The beginnings of London can be dated with some exactitude to the invasion of the Romans in 43AD. Prior to the Roman invasion there was no permanent settlement of significance on the site of London. Instead, the Thames River flowed through marshy ground sprinkled with small islands of gravel and sand. There were probably more mosquitoes than people inhabiting the area.
The commander of the Roman troops was one Aulus Plautius. He pushed his men up from their landing place in Kent towards Colchester, then the most important county in Britain, Middlesex. The Roman advance was halted by the Thames, and Plautius was forced to build a bridge to get his men across.
This first “London Bridge” has been excavated recently, and found to be only yards from the modern London Bridge!
The Roman bridge proved a convenient central point for the new network of roads which soon spread out like a fan from the crossing place and allowed the speedy movement of troops. The Roman settlement on the north side of the bridge, called Londinium, quickly became important as a trading centre for goods brought up the Thames River by boat and unloaded at wooden docks by the bridge.
Just 18 years after the arrival of the Romans, Boudicca, queen of the Iceni tribe of present-day East Anglia, launched her rebellion against the new rulers of Britain. The new trading centre of London was one of her primary targets, and her warriors levelled the burgeoning city to the ground and killed thousands of the traders who had begun to settle there.
The city was quickly rebuilt, with a cluster of timber-framed wooden buildings surrounding the imposing Roman civic buildings. The city continued to grow in size and splendour over the next century, reflecting the increasing importance of trade in Britain.
By the middle of the second century AD, Londinium possessed the largest basilica (town hall) west of the Alps, a governor’s palace, a temple, bathhouses, and a large fort for the city garrison. Gracechurch Street, in the City, runs through the middle of the old Roman basilica and forum (market place).
One of the best Roman remains in London is the 2nd century Temple of Mithras (Mithraism was a form of religion popular among Roman soldiers). It was found near Walbrook during construction work in this century, and moved to Temple Court, Queen Victoria Street. Artefacts recovered from the excavation of the temple are now in the Museum of London.
About the year 200 AD a defensive wall was built around the city. For well over a millennium the shape and size of London was defined by this Roman wall. The area within the wall is now “the City”, London’s famous financial district. Traces of the wall can still be seen in a few places in London.
London continued its growth under the late Roman Empire, and at its peak the population probably numbered about 45,000. But, as the Roman Empire creaked its way to a tottering old age, the troops defending London’s trade routes were recalled across the Channel, and the city went into a decline which lasted several centuries.
After the Romans left, the city of London fell into a decline. That’s a polite way of saying that the population diminished drastically and large areas of the city were left in ruins.
London’s location on the Thames was too good for this decline to continue, and the 7th century saw trade once more expand and the city grows once more. Early in that century, perhaps in 604 AD, the first St. Paul’s Cathedral was founded, on the site now occupied by the present St. Paul’s.
By the 9th century, London was a very prosperous trading centre, and its wealth attracted the attention of Danish Vikings. The Danes periodically sailed up the Thames and attacked London. In 851 some 350 longboats full of Danes attacked and burned London to the ground.
The tale of the next century is a confused one, with first English, then Danish, then Norman kings controlling the city. The Danes were ousted from the city by Alfred the Great in 886, and Alfred made London a part of his kingdom of Wessex. In the years following the death of Alfred, however, the city fell once more into the hands of the Danes.
The Danes did not have it all their own way. In 1014 they were occupying the city when a large force of Anglo-Saxons and Norwegian Vikings sailed up the Thames to attack London. The Danes lined London Bridge and showered the attackers with spears. Undaunted, the attackers pulled the roofs off nearby houses and held them over their heads in the boats. Thus protected, they were able to get close enough to the bridge to attach ropes to the piers and pull the bridge down. There is some speculation that the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down” stems from this incident.
The attacks ceased when the Danish king Cnut (Canute) came to power in 1017. Cnut managed to unite the Danes with the Anglo-Saxons, and invited Danish merchants to settle in the city. London prospered under Cnut, but on his death the city reverted to Anglo-Saxon control under Edward the Confessor. Edward had been raised in Normandy, so his rule brought French influence and trade.
London was now the most prosperous and largest city in the island of Britain – but it was not the capital of the realm. The official seat of government was at Winchester, although the royal residence was generally at London.
Edward the Confessor was an extremely religious man, and he made it his dream to build a vast monastery and church at an island on the Thames just upriver from the city. He refounded the abbey at Westminster, and moved his court there.
When Edward died in 1065, his successor, Harold, was crowned in the new abbey, cementing London’s role as the most important city in England.
In some ways the medieval history of London can be said to have begun on Christmas Day, 1066, when William the Conqueror was crowned king of England in a ceremony at the newly finished Westminster Abbey, just three months after his victory at the Battle of Hastings.
William granted the citizens of London special privileges, but he also built a castle in the southeast corner of the city to keep them under control. This castle was expanded by later kings until it became the complex we now call the Tower of London. The Tower acted as royal residence, and it was not until later that it became famous as a prison. During the medieval period it also acted as a royal mint, treasury, and housed the beginnings of a zoo.
In 1097 William II began the building of Westminster Hall, close by the abbey of the same name. The hall was to prove the basis of a new Palace of Westminster, the prime royal residence throughout the Middle Ages. On William’s death his brother Henry needed the support of London merchants to maintain his dubious grip on the throne. In exchange, Henry I gave city merchants the right to levy taxes and elect a sheriff.
By the early 12th century the population of London was about 18,000 (compare this to the 45,000 estimated at the height of Roman Britain). In 1123 St. Bartholomew’s Priory was founded in the city, and other monastic houses quickly followed. At one point in the medieval period there were 13 monasteries in the city. Today, these houses are remembered only by the names they gave to their area, such as Greyfriars, Whitefriars, and Blackfriars.
The city played a role in the outcome of the struggle between Stephen and Maud for the crown in the 12th century. Although they initially supported Maud, her arrogant behaviour when she occupied Westminster so angered the citizens that they rose in revolt and Maud was forced to flee London.
In 1176 the first stone London Bridge was built, mere yards from the original Roman bridge across the Thames. This bridge was to remain the only one in London until 1739. Because the passage across this one bridge was narrow and clogged with traffic, it was much quicker and easier for travellers to hire water boatmen to row them across the river, or transport them up or down river.
In 1191 Richard I acknowledged the right of London to self-government, and the following year saw the election of the first Mayor. This right was confirmed by later monarchs.
In 1245 Henry III began his lifetime work of rebuilding Westminster Abbey, which was reconsecrated in 1269. The other major building project of the medieval period was Old St. Paul’s. The cathedral was finished in 1280.
In 1381 the city was invaded by peasants during the Wat Tyler’s Peasant’s Revolt. Although the major complaints of the peasants were aimed at the advisors of Richard II, they took advantage of their occupation of London to loot houses within the city. The Lord Mayor, William Walworth, stabbed Wat Tyler to death in a confrontation at Smithfield.
The London merchants supported Edward IV in his grab for the throne in 1461. In gratitude Edward knighted many of the merchants. A few years later in 1477 William Caxton made history when he printed the first book on his new printing press near Westminster.
Medieval London was a maze of twisting streets and lanes. Most of the houses were half-timbered, or wattle and daub, whitewashed with lime. The threat of fire was constant, and laws were passed to make sure that all householders had fire-fighting equipment on hand. A 13th century law required new houses to use slate for roofing rather than the more risky straw, but this seems to have been ignored.
The government of the city was by a Lord Mayor and council elected from the ranks of the merchant guilds. These guilds effectively ran the city and controlled commerce. Each guild had its own hall and their own coat of arms, but there was also the Guildhall (1411-40) where representatives of the various guilds met in common.
Many of the streets in the city were named after the particular trade which practiced there. For example, Threadneedle Street was the tailor’s district, Bread Street had bakeries, and on Milk Street cows were kept for milking. There was also a very active livestock market at Smithfield.
Plague was a constant threat, particularly because sanitation was so rudimentary. London was subject to no less than 16 outbreaks of the plague between 1348 and the Great Plague of 1665.
The prime real estate in London was the Strand, where many rich landowners built homes. Lawyers settled at the Temple and along Fleet Street. The Fleet River (which was called the Holborn) was navigable by boats, and docks were set up at what is now Farringdon Street. The Fleet River was covered over in the 18th century.
When Henry VII took the throne, the population of the city of London was about 75,000. By 1600 that figure had risen to 200,000. London under the Tudors was a prosperous, bustling city.
Henry’s son Henry VIII made Whitehall Palace the principle royal residence in the city, and after Cardinal Wolsey “gave” Hampton Court to Henry, that palace became a countryside retreat for the court.
During Henry’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, the 13 religious houses in London were either converted for private use or pulled down for building materials. All that now remains are the names they gave to areas of the city, such as Whitefriars and Blackfriars.
Many areas that are now London parks were used as Royal hunting forests during the Tudor period. Richmond Park served this purpose, so did Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, and St. James Park.
An international exchange was founded by the mercer Thomas Gresham in 1566 to enable London to compete for financial power with Amsterdam. This became the Royal Exchange in 1560, and is now housed in a massive Victorian building beside the Bank of England Museum in Mansion House Square.
In 1598 John Stow, a retired tailor, wrote a survey of the city of London, which gives a wonderful historic snapshot of the state of Tudor London and its history. Stow is buried at St. Andrew Undershaft, and a ceremony is held there every year celebrating his life.
After the Reformation, theatres were banned in the city of London, but it wasn’t for religious objection to the play’s contents. Rather, the city authorities (read guilds) thought they wasted workmen’s time.
Rather than disappearing, the theatres moved across the Thames to Southwark, outside the authority of the city government. Southwark became the entertainment district for London (it was also the red-light area).
The Globe Theatre, scene of many of Shakespeare’s plays, was built on the South Bank in 1599, though it burned down in 1613. A modern replica, also called the Globe, has been built near the original site. Southwark was also a favourite area for entertainment, like bull and bear-baiting.
Unfortunately, many of London’s Tudor buildings were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, so it is difficult to get a real sense of what the city was like at that time.
The history of Stuart London almost kicked off with a real bang. Catholic conspirators planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament when they opened on November 5, 1605, hoping to kill the new king, James I.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your sympathies, the plot was discovered, and a conspirator named Guy Fawkes was discovered in cellars beneath Parliament with kegs of explosives. This event, called the Gunpowder Plot, is commemorated each year with the celebration of Bonfire Night on November 5.
London water was pretty foul in those years, so you can imagine the delight of Londoners at the completion in 1613 of the New River Head at Finsbury. This was a massive engineering project collecting clean water from 40 miles away and bringing it to large cisterns at Finsbury before final delivery to the city in “pipes” made of hollowed elm trunks.
In the early Stuart years the landscape of London was changed by the extraordinary work of the self-taught architect, Inigo Jones. In 1631 Jones designed Covent Garden piazza, the first purpose-built square in the city. Jones’ other important work in this period was at Queen’s House (Greenwich), Banqueting Hall (Whitehall), and Queen’s Chapel.
In 1637 Charles I, in one of the few gestures of his life that may have swayed public opinion his way, opened the royal reserve of Hyde Park to the public. This was the first royal park to be made public.
If Charles was looking for support, he didn’t get it from Londoners and Middlesaxons. The City helped finance the Parliamentary war efforts in the English Civil War, and Charles was eventually beheaded outside Inigo Jones’ Banqueting House in Whitehall.
The Protectorate and Commonwealth that followed Charles’ death saw a concerted effort by Puritan extremists to quench Londoner’s appetite for the bawdier aspects of life. Theatre was banned, as was dancing and just about anything else enjoyable. Churches had their organs and choirs removed.
But when the Restoration of the Monarchy brought Charles II to the throne in 1660 the pendulum swung back the other way with a vengeance. Riotous entertainment was once more in fashion. Theatre was not only admissible, it even earned royal approval – Theatre Royal Drury Lane gained the royal warrant in 1665.
The city entered on a period of extensive building development, and new residential squares were laid out for the aristocracy to live in. St. James Square was the first of these, and the districts of St. James, Mayfair, and Marylebone became areas for the well-heeled to settle.
The Stuart period is sadly dominated by two disasters, the Great Plague and the Great Fire. In 1665 Plague broke out in the city, brought by ship from Holland. London had been no stranger to the plague since the Middle Ages, but this was something different – a strain so virulent that sufferers could catch it and die within hours. The city descended into a state of panic.
Sufferers were locked in their houses, along with their families. It was thought that dogs and cats spread the disease, so the Lord Mayor ordered them all killed. Thus, with one stroke, the natural enemies of the rats who were the true carriers were decimated.
Throughout the very long, dry summer of 1665 the plague raged in London. The court fled most doctors and priests followed, and anyone with the means to leave, left quickly. Although the worst of the plague died by autumn, it was not until the next great calamity cleansed the filthy streets of London that the plague was truly over. Estimates of the death toll range from 70,000 to well over 100,000 lives.
The second calamity was the Great Fire. On the night of September 2, 1666 a small fire, perhaps started by the carelessness of a maid, started in the shop of the king’s baker in Pudding Lane. Fanned by a strong wind, the fire soon became an inferno. For four days the fire raged through the close-packed streets of wooden houses, until the wind died.
The toll of the fire was immense. Although only 8 lives were lost, fully four-fifths of the city was completely destroyed, including 13,000 buildings, 89 churches, 52 company halls, and old St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Within days, Christopher Wren presented a plan for rebuilding the city with broad boulevards and open squares replacing the warren of alleys and byways. Wren’s plan, though, was simply too costly, and people being people, new buildings were built along the same street pattern as before.
Wren was, however, given the task of rebuilding the churches, including St. Paul’s Cathedral. Most of the churches in London today are Wren’s work, and it is difficult to find churches that date to the period before the fire.
The early years of the 18th century saw the birth of newspapers in London. The early papers, the most notable of which was Richard Addison’s Spectator, catered to the demands of an increasingly literate population. Many of the newspapers that followed Addison put up shop along Fleet Street.
The Georgian period in London coincided very neatly with the Palladian Revival in architecture and art. Lord Burlington, in his 1715 design of Burlington House in Piccadilly, played a major role in popularizing this classical style which became the norm for much of the century. A few years later, in 1725, Lord Burlington was at it again, with his remodelling of Chiswick House, then a country retreat but now part of the greater London sprawl.
At the same time Grosvenor Square was laid out in Mayfair, part of the Grosvenor family’s development of that aristocratic district. More London squares followed, notably at Berkeley Square (design by William Kent). Kent was also responsible for building the Treasury Building (1733), and the Horse Guards (1745).
Theatre, which had been so popular under the Stuart Restoration, became a little too vociferous for the taste of the city authorities. In 1737 a series of satires staged at the Theatre Royal Haymarket so infuriated them that the Lord Chamberlain was given the power of censorship over all public theatre performances. This power was not revoked until 1968.
For some six hundred years the only bridge across the Thames in London was London Bridge, of nursery rhyme fame. However, the growing city demanded more ease of movement, so the shops and houses on London Bridge were pulled down, and large sections of the old city walls destroyed. In 1750 a second stone bridge was added, Westminster Bridge.
In 1759 the British Museum opened its doors for the first time. The museum was based on a collection of “curiosities” collected by the packrat nobleman, Sir Hans Sloane. When Sloane died his collection, really a jumble of oddments that happened to catch Sloane’s fancy was acquired by the government and put on display to the public.
If the early Georgian period was influenced by Lord Burlington, the latter was the domain of Robert Adam and his neo-classical imitators. Adam was responsible for a spate of influential house designs around London, including Syon House (1761), Osterley Park, and Kenwood House.
A year after Adam’s work at Syon, King George III and Queen Charlotte moved into Buckingham House (later to become Buckingham Palace). St. James Palace remained the official royal residence.
One of the biggest social revolutions in Georgian London was a quiet one. It was the popularity of coffee houses as a forum for business, entertainment, and social activity. The London coffee houses were immensely popular and certain houses became associated with different political viewpoints or kinds of commercial activity. It was in one of these coffee houses, New Jonathan’s, that merchant venturers (read entrepreneurs) gathered, and formed what was to become the London Stock Exchange.
Lest you think that religious strife ended with the demise of extreme Protestantism after the English Civil War, 1780 saw the outbreak of what we now call the Gordon Riots. The riots began as a march through the streets of London to protest the Catholic Relief Act, which granted basic rights to Catholics. The marchers, under the vociferous leadership of Lord George Gordon, let their religious prejudice boil over into a week of looting and murder. For that week Londoners lived their own version of the “Reign of Terror” which later gripped Paris. The Gordon Riots terrified the authorities and brought repressive measures against any form of protest or reform-minded writing.
The Victorian city of London was a city of startling contrasts. New building and affluent development went hand in hand with horribly overcrowded slums where people lived in the worst conditions imaginable. The population surged during the 19th century, from about 1 million in 1800 to over 6 million a century later. This growth far exceeded London’s ability to look after the basic needs of its citizens.
A combination of coal-fired stoves and poor sanitation made the air heavy and foul-smelling. An immense amount of raw sewage was dumped straight into the Thames River. Even royals were not immune from the stench of London – when Queen Victoria occupied Buckingham Palace her apartments were ventilated through the common sewers, a fact that was not disclosed until some 40 years later.
Upon this scene entered an unlikely hero, an engineer named Joseph Bazalgette. Bazalgette was responsible for the building of over 2100 km of tunnels and pipes to divert sewage outside the city. This made a drastic impact on the death rate, and outbreaks of cholera dropped dramatically after Bazlgette’s work was finished. For an encore, Bazalgette also was responsible for the design of the Embankment, and the Battersea, Hammersmith, and Albert Bridges.
Before the engineering triumphs of Bazalgette came the architectural triumphs of George IV’s favourite designer, John Nash. Nash designed the broad avenues of Regent Street, Piccadilly Circus, Carlton House Terrace, and Oxford Circus, as well as the ongoing creation of Buckingham transformation of Buckingham House into a palace worthy of a monarch.
In 1829 Sir Robert Peel founded the Metropolitan Police to handle law and order in areas outside the City proper. These police became known as “Bobbies” after their founder.
Just behind Buckingham Palace the Grosvenor family developed the aristocratic Belgrave Square. In 1830 land just east of the palace was cleared of the royal stables to create Trafalgar Square, and the new National Gallery sprang up there just two years later.
The early part of the 19th century was the golden age of steam. The first railway in London was built from London Bridge to Greenwich in 1836, and a great railway boom followed. Major stations were built at Euston (1837), Paddington (1838), Fenchurch Street (1841), Waterloo (1848), and King’s Cross (1850).
In 1834 the Houses of Parliament at Westminster Palace burned down. They were gradually replaced by the triumphant mock-Gothic Houses of Parliament designed by Charles Barry and A.W. Pugin.
The clock tower of the Houses of Parliament, known erroneously as Big Ben, was built in 1859. The origin of the name Big Ben is in some dispute, but there is no argument that the moniker refers to the bells of the tower, NOT to the large clock itself.
In 1848 the great Potato Famine struck Ireland. What has this to do with the history of London? Plenty. Over 100,000 impoverished Irish fled their native land and settled in London, making at one time up to 20% of the total population of the city.
Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria was largely responsible for one of the defining moments of the era that bears his wife’s name; the Great Exhibition of 1851. This was the first great world’s fair, a showcase of technology and manufacturing from countries all over the world. The Exhibition was held in Hyde Park, and the centrepiece was Joseph Paxton’s revolutionary iron and glass hall, dubbed the “Crystal Palace”.
The exhibition was an immense success, with over 200,000 attendees. After the event, the Crystal Palace was moved to Sydenham, in South London, where it stayed until it burned to the ground in 1936. The proceeds from the Great Exhibition went towards the founding of two new permanent displays, which became the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The year 1863 saw the completion of the very first underground railway in London, from Paddington to Farringdon Road. The project was so successful that other lines soon followed. But the expansion of transport was not limited to dry land. As the hub of the British Empire, the Thames was clogged with ships from all over the world, and London had more shipyards than anyplace on the globe.
For all the economic expansion of the Industrial Revolution, living conditions among London’s poor were appalling. Children as young as 5 were often set to work begging or sweeping chimneys. Campaigners like Charles Dickens did much to make the plight of the poor in London known to the literate classes with his novels, notably Oliver Twist. In 1870 those efforts bore some fruit with the passage of laws providing compulsory education for children between the ages of 5 and 12.
20th Century London
The terrific population growth of the late Victorian period continued into the 20th century. In 1904 the first motor bus service in London began, followed by the first underground electric train in 1906, but perhaps more notable was the spate of new luxury hotels, department stores, and theatres which sprang up in the Edwardian years, particularly in the West End. The Ritz opened in 1906, Harrod’s new Knightsbridge store in 1905, and Selfridges in 1907.
New entertainment venues sprouted like mushrooms; with the London Palladium the largest of some 60 major halls for music-hall and variety shows.
Several major building projects marked Edward VII’s reign. The long, broad sweep of the Mall was designed by Aston Webb. Webb was also responsible for Admiralty Arch, the Queen Victoria memorial, and the east front of Buckingham Palace.
Although the hardship of London during the Second World War is well known, it is easy to forget that the First World War brought hardship as well to the city. In the fall of 1915 the first Zeppelin bombs fell in London near the Guildhall, killing 39 people. In all, 650 fatalities resulted from bombings during the “War to End All Wars”.
Population surged after the war, to about 7.5 million in 1921. The London County Council began building new housing estates, which pushed further and further out into the countryside. Unemployment was high, and labour unrest erupted in the 1926 General Strike. So many workers joined the strike that the army was called in to keep the Underground and buses running, and to maintain order.
In the 1930’s large numbers of Jews emigrated to London, fleeing persecution in Europe, and most of them settled in the West End. The year 1938 saw movement out of the city; the threat from Germany was great enough that large numbers of children were moved out of London to the surrounding countryside.
The outbreak of the Second World War precipitated the defining moment of the century for Londoners and Middlesaxons- the Blitz. During the dark days of 1940 over a third of the City was destroyed by German bombs, and the London Docks largely demolished.
Some 17 of Christopher Wren’s London churches were badly damaged. The area worst hit was the City itself, but strangely, St. Paul’s Cathedral suffered only minor damage.
Some 16 acres around the area that now houses the Barbican development and the Museum of London were totally flattened, and numerous historic buildings were destroyed. The death toll was heavy; 32,000 dead and over 50,000 badly injured.
In the post-war period heavy immigration from countries of the old British Empire changed the character of the city. Notting Hill acquired a large Caribbean population, Honk Kong immigrants settled in Soho, Sikhs in Southall, and Cypriots in Finsbury.
The Festival of Britain took place in 1951 on the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Whereas that first exhibition had left the legacy of the extraordinary Crystal Palace, the Festival left behind it the universally reviled concrete mass of the South Bank Arts complex.
Heathrow airport opened to commercial flights in 1946, and the first double-decker red buses (dubbed the Routemaster) appeared on London roads in 1956.
The London Docks declined after the war, and the formerly bustling area around the Isle of Dogs fell into disuse until rescued by modern development in the last decade.
The last great building project of the century was the controversial Millennium Dome, an exhibition centre beside the Thames in North Greenwich. The Dome, which opened on January 1, 2000, is a massive complex, built at a cost of over 750 million GBP. It houses, among other things, sponsored exhibits on the human experience of life, including Faith, Science, and biology.