A Short History of London

The history of London, the Great Metropolis extends over 2000 years. The capital city of the United Kingdom once called the “Modern Babylon,” is one of the most magnificent cities in the world. London’s population equals that of Ireland and Scotland together. Its enormousness has long been the theme of native and foreign writers, and the life of its swarming millions always produces a strong impression on the visitor.

London was a Celtic settlement when the Romans arrived. If London existed before the invasion of the Romans, it probably was like most British towns at that time. A rude stockaded settlement, unacquainted with any more imposing architecture than windowless, chimneyless, and doorless huts, shaped of reeds and branches after the manner of hurdles. The inhabitants dressed in the hides of animals, and they tattooed and painted their arms and faces with various figures. With the arrival of the Romans, the solitude passed away, and a few years afterward, London had become a flourishing port.

Roman London was the real beginning of the great City, and a part of it lies eighteen feet below the level of Cheapside, a street in the City of London. The Romans left deep footprints wherever they trod, and many of the existing streets follow the lines which they beat out. Aulus Plautius was a Roman senator and general of the mid-1st century, who built a fort in London around 43 AD.

Although a great place, it was of no strategical significance, and Suetonius abandoned it to the rebels under Boadicea in 61. Soon afterward, a bridge was built with a fortress to protect the north side. The western border of this fort was probably where London Stone, a Roman milestone and the magical heart of London, now stands in Cannon Street. The houses multiplied about the fort, and around 200 AD, the Romans built a wall around it. The enclosure was then an area of roughly 380 acres or one square mile.

The Picts, a confederation of Celtic-speaking people, and Scots were not able to take it. The Romans, having withdrawn in 410, left the City in the utmost disorder. When the barbarian Saxons defeated the Britons in 457, they retreated to London. Nothing more is heard of the City until 604 when it is an insignificant place with ravaged walls held by Sexred, the first East Saxon King.  It was open to all intruders until it was eventually burned and deserted by the Danes in 839. Fifty years later, Alfred the Great saw the tremendous military value of the area, so he repaired the wall and founded the Modern City of London in 886. For residents, he chose English, Danes, French, and German settlers indifferently so that very early the population of London was very diverse. In Alfred’s laws, a man who had navigated the sea three times in his boat was deserving of citizenship.

Later kings heartened the commerce of the port. They did not abandon the fortifications so that London was the only community in England that could withstand the Danes. In 982, the City suffered from a disastrous fire, but the walls and gates were not damaged. The Southwark side of the bridge must have been well guarded. To get above the structure, Cnut the Great, Kind of Denmark, had to dig a canal around Southwark for his barges.

Edward the Confessor, also known as Saint Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, held his parliaments in this City and built Westminster Abbey. Consecrated on December 28, 1065, the initial foundation of the Westminster Abbey took place in 960 AD as a Benedictine monastery.

Following the battle of Hastings, the Londoners at first strongly resisted William the Conqueror, the first Norman Kind of England, but soon thought it wise to submit. William needed a stronghold to subdue and terrify the citizens, and the work on the White Tower began in 1078.

In 1083, the work on St. Paul’s commenced on the site of the old church founded by Ethelbert (Æthelberht), King of Kent, in 610. By now, the City swarming with Norman settlers. It endured many hardships. In 1077, such a fire developed “as never has before since London was founded.” Ten years later, another fire devastated “the greatest and fairest part of the whole City.” In 1090, also, a hurricane demolished many churches and some six hundred houses.

Following the destruction of London bridge in 1136, its maintainer Peter de Colechurch proposed to replace the timber bridge with more permanent construction, made of stone. A tax was imposed to fund the new stone bridge. The construction started, under the direction of Colechurch, in 1176, in the reign of Henry II. The new bridge finished in 1209, during the reign of King John. The first bridge was constructed by the Romans in about 50 AD, which was replaced by a timber bridge completed by the Saxons. It was rebuilt in wood several times until the last timber bridge was built in 1163.

The most legendary and longstanding of these was the “Old” Medieval bridge, finished during the reign of King John, who colonized it by houses, shops, and even a chapel, at the center of the bridge.

London was always a turbulent city, possessive of its rights, opposing to the King’s ministers, sympathetic towards rebels and pretenders, and supportive to claimants to the Crown. It sided with Simon De Montfort against Henry III and attacked the Queen’s (Eleanor of Provence) barge at London Bridge.

Henry Bolingbroke was the idol of the Londoners, who happily helped to make him King and overthrow Richard II. Edward IV found similar favor in dethroning Henry VI. His brother, Richard III, also found support in the City, where he lived at Crosby Hall.

When dissatisfaction and suffering in the counties broke out into open rebellion, there was always a strong faction in London ready to welcome and assist the movement. In 1381, Wat Tyler, a leader of the Peasants’ Revolt and his supporters could not have entered the City if the draw of London Bridge had not been lowered by an Alderman (an elected member of a city council) and his party. It was only when the mob started to ransack that the City became concerned. The murder of Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor and the Lord High Treasurer in the Tower, as well as the raid of John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace, were favored acts. Still, when the City seemed to be at the mercy of the commoners, the Lord Mayor, Sir William Walworth, killed Wat Tyler in the presence of the King at Smithfield.

The next well-known rising in which London was interested was Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450. The Kentish men encamped first at Blackheath before settling at Southwark. After defeating the Royal force, the Court agreed to straighten out some of the abuses complained of. Jack Cade, the leader of a Kentish rebellion, was admitted into the City where he kept his followers under harsh discipline for two days. However, he persuaded the mayor and judges to condemn Lord Saye, one of the most hated of the King’s ministers, whose head was promptly cut off in Cheapside by the rebel. Subsequently, on the next day, Cade set the example of ransacking some houses, and when he returned to Southwark, London Bridge was closed against him. The army soon dissolved, and Cade was killed by Alexander Iden, who received a rich reward.

In 1554, after beating the Royal forces, Thomas Wyatt the Younger, the son of the English poet and ambassador Sir Thomas Wyatt, tried to take the City, but the Londoners successfully safeguarded Ludgate, captured Wyatt and beheaded him promptly.

London was always fond of extravagance. One of the most glorious processions the City ever saw was in 1356 when Edward the Black Prince, Duke of Cornwall, escorted his captive, King John II of France, through the streets of London after his triumph at Poitiers. King John II was accommodated at the Savoy, John of Gaunt’s magnificent palace in the Strand, which was plundered twenty-five years later by the rebels under Wat Tyler. Many brilliant parades of knights and ladies passed from the Tower to the tournaments held in Smithfield, which Royalty often graced with its presence.

The City was frequently scourged with dreadful pestilences. The Black Death in 1348 caused by Yersinia pestis bacteria, the English Sweat in 1485, and the Great Plague of London from 1665 to 1666, carried off thousands of victims in the jammed and unsanitary lodgings in the narrow lanes of the City. The worst epidemic of this nature was the Plague of 1665. The outbreak began in London in February, and within seven months, one hundred thousand Londoners were dead. All business was suspended, and all who were able left the City. Fires were ignited in the streets to purify the air, and not much was heard, but the rumble of the death-cart.

In the following year, on September 2, 1666, old London was nearly destroyed by the Great Fire, which was an unfortunate event with a positive outcome, since it devastated most of the plague-infected homes. Fanned by a high wind, it raged for nearly a week and consumed eighty-nine churches, four city gates, the Guildhall and many other public buildings, 13,200 houses, and 460 streets. People fled to Hampstead, Highgate, Moorfields, and Smithfield, and the Thames was jam-packed with boats filled with people and their belongings. The fire was eventually stopped, and on September 10, Henry Oldenburg, one of the foremost scientific intelligencers, wrote to the Honorable Robert Boyle saying:

“the citizens, instead of complaining, discoursed almost of nothing but of a survey for rebuilding the city with bricks and large streets.”

Nearly all of the project was awarded to Sir Christopher Wren, one of the most highly acclaimed English architects and Robert Hooke, an English natural philosopher, architect, and polymath. Wren’s tremendous work was the rebuilding of St. Paul’s, one of London’s most iconic buildings, and more than fifty parish churches.

What was left of London standing within the city walls covered only seventy-five acres! A Monument was designed and constructed by Sir Christopher Wren, on the site of St. Margaret’s Church on Fish Street Hill to commemorate the Great Fire of London. The Monument is a tall fluted column made of Portland stone, 202 feet high, surmounted by a gilt bronze ornament made to resemble a flame. Originally the Monument had an inscription ascribing the conflagration to the treachery and malice of a popish faction.  It took almost fifty years to rebuild the burnt area of the City.

In 1685, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes. The revocation led to the suppression of the Reformed Church in France and forced Protestants into exile or hiding. These Huguenots came to London in massive numbers and settled in Spitalfields. Being mostly engaged in silk-weaving, they were the founders of the Spitalfields silk industry. Until then, fashionable English men and women had worn and furnished their houses with silks imported from France and Italy.

The City expanded swiftly during the eighteenth century. In 1710, Parliament enacted that fifty new churches should be built to provide for the spiritual needs of the suburbs. Many of the trendy streets and squares of the West End were laid out in the days of the Hanoverian kings, the four Georges. George I (reigned 1714–27), George II (reigned 1727–60), George III (reigned 1760–1820), George IV (reigned 1820–30).

The only severe damage inflicted by mob violence at this period was in the “No Popery” or “Gordon Riots” of 1780. Lord George Gordon was elected president of the Protestant Association of London. He headed a mob of about 100,000 people to present a petition to Parliament against the removal of specific penalties and disabilities to which Roman Catholics were subject. In a fiery speech, he exited his followers, who immediately began to riot, pillage, and destroy. During the disorders which lasted for several days, Newgate prison was ransacked, and the captives set free. The mansion of Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice, and other private dwellings, as well as many Roman Catholic chapels, were also destroyed.

Since that date, London has been comparatively free from mob excesses. However, in 1848, defensive measures were taken against a threatened attack by the Chartists, a working-class male suffrage movement for political reform in Britain. The mob met south of the river and was stopped from returning to London by strong guards at the bridges, so nothing came of it.

The City of London ruled by the Lord Mayor, and Aldermen covered an area of a little more than one square mile. Its resident population at that time was about 25,000. The County of London, administered by the London County Council, constituted by Act of Parliament in 1888, had an area of 74,839 acres with a population of more than four and a half million. This does not include any part of Essex, into which London now spreads for many miles. The population of Greater London was around seven million, residing in about nine hundred thousand houses.

Today, the extended area known as the London Metropolitan Region comprises a total area of 3,236 sq miles, has a population of 13,709,000, and a population density of 7,200 inhabitants per square mile.

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