IIn the shadow of the Bank of England, in the beating heart of the City of London, workers are jet-washing a statue of the Duke of Wellington. Mobilized after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, they prepare the mall known as the Square Mile to stage an unprecedented event in the lives of all but the oldest veterans of the city.
In less than 24 hours, at the Royal Exchange, Charles III will be publicly proclaimed the new sovereign of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This will be the second proclamation ceremony of the day. Membership must first be confirmed at St James’s Palace, before heralds travel east to inform the City of London of their new monarch.
Just yards from where these events will take place, a steady stream of striped commuters is suddenly interrupted, to allow the passage of a convoy of military vehicles carrying giant artillery cannons to the Tower of London, ready for Saturday’s 62-gun salute.
As they parade, the bells of the city’s many churches ring out, muffled with mourning, to mark the passing of a monarch who presided over sweeping changes in Britain’s centuries-old commercial nerve center.
With a history dating back 1,000 years, the City – a ceremonial county distinct from London itself – is one of the few institutions that can claim a legacy almost as long and storied as that of the crown.
London’s first Lord Mayor, Henry fitz Ailwin of Londonstane, assumed the title in 1189 after Richard I granted greater autonomy to a cabal of businessmen whom he hoped to raise funds for the crown.
Today, the position elected annually at the head of the City of London Corporation, which governs the Square Mile, is partly ambassador, standard bearer of the financial center of the capital. But more than that, it gives the holder a seat on the Membership Council, the group of dignitaries tasked with proclaiming the new monarch.
This momentous task for its current 693rd incumbent, Vincent Keaveny, a commercial lawyer by trade, reflects the city’s enduring importance, not just as a global trading hub, but as part of the fabric of British history, one that made the Queen a regular visitor.
It was at the home of the City of London Corporation, the Guildhall, that she gave her famous ‘annus horribilis’ speech in 1992, lamenting the fire that had ravaged Windsor Castle a few days earlier and the marital woes of their children. Two decades later, she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee at nearby Mansion House.
By then, the city had changed dramatically since its rise in 1952, when it was still recovering from the devastation of the blitz of war.
David Buik, 78, a seasoned financial expert and former trader, recalls that the rebuilding was still going on when he entered the city for his first day on the job on September 18, 1962.
“When I first came out of Barbican station it was a bombing site,” he said. “What she did was bring a spirit of hope and aspiration to the business community, because she sparked a spirit of friendship and innovation.”
The tallest building in London at the start of Elizabeth II’s reign was St Paul’s Cathedral, at just over 111 metres. Today, the city is home to nearly 100 buildings that span over 100 metres, including the Gherkin, Heron Tower and the 278-metre 22 Bishopsgate.
This physical transformation goes hand in hand with the City’s stratospheric growth as a global financial center, catalyzed by events such as the abolition of exchange controls in 1979 and the Big Bang deregulation in 1983.
At the time of the Queen’s coronation, the main stock market index was the FT 30, the precursor to the FTSE 100. It contained no banks or tech giants and was instead dominated by shipbuilders like Swan Hunter and Morris Motors. Sugar company Tate & Lyle is the sole survivor of the original 30, after aerospace firm GKN was sold to investment firm Melrose in 2018.
The list of livery companies in the City of London – the modern incarnation of medieval professional guilds – offers another indicator of its evolution. In 1952, the venerable Farmers’ Company was the newest addition to a list that included brewers, ironmongers, blacksmiths and the very old, haberdasher’s guild, formed in 1394.
As the City modernized, they were joined by airplane pilots, scientific luthiers, tax advisers and even the venerable society of management consultants.
All the while, the buzz of commerce was getting louder and louder. The trading machine is so unstoppable that even the day after the Queen’s death, trading in silver continued uninterrupted, with the London Stock Exchange remaining open for financial transactions. It will only close for the Queen’s funeral if the accompanying bank holiday falls on a weekday.
This tirelessness may be appropriate, considering how the City has weathered so many financial storms in its lifetime. “There was the Suez crisis of 1956, Black Wednesday, the Russian credit crisis of 1998, the Iraq war, the banking crisis of 2008 and Brexit,” Buik said.
What the Queen offered the City, he believes, was an island of certainty and continuity amid the tumult of the financial markets.
“The tangible reason is hard to say, but the spiritual reason is there because everyone knew what it stood for,” he says. “That ‘My word is my bond’ feeling, so important in the city, has seeped in.”