For 800 years the city of London has been careful to make sure it pays its annual rent for two pieces of land it leases from the Crown. In its determination not to fall delinquent in payments, it unfortunately overlooked one thing: the location of these properties. It continues to pay the rent, even though no one knows where the properties are located.
The paying of the rent is itself a ceremony cloaked with tradition and symbolism. Known as the Quit Rents ceremony, the practice dates back to 1211 in the case of one property and 1235 for the other.
The first property is identified as “The Moors,” and is somewhere to the south of Bridgnorth in Shropshire. The earliest record of this dates back to 1211, four years before the Magna Carta. The rent was established as two knives: one sharp and one blunt.
The second rent is paid for the use of the forge in Tweezer’s (or Twizzer’s) Alley, somewhere near the street known as The Strand. This rental agreement dates back to 1235. The rent for this land is sixty-one nails and six horseshoes. The horseshoes used for this purpose date back to 1361 and may be the oldest horseshoes still in existence.
The pageantry associated with this ancient custom remains largely unchanged, as has the amount of the rent. It is paid to the Queen’s Remembrancer, the oldest judicial position in England. The Remembrancer is charged with keeping track of all that is owed to the Crown.
During the ceremony the Remembrancer must test the two knives. The the blunt one, called a billhook, is tested by making a mark on a hazel twig acting as a tally. The sharp instrument is then used to split the twig into two parts. One part is given to each party to serve as a receipt of payment. Traditionally, the Remembrancer announces, “Good service.”
Upon receipt of the horseshoes and nails, the Remembrancer says, “Good number.” Then, in an act of true generosity, the Remembrancer returns the horseshoes and nails to the city as a loan, to be used for payment of the next year’s rent.
Considering the fact that the amount of rent is relatively small, not to mention the fact that most of it is immediately returned to be used the next year, the tenant does not seem to be overly concerned with the fact that the actual property has been lost and cannot be used.
This is not the only example of the continued observance of ancient property rights for the sovereign, as has been documented in Commonplace regarding the rent for the Isle of Sark, the Queen’s ownership of sturgeon and whales, the royal ravens of the Tower of London, and George I’s human pet. Of course, there’s also the royal prerogative to keep people waiting while an overweight king tries to squeeze into his clothes.