Earlier this October, at a ceremony at the Royal Courts of Justice, London paid its rent to the Queen. The ceremony proceeded much as it had for the past eight centuries. The city handed over a knife, an axe, six oversized horseshoes, and 61 nails to Barbara Janet Fontaine, the Queen’s Remembrancer, the oldest judicial position in England. The job was created in the 12th century to keep track of all that was owed to the crown.
In this case, the Remembrancer has presided over the rent owed on two pieces of property for a very long time—since 1235 in one case, and at least 1211 in the other. Every year, in this Ceremony of Quit Rents, the crown extracts its price from the city for a forge and a piece of moorland.
No one knows exactly where these two pieces of land are located anymore, but for hundreds of years the city has been paying rent on them. The rate, however, has not changed—the same objects have been presented for hundreds of years.
The Ceremony of Quit Rents is not well-publicized or much talked about: news services have covered it occasionally over the years, but the only official references I could find to this year’s ceremonies were a notice about a city-sponsored essay contest where the prize includes the privilege of attending the ceremony and an off-hand reference by the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.
But each fall, usually in October, the city and the crown perform the same exchange, for no particular reason other than that they always have.
In a small annual ceremony the city hands over an axe, a knife, 6 horseshoes, and 61 nails.
The older rent is paid on a piece of land that’s supposed to be in the county of Shropshire, far from London. Known as “the Moors,” its exact location was lost long ago (although UPI reported in 1980 that London’s then-mayor Peter Gadsden picked a piece of land in the area and declared it the Moors in question).
The rent on the Moors is a billhook—a knife-like tool used in agriculture—and an axe. The billhook is supposed to be dull: one early instruction said it should “bend in green cheese,” Copley News Service reported in 1972. About three centuries after this rent was first recorded, though, the standard had changed: the billhook should be in such a condition that it could strike a one-year-old hazel stick and make “little or no mark.”
The axe, on the other hand, is supposed to be sharp. The current version of the ceremony tests both: First, the city representative uses the billhook to hack away at a pile of sticks. After that tool is proved ineffective, the axe gets its turn—and swipes cleanly through the same wood. “Good service,” the Remembrancer says....MORE