PARLIAMENT-watchers are probably sick of pomp and ceremony at the moment, fearing that the flummery and tradition of Parliament hides an institution which is out of touch and in need of reform.

Yet none of that should be allowed to detract from the pomp and ceremony taking place in York today.

By donning the robes of the Lord Mayor of York and being sworn in at the Guildhall, veteran Conservative councillor John Galvin joins a long list of first citizens that stretches back almost 800 years.

It was King John who, in 1212, first granted York a charter of self-government. Until then, the city and the county named after it were governed by the Sheriff of Yorkshire. He was based at York Castle, with responsibility for the whole county, and, most importantly, he wasn’t accountable to the citizens.

In 1212, all that changed. Disastrous and expensive military campaigns had left the king desperately in need of funds, according to the York Museums Trust’s online History of York.

One way to raise money was to allow a town’s citizens to buy the right to rule themselves.

York gained its charter in 1212. This allowed the citizens, rather than the sheriff, to collect and pay the annual tax to the Crown, and to hold their own courts and elect their own mayor.

We don’t know the identity of the first mayor. “The records show that from 1212 we had a mayor, but for those first five years we don’t have any names,” said Anne Platt, civic services manager at the city council.

Astonishingly, however, the list of holders of the office from 1217 onwards is almost unbroken.

So much tradition and history will be weighing on Coun Galvin’s shoulders today, as he accepts the robes of office and takes part in the formal procession from the Guildhall to the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall.

It is a huge honour, according to former Lord Mayor Coun Janet Looker, who held the office from 2004-5.

“You just look at that list of all the previous Lord Mayors and think, by Golly, I’m part of that,” she said.

By her own admission, Coun Looker isn’t the most formal of people. She famously sparked anger in 2005 when she donned jeans and a T-shirt with the ‘chains of office’ printed on the front for an official visit to HMS York.

She had been asked not to wear formal, ceremonial dress, she pointed out at the time. “But I’m not a very formal person,” she says now.

So what does she think of all the pomp and ceremony – the robes and regalia, the swearing in and chains of office?

“I think for a city like York, the pomp and circumstance is important,” she said. “York has a hugely impressive record as a civic society, and I think it is important to feel that you are maintaining that tradition.”

Anne Platt agrees. Today is the most important day in the city’s civic calendar, she said.

“The Lord Mayor is the first citizen of York. He or she is the figurehead for the city. This, with the ceremony and procession, is a chance for the public really to see the mayoralty in all its pomp.”

What about the role of Lord Mayor – isn’t it a bit of an anachronism? Not at all, says Coun Looker. In a city such as York, where tourism makes up a significant part of the economy, the Lord Mayor has an important role as an ambassador for the city.

The outgoing incumbent, Coun Brian Watson, was invited on an official visit to Damascus in Syria, she points out. She herself visited Ghana and Munster, and welcomed important visitors to York, including a civic party from a major Chinese city. “They rang us up and said ‘Can we see the Mansion House?’ And then they took us for a proper Chinese meal.”

But the role of the Lord Mayor goes beyond acting as an ambassador, Coun Looker said. There is the charity work, for a start. John Galvin has chosen York Against Cancer and the Brunswick Organic Nursery as his two charities.

Coun Looker also enjoyed the many engagements, especially those involving children.

“I visited every school in the city – and Stockton-on-the-Forest primary school came to visit us in the Mansion House,” she said. “It really brought history alive for them. We were able to say, remember the Tudors? Well, this is who was the Lord Mayor of York then.”

It is a hugely worthwhile role, in other words, Coun Looker said. And with the 800th anniversary approaching in the year London hosts the Olympics, there could be a chance for a major celebration.

There will be talks about how to best celebrate that anniversary, Anne Platt said. “It is going to be a very special year.”

‘New stocks and fetters’ for one of our Lord Mayors

ACCORDING to Francis Drake, York’s great 18th century historian, the Mayors of York date back to the reign of King Stephen, with Mayor Nigel being the first person to bear the title in 1147.

The city’s first recorded mayor, however, was Hugh de Selby, in 1217. He was, according to the York Museums Trust’s online History of York, a merchant who “exported wool and imported wine”. Clearly an important figure in medieval York, he was mayor six more times between 1226 and 1236, and another de Selby, John – possibly his son – was mayor from 1251 to 1253.

Many of those early mayors don’t sound much like Yorkshiremen. Hendy de Seizevaux held the office in 1225, and one Gacio de Calvo Monte was mayor in 1255 and 1256.

The first Lord Mayor of York was Thomas Smith, in 1389. King Richard II visited the city and gave the sword from his side to be carried before the mayor, known from then on as the Lord Mayor.

From 1389 a sword bearer was appointed annually – and to this day a sword and mace are still carried on ceremonial occasions in front of the Lord Mayor.

The Lord Mayors were responsible for taxes, presiding over the courts and “keeping the peace”. John Stockdale, the Lord Mayor in 1501-2, proudly proclaimed that he had bought “new stocks and fetters for mysdoers”. Lord Mayor Galvin probably won’t be doing that.