Concise History of London

London Hotel Reservation has commissioned London based art historian J. Alexander Esq. to present a personal reflection of the changing face of London Town. The last time we heard from our intrepid historian he was to be found in the bowels of the British Museum unearthing some dusty relics for our amusement!

He has asked us to point out that, though most of the contemporary photographs of London are his own, he felt he might have taken better snaps with an old daguerreotype rather than the digital camera he recently purchased at a flea market. Some of our viewers may just agree with him! :)

Roman Londinium c. AD 120. Capital of the province of Britannia


When Julius Caesar overcame the native British forces in a skirmish by the Thames in 54 BC, he may possibly have left behind an encampment on the site of what became London; however, there is no firm evidence of the founding of the city until the Romans invaded again during the reign of Claudius in AD 43. After another victorious battle, the invaders founded a settlement on the north bank of the Thames, at a point where it could conveniently be forded and bridged. This first "Londinium" did not last long: in AD 60 the Roman settlement was overrun and burnt to the ground by avenging Britons led by Queen Boudicca.

Earliest known map of Roman London (1722) Map of inner and central London today Map of South Eastern England

The Romans proved resolute, retook the city, rebuilt it, fortified it with walls, and thereafter for the next three centuries London flourished as one of the most important outposts of the Roman Empire north of the Alps. By around AD 200 the city had a population of about 30,000, and it could boast a fort, an extensive basilica, a forum, an amphitheatre, temples, and public baths for its citizens. Archaeological finds have demonstrated the opulence of the villas built by the leading citizens and the rich lifestyles they followed. London was the natural geographical site for the Romans to choose as the focus of their colony. Situated on Britain’s chief river, it formed a bridgehead, a hub for the military road system, and a superb port for trade with Gaul and the Low Countries.

River Tamesis and London Bridge in Roman days London Bridge c.1650 From the 13C until 18C It supported bulidings along its entire length! The present London Bridge was built between 1967-73. Bring back the original one we say! The River Tamesis or rather, The Thames, in all of its glory

Decline and Fall of Roman London

With the growing barbarian assaults on the empire at the end of the 4th century, Rome withdrew its troops and the Romanized population was left to fend for itself. Fierce raids by Picts, Angles, and Saxons led to the abandonment of the city and there is little evidence of urban activity during the 5th century. As the Anglo-Saxon settlement took root, however, London revived; by the 8th century trade was prospering again across the English Channel and the North Sea.

Marble bust of god Serapis, found in the Walbrook Mithraeum. 2nd ­ 3rd AD Archaeologists at work on a Roman bath-house in the City of London    

Medieval London

Viking raids in the 9th century affected all England. London was a prime target and for that reason strategically ever more important for the survival of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. In consequence London replaced Winchester as the de facto capital of the southern kingdoms. Time and again in the 9th and 10th centuries the city was assailed, and chroniclers report savage attacks and heroic defences. Defence needs led to the emergence of aldermen—headmen of the precincts (or wards) of the city, who served as its military defenders. Here lie the roots of London’s later local government system.

Earliest known plan of the Tower of London Depicts view of the Tower. in 1420s © British Library Tower of London, built about
1078 © Photo R. Inc.

Though the Viking threat was eventually seen off, the Anglo-Saxon monarchy could not repulse the Normans. After the defeat of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, quickly installed himself in London, had himself crowned on Christmas Day, and made it his headquarters, building the White Tower, a monumental stone keep that was to form the core of the Tower of London. The Normans restored the walls and rebuilt London Bridge in stone for the first time. William II, the Conqueror’s son, developed Westminster Hall 3km (2 mi) upriver from the Tower as his royal palace and a bolt-hole safe from fractious burghers. Thereafter, the capital’s history was always in some measure a tale of two cities: the City of London itself, the square mile first circumscribed by the Roman walls, settled by the Saxons and Normans, and destined to become the centre of economic activity; and, on the other hand, the City of Westminster with its two focuses of Westminster Abbey and Westminster Hall, which became the home of the royal court and later of Parliament.

The Normans, and later the Plantagenets, made England strong, and London flourished as their capital and as a port and manufacturing centre. Much of England’s lucrative trade in wool and agricultural produce was floated down the Thames and exported via the wharves and jetties just downstream of London Bridge. Within the walls, skilled crafts flourished and, especially from the 14th century, these were organized into over 100 guilds, such as the Mercers, Salters, Fishmongers, and Vintners. A mixture of trade union and employers’ company, guilds were self-regulating bodies with the power to admit apprentices and appoint freemen (who thereby became citizens). Trades were localized and often associated with a particular street that still survives today: for example, Wood Street, Milk Street, Ironmonger Lane, and Poultry still branch off Cheapside ("cheap" is from the Anglo-Saxon for "market").

The present Westminster Abbey begun in 1245 under Henry III, was built on the site of an older church, consecrated in 1065 The Abbey is built in a gothic style, showing strong French influence. The interior contains fine C13 sculptures & famous tombs William the Conqueror was crowned in the Abbey in 1066 and since then most coronations and royal burials have taken place here

London developed administrative institutions. From just before 1200 there is evidence of a mayor. This official seems to have had dual loyalties, being in part an officer of the Crown charged with carrying out royal business, while also serving as a focus for citizen loyalty—a tension indicative of the often strained relationships between the City and the Crown in the latter part of the Middle Ages. Many kings, notably the Edwards, treated the City of London as a milch cow, a handy source of taxes and revenues. Yet only a foolish monarch would risk permanently alienating the loyalties of the merchant princes of the City of London, as Charles I was later to discover to his cost.

From the 15th century, London’s government was conducted from the Guildhall, an impressive stone building that in part survives. Beneath the Mayor there was the Court of Aldermen, the Common Council, and the Common Hall. Tensions often arose among these bodies, and also between the assemblies and the guilds, but London managed to escape the internecine urban warfare so common in late medieval Italy. The emergence of Parliament conferred further importance on London, since its meetings were increasingly held in Westminster Hall.

This 15th Century illustration depicts
the pilgrims en route to Canterbury. - Bridgeman
Canterbury, Kent today. In ancient times,
it was England's Religious centre. - R.Harding

London’s prosperity was temporarily affected by the Black Death of 1348-1349, a bubonic plague epidemic that killed up to one third of the entire population. That did not, however, prove a long-term setback, and much evidence suggests that London enjoyed self-confident prosperity in the late Middle Ages. The guilds staged elaborate pageantry with their calendar festivities, and the Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer around 1390, gives a vivid picture of pilgrims setting off to Canterbury from the Tabard Inn in Southwark, at the south end of London Bridge.

This 14th-century miniature, taken from the Toggenburg Bible, illustrates victims of the bubonic plague or black death. In Europe it is estimated to have killed 1/3rd of the population in 3 years! -Bettmann 1348 C. The epidemic which began in rats and was spread by fleas which lived on them, broke out Central Asia and killed 20 million worldwide. About 30,000 died in London. Definitely a dirty rat!

Tudor London

A great watershed in London’s history was the Reformation instigated by Henry VIII, furthered by his son Edward VI, and completed by his daughter Elizabeth I. Unlike the experience of many European cities, in London the Reformation did not involve mass bloodshed. City fathers and educated preachers generally cooperated in bringing about a gradual shift from Catholicism to Protestantism. What proved more disruptive, however, and yet a golden opportunity, was the abolition of the monasteries and chantries. As a consequence of the Dissolution, much of the freehold property within the City and just beyond the walls changed hands. The Crown redistributed priories, nunneries, chantries, and charities into the hands of royal supporters who sold them off, turned them into spectacular houses for themselves, or redeveloped them for industrial and commercial or residential purposes. The result was a vigorous land market, and the unleashing of a property boom, with housing of all sorts for rich and poor alike becoming jammed into every nook and cranny of the old city and spilling over into the suburbs.

Henry VIII is most famous today for his foundation of the Church of England, and for his six wives, two of whom he had beheaded. Henry VIII by Hans Holbein -Bridgeman Art Library

This building boom was both a cause and a consequence of the other great 16th-century change in the capital: rapid population growth. London boomed from a population of about 50,000 in 1500 to perhaps 140,000 in 1600, and to about 750,000 by 1700. Most of these people had flocked in from the country, but many migrants came from abroad, often as religious refugees, such as the Huguenots. These worked in London’s burgeoning workshops and industries, notably weaving, laboured in the port, or found employment in domestic service. London was becoming one of Europe’s great commercial centres, its trade spreading to the Levant, to Russia, and after 1600 increasingly to North America. London was a beneficiary of the incessant warfare raging after 1550 on the Continent, especially the Wars of Religion. The destruction of Antwerp by the Spaniards in 1572 handed London supremacy as a North Sea entrepôt.

London’s glory was reflected in its cultural radiance. It became a major book-publishing centre, while the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I at Whitehall attracted painters, poets, and performers. London also became the focus for the study and practice of law, centred upon the Inns of Court: Lincoln’s Inn, the Temple, the Inner Temple, Gray’s Inn, and other lesser halls, situated between the City and Westminster. South of the river, Bankside flourished as a lively amusement precinct, boasting innumerable taverns and hostelries, cockpits, bull- and bear-baiting rings, and brothels. Theatres sprang up, notably the Globe (1598), where some of Shakespeare’s plays where premiered. These theatres were closed by the Puritans in the 1640s as threats to public morals and order.

The original Globe opened in 1599. It burned down in 1613 and was immediately rebuilt. It was closed by the Puritans in 1642. It was an open air theatre seating 3000 spectators. It was 3 stories high and a diameter of 100ft William Shakespeare (1564-1616) English poet and playwright and arguably the greatest of all dramatists. The Globe staged many of his plays.WORLD EXCLUSIVE, CLICK PICTURE TO HEAR THE BARD SPEAK! Now, 200 yards from its original site in Southwark in 1600C, after almost 400 years, the Globe Theatre has been restored, rebuilt and opened to the public again

Many feared that spiralling population growth would unleash social disorder. Lurid pamphlets warned about the surge of criminals, pickpockets, and a disruptive low-life subculture. Yet in the event Tudor London seems to have been remarkably stable. Much was owed to the great resilience of its local government system. The city’s 100 parishes operated well as small, face-to-face neighbourhood communities; the rotation of elective offices absorbed a high proportion of the citizenry in running their own affairs. Guilds also continued to regulate trade and employment, integrating outsiders and giving some semblance of reality to the myth of Dick Whittington (the apprentice boy who rose to become lord mayor). London was fortunate in remaining essentially self-governing under its own mayor, rather than having a royal governor imposed, as with so many other European cities. Prosperity kept discontent down.

London painted in about 1650 before the 'Great Fire' of 1666 The 'new' and the 'old' living in harmony on the banks of the River Thames. Photo taken from under Tower Bridge! London's streets are not all paved with gold, there is also plenty of green.

This concise history of London has been gleaned from various media sources in the public domain. In particular we have a reproduced an article written by Professor Sydney Porter and also borrowed some antiquities from the Museum of London (acknowledgement to Peter Frost). We have tried to credit the authors where possible and should we have inadvertently infringed on copyright, please advise us and we will remove the offending piece.