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A Visit to the Guildhall

A Visit to the Guildhall

Many London attractions are quite expensive, but there are also some wonderful free attractions.  St. Paul’s Cathedral charges £18 for admission, which is about $28 American (£1 = $1.52 at the current exchange rate).  Even at that price it’s always packed with tourists.  Just down the street, the City of London Guildhall is free, yet it was almost empty the day I visited.

The “City of London” is a separate entity from the larger city of London.  It encompassing the oldest part of London, and has been in existence for almost 1,000 years.  It was built within the walls of the abandoned city of Londinium, which was the capital of Roman Britain.  The City is sometimes referred to as the Square Mile, the approximate area of the land enclosed by the walls.  Portions of the walls are still visible today.  The Guildhall has been home to the City of London Corporation since 1411.  It’s a wonderful, hidden gem, and it’s entirely free.

What did I do during my free visit to the Guildhall?  I held 1,900 year-old Roman tiles and pottery shards found during excavations around the City.  I walked through the remains of a 7,000-seat Roman amphitheater buried under the City for almost a thousand years.  Then I viewed historical paintings of London and a significant collection of Victorian art.  Finally, I saw a copy of the Magna Carta, circa 1297 AD.

Now for the history lesson of the day.  2015 is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta.  Originally signed by King John (best known to Americans as the villain in Robin Hood), Magna Carta was created to resolve a political crisis between the king and the barons who were unhappy under his rule.  Among other things, Magna Carta guaranteed the barons protection from illegal imprisonment, the right to a trial by jury, limitations on taxes, and the protection of church rights.  Not surprisingly, King John failed to uphold his end of the bargain.  Three subsequent kings reissued the document, mostly in exchange for raising taxes, but it didn’t stick until the third time it was reissued by Edward I in 1297.

Magna Carta has been called the greatest constitutional document of all time.  It’s become a world-wide symbol of liberty and the rule of law.  The original document only addressed the relationship between the monarch and his barons, but beginning in the early 17th century, it was used to argue for the extension of personal liberties to all Englishmen.  This protection of personal liberty for ordinary citizens had a significant influence on the creation of the American constitution.

I ran out of time before I could see everything.  I’ll have to make another trip to visit the Guildhall Library, which first opened in 1425, and the Great Hall, a cathedral-like space featuring Gothic windows and London’s largest medieval crypts.  Luckily I can stop in any time I’m in the neighborhood, safe in the knowledge that a visit to the Guildhall will always be free.

After the Guildhall, I stopped for a cream tea at Bea’s of Bloomsbury near St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Tt was comparable to the cost of Monday’s cream tea at St. Paul’s, but unfortunately it wasn’t quite as good.  The Earl Gray tea had a flowery taste and the scones were dry and crumbly.  Still, I enjoyed the break, and the people watching from my table at the front of the restaurant was excellent.

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