Friday, October 07, 2022

Caroline Pidgeon cannot drive sheep over London Bridge

Congratulations to Caroline Pidgeon, leader of the Liberal Democrat group on the London Assembly since 2018, who has been awarded the Freedom of the City of London.

Sadly, despite what is widely believed, this honour does not bring with it the right to drive sheep over London Bridge.

As Murray D. Craig, Clerk of the City's Chamberlain’s Court, once explained:

Can you take sheep over London Bridge?

The answer is no because the City of London Police are not keen on this custom in the 21st century. This is not altogether surprising because of all the busses, taxies, commuters, Boris cyclists and anti-capitalist protestors crossing London Bridge and while it is an amusing thought of Freemen in smocks and crooks and Little Bo Peeps, it would cause absolute traffic chaos!

We laugh at the custom today but in the Middle Ages it was a very different story - it was a valuable economic privilege. It was not so much that you could take sheep over the bridge but that you did not pay the toll. You would be taking the sheep to the Wool Exchange or Smithfield Meat Market for sale and not paying the toll would considerably enhance your profit margin.  

You could take cattle, pigs, hens, ducks, geese - indeed any livestock over the bridge and not pay the tariff but in the medieval period the sheep was queen of the beasts because the wool and cloth trade was the bedrock of the English economy. It is said that as more sheep went over the bridge than any other animals put together that the bridge was built and maintained on the back of the sheep.

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