden.
Constance also built a footbridge over the lane to avoid the mud, but without the equivalent of planning permission. The penalty was that a red rose ‘rent’ from the garden had to be paid annually to the Lord Mayor. The rose payment was no more than a peppercorn rent, a symbolic fine upon Sir Robert, a leading citizen and a successful and respected soldier.
For this payment permission was given “to make an haut pas of the height of 14 feet” across the lane. The footbridge has long since disappeared, but the legal requirement for the payment of this quit-rent has been established as one of the City’s traditions.
This year’s Ceremony took place on Monday 17 June at 11am where I just happened to be with two tourists on my Sacred Secret Gardens and Ruins Walk. The ceremony begins in Seething Lane Gardens, when one red rose is plucked and carried on the All Hallows By The Tower church altar cushion to Mansion House to be presented to the Lord Mayor.
Due to a small fire in the kitchen of Mansion House a few days earlier, a last minute change was made for the entire ceremony to take place in All Hallows Church.
I took the opportunity to put together a very hasty video, sitting as we politely did at the very rear of the church though in truth, we could have sat right at the front. That’s what good manners gets you!