London — The early period

Foundation and early settlement

Although excavations west of London have revealed the remains of circular huts dating from before 2000 BC, the history of the city begins effectively with the Romans. Beginning their occupation of Britain under Emperor Claudius in AD 43, the Roman armies soon gained control of much of the southeast of Britain. At a point just north of the marshy valley of the Thames, where two low hills were sited, they established Londinium, with a bridge giving access from land to the south. The first definite mention of London refers to the year AD 60 and occurs in the work of the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote of a celebrated centre of commerce filled with traders. In the same year, Iceni tribesmen under Queen Boudicca (Boadicea) sacked the settlement. From traces of the fires they set, it can be determined that the city had already begun to spread across the Walbrook valley toward the hill where St. Paul’s Cathedral was later built. After the sack, the city was reconstructed, including a great basilica—an aisled hall 500 feet (150 metres) long. On the same spot today stands Leadenhall Market, an 1881 creation of cast iron and glass. To protect the city, Cripplegate Fort was built by the end of the 1st century, with an amphitheatre nearby. The first half of the 2nd century was a prosperous time, but the fortunes of Londinium changed about AD 150, and areas of housing and workshops were demolished. A landward wall was built about AD 200 for defense. Remains of the wall can be seen at the edge of the Barbican (near the street called London Wall) and on Tower Hill. In medieval times the walls were rebuilt and extended, requiring new gateways in addition to the six Roman ones. During the 3rd century timber quays along the Thames and public buildings were rebuilt, and a riverside wall was constructed. An area of some 330 acres (about 135 hectares) was enclosed. Londinium in the 3rd and 4th centuries was less populous than in AD 125. When the legions were recalled to Rome early in the 5th century, there was widespread abandonment of property. What happened to London over the next two centuries is a matter of conjecture.

London - The early period

No records tell how or when London fell into Saxon hands, but it was still, or had once again become, a city of great importance by 597, when Pope Gregory I the Great sent St. Augustine to England from Rome. Aethelberht I, king of Kent, founded St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Mellitus was installed as bishop there in 604. By the late 7th century London had emerged again as a major trading centre. Reinterpreting evidence from various excavations, archaeologists now argue that in the 8th century there was a large and apparently densely built-up settlement (at least 150 acres [60 hectares]) of craftsmen and traders just upstream of the depopulated Roman city and extending inland to what is now Trafalgar Square. The settlement was called Lundenwic; however, virtually nothing is known about this phase of London’s history until the time of Alfred the Great (849–899) and the wars with the Danes, who invaded England in 865. A little farther west a church was founded on marshy Thorney Island in 785, later to be replaced by a great abbey (the Westminster) built at the behest of the pious Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor.

Medieval London

The city’s future importance as a centre of financial and military—and therefore political—power became clear at the time of the Norman Conquest (1066). One of the first acts of William I the Conqueror was to accord a charter promising the citizens of London that they should enjoy the same laws as under Edward the Confessor and that he would suffer no one to do them wrong. Just outside the city walls he established the Norman keep (the White Tower), which was the central stronghold of the fortress-castle known as the Tower of London. A roughly square (118 by 107 feet [36 by 33 metres]) structure, the White Tower is 90 feet (27 metres) high, with a tower at each corner of the walls. When in the late 12th century King Richard I returned from the Third Crusade with a new concept of fortification, he began surrounding the keep with concentric systems of curtain walls with towers at intervals, a project completed by Henry III (ruled 1216–72). Because virtually every reign since then has added its contribution, the Tower incorporates architecture from many periods. An official royal residence through the reign of James I in the early 17th century, it has also housed the Royal Mint, the Royal Menagerie, the public records, an observatory, an arsenal, and a prison. Some executions took place within the confines of the Tower, but most were carried out on Tower Hill just beyond. The Crown Jewels are now on display in the Tower, as is a superb collection of arms and armour.

The Norman kings selected Westminster as the site for their permanent residence and government. Edward the Confessor (ruled 1042–66) constructed an enormous church dedicated to St. Peter (and later referred to as Westminster Abbey) as well as a royal palace. The ancient “city” of London, meanwhile, reestablished its role as a centre of trade. In 1085 London had between 10,000 and 15,000 inhabitants (less than 2 percent of England’s population) and was the largest city in Europe north of the Alps. About 1087 a major fire destroyed many of the city’s wooden houses and St. Paul’s. In the rebuilding, houses of stone and tile began to appear, and some streets were partially cleansed by introducing open sewers and conduits, but wooden houses remained the norm. By 1200 the city and its suburbs involved a jurisdiction covering 680 acres (about 275 hectares)—which still defines the official limit of the City of London—and contained a population of 30,000 people. Between 1050 and 1300 construction of quays on the northern banks of the Thames led to the waterfront being extended southward by some 100 yards (90 metres). A colony of Danish merchants was outnumbered by Germans, who had their own trading enclave, the Hanseatic Steelyard, on the waterfront until they were expelled in 1598. Other important trading groups, who assimilated easily into London’s population, were the Gascons, Flemish, and northern Italians. When members of the last group were firmly established as bankers, the Jews, who had arrived with the Normans, were banished in 1290; they were not to return until 1656.

In 1300 London had about 80,000 inhabitants that were provisioned by a food-supply network extending 40–60 miles (65–100 km) into the surrounding countryside. The city also drew “sea coal” from Newcastle upon Tyne (300 miles [480 km] distant by sea), and air pollution became a problem in London. The dynamism of this period came to a sudden end with the outbreak of the Black Death in 1348–49, with 10,000 Londoners being buried beyond the city walls at West Smithfield. Recovery of urban life was to prove a slow process.

By astute purchase from needy monarchs, the guilds—100 of them by 1400—were able to buy increasing freedom from royal intrusion in their affairs and further their self-government. The first mayor of London, Henry Fitzailwyn, probably took office in 1192. The first evidence of a Court of Common Council dates from 1332. Since disorder in the realm provoked unrest in the city, London usually supported strong, orderly government, especially in such crises as the deposition of Edward II (1327) and Richard II (1399), the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, and the rebellion headed by Jack Cade (1450).

Tudor London

By 1520 London was again enjoying prosperity, with 41 halls of craft guilds symbolizing that well-being. Toward the middle of the 16th century London underwent an important growth in trade, which was boosted by the establishment of monopolies such as those held by the Muscovy Company (1555), the Turkey (later Levant) Company (1581), and the East India Company (1600). It also grew in population, with the number of Londoners increasing from over 100,000 in 1550 to about 200,000 in 1600. The additional population at first found living space in the grounds of the religious institutions seized during the Reformation by Henry VIII (after 1536). To fill the void left by the cessation of the religious charities, the city organized poor relief in 1547, providing grain in times of scarcity and promoting the foundation or reconstitution of the five royal hospitals: St. Bartholomew’s, Christ’s, Bethlehem (the madhouse known as Bedlam), St. Thomas’s, and Bridewell. Many of the private charities founded at this time are still in operation.

The population of the City and its surrounding settlements had reached 220,000 by the early years of the 17th century despite laws that attempted to contain the size of the capital. Indeed, the City Fathers (members of the Court of Common Council) tried to stop the subdivision of old houses into smaller, densely packed dwellings (a process known as “pestering”). New industries, including silk weaving and the production of glass and majolica pottery, were established, often outside the gates in order to avoid the restrictive regulations of the livery companies, which were successors of the craft guilds and were so named because of the distinctive clothing of their members. Slaughterhouses and numerous polluting industries were sited beyond the walls, especially to the east. The establishment of Henry VIII’s naval dockyard at Deptford on the south bank was accompanied by a straggle of waterfront hovels on the north bank at Wapping.

When Henry VIII in 1529 began to convert Cardinal Wolsey’s York Place into the royal palace of Whitehall and to build St. James’s Palace across the fields, the City of Westminster began to take more definite shape around the court. Between Westminster and the City of London the great houses of nobles began to be built, with gardens down to the river and each with its own water gate. Along the Strand opposite these houses were distinguished lodgings for gentlemen who were in town during legal sittings. By the early 17th century the name London began to embrace both the City of London and the City of Westminster as well as the built-up land between them, but the two never merged into a single municipality.

The reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603) arguably marked the apogee of the city’s domination of England. The queen based her strength on its militia, its money, and its love. It provided one-quarter of the men for service abroad in 1585 and formed its armed “trainbands” (trained bands) to defend England against the threatened Spanish invasion.

17th-century London

The trainbands remained a force to be reckoned with, and Charles I, who had damaged the City’s trading interests and flouted its privileges as cavalierly as he had Parliament’s, was deterred from attacking London in 1642 by their presence at Turnham Green. Hostility toward the king made the fortified City the core of parliamentary support, and Parliament’s success in the Civil Wars was due in good part to City allegiance.

In the early 1630s the 4th earl of Bedford began developing Covent Garden, originally the convent garden of the Benedictines of Westminster, thereby initiating the process of building estates of town houses on land acquired from former religious houses.

In 1664–65 the plague, a frequent invader since the Black Death of 1348, killed about 70,000 Londoners (a previous outbreak in 1603 had killed at least 25,000). In 1666 the Great Fire of London burned from September 2 to September 5 and consumed five-sixths of the City. St. Paul’s Cathedral, 87 parish churches, and at least 13,000 dwellings were destroyed, but there were only a few human fatalities. From the unscorched corners in the northeast and extreme west, rebuilding began. Because reconstruction had to be undertaken rapidly, adoption of a rational street plan was rejected, but the old streets were made wider and a bit straighter. Between 1667 and 1671 most of the houses were rebuilt (in brick since half-timbering was no longer allowed). Because many of the tiny parishes were combined and a few churches had escaped the fire, only about 50 churches were rebuilt, in addition to a new St. Paul’s. Sir Christopher Wren, mathematician, astronomer, and physicist, though only informally trained as an architect, was given the formidable task of designing them and supervising their construction.

There is a famous inscription by Wren’s son in St. Paul’s Cathedral, addressing the visitor in the following words: “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice” (“Reader, if you seek a monument, look about you”). Much of the historic legacy of the City is in fact Wren’s monument. His churches are a series of virtuoso variations on basic architectural concepts. They range in style from the homely Dutch to the Gothic, but most of them embody his own conception of the classical style. The dome of St. Paul’s is one of the most perfect in the world and, like the rest of the cathedral, is classical in theme with Baroque grace notes. The Monument for the Great Fire was adapted from a Wren design and erected near Pudding Lane, where the fire had started in the house of the king’s baker. Wren constructed four other churches outside the City, built the Royal Hospital located in Chelsea, and designed parts of Kensington Palace, Greenwich Hospital, the Royal Observatory of Greenwich, and Hampton Court Palace.

Under Charles II royal abrogation of City rights was resumed, and, although James II restored forfeited City charters before his flight to France in 1688, it was in Guildhall under protection of the trainbands that the lords spiritual and temporal met to declare allegiance to William, the Dutch prince of Orange (thenceforth known as William III of Great Britain).

To support the War of the Grand Alliance (1689–1713), City merchants in 1694 formed the Bank of England, and thenceforth the City’s money market became a prime factor in the affairs of state. Another aspect of the City’s power in the nation was the centring of the national press in Fleet Street (The Times, founded in 1785 off Blackfriars Lane, moved to new premises only in 1974). Finance, commerce, and port activities dominated the City and the East End of London, while expansion of government and the attractions of fashionable society stimulated development of the West End.

As London continued to grow, the greater part of the metropolis lay outside the boundaries of the City. Whereas in 1550 75 percent of Londoners had lived under the Lord Mayor’s jurisdiction, by 1700 (when there were 500,000 Londoners) only 25 percent did so, and in 1800 (when the population reached 1,110,000) the proportion was only 10 percent. Starting with Westminster Bridge (1750), half a dozen new bridges were built over the Thames, allowing new areas to be built up to the south. Important expansion occurred around the docks to the east as well as to the north and in the fashionable west. The rapidly expanding capital was governed by a patchwork of authorities, some of which were very ineffective. By 1700 London had overtaken Paris in population.