The City Livery Companies began life as Craft Guilds of London in the 11th and 12th centuries. These Guilds were common all over Europe. They were voluntary associations or fraternities whose objects were religious and social.
The religious aspect of the fraternity was to encourage good fellowship and hospitality. The need for a proper meeting place for these feasts and the business of the guild was met by the acquisition of a hall large enough to accommodate the members.
These halls suffered in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and again during the Second World War, when bombing left only 15 intact out of the 33 that were standing in 1939, of which only two were undamaged.
The London Companies derive their name from “livery”, which originally meant the allowance of food or clothing to retainers of great households. The term came to be restricted to the wearing of a type of clothing whereby the wearer could be recognised. Later the Companies restricted the wearing of livery to the elders of each guild, and from 1560, the Court of Aldermen decreed that no further Companies should assume livery without their consent.
The Livery Companies play a unique role in the government of the City of London, based on a charter received from William the Conqueror allowing them to run their own affairs. In 1215, King John allowed them to elect their own Lord Mayor, and the holder of that office is still supreme within the square mile of the City.
The City was unique in evolving a separate electoral assembly known as Common Hall, for the election of the Lord Mayor, Sheriffs, the Chamberlain and a few municipal officers. The first Lord Mayor was appointed in 1192.
The Court of Common Council, which originated in the reign of Edward II, is composed of Aldermen and Common Councilmen, being elected Ward representatives. The Court is the policy-making body of the City of London and consists of 100 Common Councillors and 25 Aldermen and is presided over by the Lord Mayor.
The Office of Sheriff is of even greater antiquity, as these men originally exercised the King’s authority over the citizens, collecting royal revenues and enforcing royal justice.
There are two serving Sheriffs per year, normally one “lay” Sheriff and one “Aldermanic Sheriff” (the latter being an Alderman who may, in due course, go on to serve as Lord Mayor). Sometimes, however, two Aldermanic Sheriffs serve in the same year.
Liverymen in Common Hall elect the Sheriffs on Midsummer Day and the Lord Mayor on Michaelmas Day.