Somethings never change. Take this true tale of Constance Knollys. When her husband went away on business she bought the adjacent lot and, without bothering with pesky planning permission, built a walkway on the land. Seems a reasonable thing to do to me. No big deal, everybody does it, don’t they? Well, it turned out to be rather a big deal after all. The Knollys’ got into trouble with the City of London Corporation and were punished. Now, now, before you begin huffing and puffing about the nanny state and the EU, I must tell you that this all happened in 1381. 1381!!! And why am I bothering with this story at all? No, not to prove that we have always loved a good regulation (right as that might be) but because the punishment was so charming we still celebrate it today. The annual Knollys Rose Ceremony. A proper passion of mine.
A little history first. Robert Knollys made a fortune looting and pillaging Brittany, France as an English warrior. When he retired, he bought a fancy house in what is now Seething Lane, the same place, centuries on, that the famous diarist Samuel Pepys lived. Knollys’ wife, Constance, was known as formidable. My kind of woman. And she wanted what she wanted. A footbridge to take her from her house to her garden. That doesn’t seem much to ask. Oh, but she didn’t ask. And that got her in trouble. There is no record of how her husband reacted, but given that he was such a rich and successful citizen, the punishment was never going to be onerous. It was a fine of one red rose, cut from her garden, to be presented to the Lord Mayor, once a year on the feast of St. John the Baptist. Once a year. Every year. Forever. Seriously, forever. And for 600 years the ceremony remained. A rose was cut and presented. But then, as things often do, the tradition fell away. Until Tubby Clayton, the charismatic and ever-organizing Vicar of All Hallows by the Tower revived the ceremony between the world wars. Today, the Worshipful Company of Watermen and Lightermen, the guild that moves people and goods along the river, orchestrate the event; I don’t know why. But who doesn’t love a rower in full period dress.
Until recently the rose was taken from the garden on Seething Lane. But since the building works at the former Port Authority, soon to be a Four Seasons Hotel, have closed/removed the garden, it all takes place in the garden at All Hallows, a fitting choice. As June can be a funny time for roses in England, a presentable rose is placed in the rose bush ahead of the ceremony, ready for the choosing. This year, thanks to some crazy weather, roses arrived early. But the set was staged nonetheless.
After some lovely coffee and chat in the church, we all shuffled into the garden, hoping the rain would hold off (it did.) The Master of the Watermen & Lightermen, surrounded by suitably attired company members, read a brief history of the ceremony and then, with great seriousness, “plucked” the rose from the bush and laid it on a pillow. To be carried solemnly to Mansion House and presented to the Lord Mayor. Who received it with pleasure.
“Why, why, why,” I hear you all shouting. “Because,” I will reply with authority. Because, how wonderful it is to remember something fun that happened 635 years ago. The world is a hard place. Take your roses when you can. With a pillow and dishy oarsmen, even better.