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Letter: Psst! We Don’t Really Know How Many Mayors Guildford Has Had

Published on: 10 May, 2019
Updated on: 10 May, 2019

Mayor Richard Billington announced by GBC as the 603rd Mayor but it seems we can’t be so certain.

From Matthew Alexander

Hon Remembrancer for Guildford

In response to: Guildford Elects Its 603rd Mayor In A Traditional Guildhall Ceremony

The first to appear on the list in the Guildhall is Walter Wodeland, after whom Wodeland Avenue is named. (His name would have been pronounced ‘Woodland’, not ‘Woadland’.)

The date given is 1362. However, it seems at that date he held the position of seneschal; a Norman French word meaning ‘steward’. He could be seen as a royal servant answerable to the king for the management of the town.

In October 1366 Edward III granted “letters patent” to Guildford. This gave the people of Guildford the right to collect the annual payment due to the king themselves. Previously it had been collected by individuals nominated by the king. This marked a step in Guildford’s becoming a self-governing community. In 1366 Wodeland is first described as ‘Mayor’, the greater of the townsmen, the first among equals.

So far so good. However, Wodeland had been seneschal for four years running, and then mayor for another four. If we were to adopt the American system of listing presidents, the two or more terms he served would count simply as one mayor of Guildford.

In fact, in the later Middle Ages it was normal for mayors to serve for several years of office. This would need to be taken into account when listing them. For Guildford, the record goes to the great Henry Norbridge, who served nine terms at the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th centuries.

Now comes the killer. There is a gap in the list. From 1378 to 1412 we have no record of any mayors at all. This makes it impossible to calculate the number there actually were, because we can be reasonably certain that the missing individuals would have served an indeterminate number of times. All we can say is that there has been a Mayor of Guildford elected every year for 657 years.

Does all this matter? Probably not. Let us just be proud that this town has an illustrious past and a promising future.

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