The Office of Mayor is one of the oldest surviving civic institutions of Newcastle. The exact date of origin is unclear but it has been suggested that the right of election of their own Mayor was granted to the Burgesses by King John, who reigned from 1199-1216.
It was not uncommon for early Mayors to hold office for many years. In the earlier fourteenth century Richard Emeldon was Mayor eighteen times between 1305 and 1333. He played an important part in the defence of Northumberland against the Scots during the reign of Edward II and Edward III. In 1332 he was appointed Escheator of Newcastle, whose duties included the oversight of the lands of wards of traitors. Emeldon was killed at the battle of Halidon Hill in 1333, having brought 28 men-at-arms and 31 light horsemen to Berwick to aid Edward III.
There was increasing hostility between the Freemen of the 12 'Mysteries' who had become an oligarchy with supreme influence in the election of the Mayor, and the 'poorer' freemen of the craft guilds. This tension came to a head in 1340-1341 when, approved by the oligarchy, John de Denton was elected for a second time. The 'lesser' Burgesses elected their own candidate, Richard de Acton. This led to riots and violence and King Edward III intervened and imposed a fine of £500 on the town. As a result of this clash, a new procedure for electing the Mayor was introduced, although the results were less happy for John de Denton who was imprisoned and died of starvation in 1344. Retribution was wrought on the 'lesser' Burgesses, many of whom were put to death for the murder of Denton. Later in the century,William Bishopdale fought with bravery at the battle of Otterburn and King Richard II granted the Mayor the right to have a sword carried before him in procession.
Perhaps the most famous medieval Mayor was Roger Thornton, first elected in 1400 and who also served 1402-1405, 1416-1417 and 1423-1425. Leland, the King’s Antiquary in 1533 described him as "the richest merchant that ever was dwelling in Newcastle." Before becoming Mayor, Roger Thornton was elected M.P. in 1397 and sent to the Parliament of Henry IV. Thornton was probably largely responsible for negotiating a major change in the constitution of the town. In 1400 Newcastle became a town and county - separated from the jurisdiction of Northumberland. This meant that no more bailiffs were appointed and the Burgesses would have a Sheriff to govern them, at least financially, in the interest of the Crown.
The Mayors of the fifteenth and sixteenth century were largely rich merchants, like Thornton, and acted as a plutocracy dominating the town's affairs.
One of the important functions of the Mayor, especially in the seventeenth century, was to preside over the ancient courts. Under a charter of 1605, the Mayor and Burgesses were granted Admiralty jurisdiction over the Tyne. To symbolise this role, the Mayor was preceded in procession by an oar. There was also a city barge to be used by the Mayor and River Jury in connection with this court.
In 1639 at the time of the Civil War the Council elected as Mayor a Puritan, Robert Bewick against the wishes of Charles I. In 1642 the King ordered that the Council elect a Royalist, Sir John Marley. In 1644, Sir John Marley led the defence of Newcastle against the Scots and it was for his bravery, and that of Newcastle’s citizens, that the town was awarded its motto "Fortiter Defendit Triumphans" (Triumphing by a brave defence).
During the eighteenth century the Mayor and Common Council held sway in the town and were responsible for the maintenance of the river - the vital artery of Newcastle's thriving coal trade. The protection of the river was demonstrated each year on Barge Day when the Mayor, in his capacity as President of the Court of Admiralty, inspected riverside staithes etc..
The method of guild election of the Mayor, which had evolved so painfully, was finally replaced in the great decade of reform - the 1830s. The establishment of the reformed Corporation of 1835 meant that a Council consisting of Alderman and Councillors was elected and the Mayor was chosen from amongst them. This system survived until 1974 when the office of Alderman was abolished. Lord Mayors are now chosen from the body of Councillors and appointed at the Annual Meeting of the full Council.