A fuller History of London. Starting from the Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Medieval times, Tudors, Stuarts, Plague, Great Fire of London, Georgians, Victorians, Golden age, Industrial revolution and to the 20th century
• The beginnings of London can be dated back to
the Roman invasion in 43AD.
• Prior to this invasion there was no permanent
settlement in London.
• The commander of the Roman troops was Aulus
• He pushed his men up from their landing place in
Kent towards Colchester, then the most
important town in Britain. The Roman advance
was halted by the River Thames.
• Aulus Plautius was forced to build
the first “London Bridge” to get his
men across the river.
• This first Bridge has been excavated
recently and found to be only yards
from the modern version!
• The Bridge allowed the speedy
movement of troops.
• The Bridge proved a central point
for the new network of roads that
• The Roman settlement on the north side of the
Bridge, was called Londinium.
• Londinium quickly became an important
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 presentday East Anglia, launched her rebellion against
• She destroyed London and killed thousands of
traders who had started to live there.
Londinium was quickly rebuilt. Clusters of timber-framed wooden buildings surrounded the
large 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, ran 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 this century. It was moved to Temple Court, Queen Victoria Street.
Artefacts recovered from the excavation of the temple are now in the Museum of London.
Growth and decline
• A defensive Roman wall was built around the city in about
200 AD. For well over a millennium the shape and size of
London was defined by this wall.
• The area within the wall is now called "the City", London's
famous financial district. Traces of the wall can still be seen.
• London continued its growth under the late Roman Empire
and at its peak the population probably numbered about
• As the Roman Empire declined, troops were recalled back to
Rome. London went into a decline.
• 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.
In the 7th century trade began to
expand and the city grew again.
In about 604 AD, the first St. Paul's
Cathedral was made, on the site now
occupied by the present St. Paul's.
By the mid-eighth century, London
was prosperous trading centre again.
Its wealth attracted the attention of
• In 851, some 350 longboats full of Danes
attacked and burned London to the ground.
• Alfred the Great beat the Danes in 886
• After Alfreds death, the Danes took control again
• In 1014 the Anglo-Saxons and Norwegian Vikings
sailed up the Thames and attacked London.
• The attacks ceased when a Danish king came to
power in 1017.
The growing importance of London
London was now the most prosperous, and largest city in
the island of Britain - but it was not the capital. The
official seat of government was in Winchester. But the
royals usually resided in London.
Edward the Confessor was an extremely religious man.
Edward had been raised in Normandy, so his rule brought
French influence and trade. He made it his dream to build
a vast monastery and church at an island on the Thames
just upriver from the city. He remade 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.
Edward the Confessor
William the Conqueror
This may 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
William granted the citizens of London special
privileges. He 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 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.
Tower of London
In 1123, St. Bartholomew's Priory was founded in the city, and other
monastic houses quickly followed.
By the early 12th century the population of London was about 18,000
(compare this to the estimated population at the height of Roman Britain
At one point in the medieval period there were 13 monasteries in the city.
Today, these places are remembered only by the names - 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 the City initially
supported Maud, her arrogant behaviour angered the citizens and they
rose in revolt. Maud was forced to flee London.
In 1176, the first stone London Bridge was built. This bridge was to remain the only one
in London until 1739. The passage across this bridge was narrow and constantly clogged
with traffic, it was quicker and easier for travelers to hire boat-men to row them across
the river, or transport them up or down the 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
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.
Wat Tyler & Edward IV
In 1381, the city was invaded by peasant's 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
The London merchants supported Edward IV to
grab 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.
Why was life medieval?
The threat of fire was constant. 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 was ignored.
Diseases were rife. Plague was a constant threat. London lost at least half
of its population during the Black death in the mid 14 th century. London
was subject to no less than 16 outbreaks of the plague between 1348 and
the Great Plague of 1665.
Sanitation was poor and sewage was often infected water supplies
Until the late 16th century, London citizens were reliant for their water
supplies on water from shallow wells
Life was hard!
When Henry VII took the throne in 1485, 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.
Tudors – part 2
• Many areas that are now London parks were used as Royal
hunting forests. 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
• In 1598 John Stow, a retired tailor, wrote a survey of the city,
which gives a wonderful snapshot of Tudor London and its
history. Stow is buried at St. Andrew Undershaft. A ceremony
is held there every year celebrating his life.
Tudors – part 3
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.
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 was the scene of many of Shakespeare's plays, was
built on the South Bank in 1599, though it burned down in 1613. A
modern replica shown above, has been built near the original site.
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
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.
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. But in 1613 the New River Head at Finsbury
was completed. 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.
Covent garden piazza
Stuarts – part 2
In the early years, the landscape of London was changed by the work of
the self-taught architect, Inigo Jones. In 1631, Jones designed Covent
Garden piazza. He also created Queen's House in Greenwich, a
Banqueting Hall in Whitehall and Queen's Chapel.
In 1637 Charles I, opened Hyde Park to the public.
If Charles was looking for support, he didn't get it. The City helped finance
the Parliamentary war efforts in the English Civil War and Charles was
eventually beheaded outside Jones' Banqueting House.
The Protectorate and Commonwealth that followed Charles' death saw a
concerted effort by Puritan extremists to subdue Londoner's appetite for
the bawdier aspects of life. Theatre was banned, as was dancing and
almost anything else enjoyable. Churches had their organs and choirs
Stuarts – part 3
When the Restoration of the Monarchy brought Charles II to the throne in
1660 the pendulum swung back the other way. Entertainment was back in
fashion. Theatre gained the royal approval
The city entered a period of extensive building development. New
residential squares were laid out for the aristocracy to live in St. James,
Mayfair and Marylebone.
The Stuart period is sadly dominated by the Great Plague and the Great
Theatre Royal Drury Lane gained the royal
warrant in 1665.
In 1665, Plague broke out in the city, brought by ship from Holland. London
had experienced the plague several times since the Middle Ages. This time
it was more serious - a strain that sufferers could catch and die within
hours. The city descended into panic.
Sufferers were locked in their houses with their families. It was thought
that dogs and cats spread the disease, so the Lord Mayor ordered them
killed. So the natural enemies of the rats who were all killed.
Throughout the long, dry summer of 1665 the plague raged throughout
London. The court fled. Most doctors and priests followed. Anyone with the
means to go, left quickly. Although the worst of the plague died by the
autumn, it did not fully die out until the next great disaster cleansed the
filthy streets of London. It is estimated that 70,000 to over 100,000 lives
St Paul’s Cathedral
The Great Fire of London
On the night of September 2, 1666 a small fire, perhaps 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, four-fifths of the
city was completely destroyed, including 13,000 buildings, 89 churches, 52
company halls and the 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 carried on building 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. It is difficult to
find any surviving churches from before this time.
The early years of the 18th century saw the birth of newspapers. The most notable
was Richard Addison's Spectator. It catered to an increasingly literate population.
Many newspapers set up shop along Fleet Street.
The Georgian period in London coincided with the Palladian Revival in architecture
and art. In 1715, Burlington House was built in Piccadilly. It played a major role in
popularizing this classical style. A few years later, Lord Burlington remodeled
Chiswick House in 1725.
At the same time, Grosvenor Square was laid out in Mayfair. Part of this was the
aristocratic district. More London squares followed, notably Berkeley Square
designed by William Kent. Kent was also responsible for building the Treasury
Building in 1733 and the Horse Guards in 1745.
Georgians – part 2
In 1737, a series of satires staged at the Theatre Royal Haymarket infuriated the authorities.
Lord Chamberlain was given the power of censorship over all the public theatre
performances. This power was not revoked until 1968.
For some six hundred years the only bridge across the Thames was London Bridge. However,
the growing city demanded easier movement, so shops and houses were pulled down and
large sections of the old city walls were destroyed. In 1750, a second stone bridge was
created, Westminster Bridge.
In 1759, the British Museum opened its doors (shown below). The museum was based on a
collection of "curiosities" collected by Sir Hans Sloane. When Sloane died, his collection, 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 influenced by
Robert Adam and his imitators. Adam was responsible for a spate of influential designs
around London, including Syon House (1761), Osterley Park and Kenwood House.
Georgians – part 3
King George III and Queen Charlotte moved into Buckingham House (which later becomes
Buckingham Palace). St. James Palace remained the official royal residence.
Coffee houses became very popular as a forum for business, entertainment and social
activity. New Jonathan's was one of them. Merchant entrepreneurs would gather there. It
became the London Stock Exchange.
1780 saw the outbreak of what we now call the Gordon Riots. They began as a march
through the streets of London to protest the Catholic Relief Act, which granted basic rights to
The marchers, under the leadership of Lord George Gordon, let their religious prejudice boil
over into a week of looting and murder. The Gordon Riots terrified the authorities and
brought repressive measures against any form of protest or reform-minded writing.
Pleasure gardens (outdoor amusement parks) such as Ranelagh and Vauxhall became
The Victorian city of London was a city of contrasts. New building and
affluent development went hand in hand with horribly overcrowded
slums. The population surged 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 people.
Coal-fired stoves and poor sanitation made the air heavy and foulsmelling. Immense amounts of raw sewage was dumped straight into the
Thames River. Even the Royals were not immune - when Queen Victoria
occupied Buckingham Palace her rooms were ventilated through the
common sewers, a fact that was not disclosed until some 40 years later.
Joseph 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. Outbreaks of cholera dropped dramatically as a
result. Bazalgette also was responsible for the design of the Embankment,
and the Battersea, Hammersmith and Albert Bridges.
John Nash designed the broad avenues of Regent Street, Piccadilly Circus,
Carlton House Terrace, and Oxford Circus, as well as the ongoing
transformation of Buckingham House into Buckingham Palace.
In 1829, Sir Robert Peel founded the Metropolitan Police
Just behind Buckingham Palace the Grosvenor family developed Belgrave
Square. In 1830, land just east of the palace was cleared to create
Trafalgar Square. The National Gallery was created two years later.
The Golden age
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.
The great railway boom followed. Stations were built at Euston (1837),
Paddington (1838), Fenchurch Street (1841), Waterloo (1848) and King's
In 1834, the Houses of Parliament at Westminster Palace burned down.
They were gradually replaced with what we have now.
Big Ben - The clock tower of the Houses of Parliament was built in 1859.
The origin of the name refers to the bells of the tower and not to the large
Great Exhibition of 1851
Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria was largely responsible for one of
the defining moments of the era; the Great Exhibition of 1851. This was the
first great world's fair. It showcased technology and manufacturing from
countries all over the world. The Exhibition was held in Hyde Park. The
centerpiece was Joseph Paxton's revolutionary iron and glass hall, dubbed
the "Crystal Palace".
V & A and the Science Museum
The Great exhibition of 1851 was a huge success, with over 200,000 attendees.
Crystal Palace was moved to Sydenham, in South London. It stayed there until it
burned to the ground in 1936.
The proceeds from the Great Exhibition went towards building two permanent
displays: The Science Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum (Seen below).
In 1848 the great Potato Famine struck Ireland. As a result, 100,000 Irish
people fled and settled in London. At one point they made 20% of the
population of London.
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.
The Thames was clogged with ships from all over the world.
Consequently, London had more shipyards than any other Country.
Living conditions among London's poor were appalling. Children as young
as 5 were often sent to work. Campaigners like Charles Dickens did much
to make their plight known to the literate classes with his novels. In 1870,
these efforts bore some fruit when a passage of laws provided
compulsory education for children between the ages of 5 and 12.
The terrific population growth continued. In 1904, the first bus service in London
began, followed by the first underground electric train in 1906. A spate of new
luxury hotels, department stores and theatres sprang up in the West End. The Ritz
opened in 1906, Harrods new Knightsbridge store in 1905 and Selfridges in 1907.
New entertainment venues sprouted all over the place. The London Palladium was
the largest of 60 major halls that were built. These were used for music-hall and
Several major building projects marked Edward VII's reign. 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.
Both the first and second World Wars brought great hardship to the city.
In the Fall of 1915, the first Zeppelin bombs fell in London killing 39 people. There
were 650 fatalities resulting from bombings during the "War to End All Wars".
20 Century – part 2
In 1921, the population surged to about 7.5 million. London County Council began
building new housing estates, which gradually ate up the surrounding countryside.
Unemployment was high, and as a result there was a General Strike in 1926. The
army was called in to keep the Underground and buses running. But also to
In the 1930's, large numbers of Jews emigrated to London. The escaped
persecution in Europe and most of them settled in the East End. In 1938, the
threat from Germany was big enough for large numbers of children to be moved
out of London to the surrounding countryside.
The defining moment of the century for Londoners was the Blitz. During the dark
days of 1940 over a third of the City was destroyed by German bomb.
Some 17 of Christopher Wren's London churches were badly damaged. The area
worst hit was the City itself. St. Paul's Cathedral suffered minor damage.
Some 16 acres around the Barbican development and the Museum of London
were totally flattened. Numerous historic buildings were destroyed. The death toll
was heavy; 32,000 dead and over 50,000 badly injured.
20th Century – part 3
After the second world war, Britain experienced heavy immigration from the old
British Empire. This changed the character of the city. Notting Hill acquired a large
Caribbean population. Immigrants from Hong Kong 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.
It left behind it the much despised South Bank Arts complex.
Heathrow airport opened to commercial flights in 1946. The first red doubledecker buses (dubbed the Routemaster) appeared on London roads in 1956.
The London Docks declined after the war. The Isle of Dogs fell has been rescued
within the last fifteen years by modern development.
Between 1972-82, the Thames Barrier was built to control potential flooding.
The last great building project of the century was the Millennium Dome. It is an
exhibition centre in North Greenwich. The Dome opened on January 1, 2000. It is a
massive complex. It has sponsored exhibits on the human experience of life etc.