At Sixes & Sevens – A Phrase Born In The City Of London

In days gone by the pageants for the Lord Mayors of London were held on the river rather than on the street, thus the term ‘floats’ which is now in common usage as a description for any vehicle that’s been all dressed up for a festival. During these river spectacles there could be as many as 48 barges in all, each one representing a particular City livery companies and all of them vying for a place close to the Lord Mayor’s barge.

There had often been disputes as to the order of precedence of the livery companies, and this was finally settled by the Lord Mayor in 1515 – originally this was dictated by the amount of land, property and liquid assets of each company, but in that year it was agreed that the order in which each had received their livery should determine their relative positions. The top twelve, therefore, remain unchanged despite the passing centuries and their changing fortunes – they are (in order) the Mercers, Grocers, Drapers, Fishmongers, Goldsmiths, Skinners <-> Merchant Taylors, Haberdashers, Salterers, Ironmongers, Vintners and Clothmakers.

On one fateful day, the competition to get near to the lead vessel of the flotilla was particularly fierce between the Worshipful Company of Skinners and the Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors, and chaos ensued. The incident was so serious that, as these companies were sixth and seventh in the pecking order, the phrase ‘at sixes and sevens’ slipped into the common vernacular to describe a state of confusion or disarray. Furthermore, because of the trouble that they caused and their continuing rivalry, it was decided that each year they should switch places in the order of precedence – one year the Skinners sixth and the Merchant Taylors seventh, and vice versa in the following year.

Despite recent rumours to the contrary, this changeover is still marked by a small ceremony. A member of staff in the Chamberlain’s Office advised that last Wednesday the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress  were present at the Mansion House to witness an exchange of gavels (the small hammers used by auctioneers) between the Masters of each livery company – also in attendance were their Esquires, Wardens, Clerks and Beadles. This year, you might be interested to know that the Skinners are sixth and the Merchant Taylors seventh in the pecking order.

You can see a visual representation of the relative positions of the livery companies in the Guildhall – their banners hang from the roof in the order dictated back in the 16th century (although the sixth and seventh banners don’t get switched around despite the annual event). You can just see one of them in the corner of the following image of the Guildhall, but do take the opportunity to investigate if you find yourself in the building – the Grocers’ banner is particularly interested as it depicts several peppercorns (the livery company was originally known as the ‘pepperers’).

sixes and sevens phrase born in city of london