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History of London

London

By RilwanPublished 9 months ago 8 min read
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History of London
Photo by Charles Postiaux on Unsplash

The history of London, the capital city of England and the United Kingdom, extends over 2000 years. In that time, it has become one of the world's most significant financial and cultural capital cities. It has withstood plague, devastating fire, civil war, aerial bombardment, terrorist attacks, and riots.

The City of London is the historic core of the Greater London metropolis, and is today its primary financial district, though it represents only a small part of the wider metropolis.

Foundations and prehistory

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Some recent discoveries indicate probable very early settlements near the Thames in the London area. In 1993, the remains of a Bronze Age bridge were found on the Thames's south foreshore, upstream of Vauxhall Bridge.[1] This bridge either crossed the Thames or went to a now lost island in the river. Dendrology dated the timbers to between 1750 BC and 1285 BC.[2] In 2001, a further dig found that the timbers were driven vertically into the ground on the south bank of the Thames west of Vauxhall Bridge.[3]

In 2010, the foundations of a large timber structure, dated to between 4800 BC and 4500 BC[4] were found, again on the foreshore south of Vauxhall Bridge.[5] The function of the mesolithic structure is not known. All these structures are on the south bank at a natural crossing point where the River Effra flows into the Thames.[6]

Archaeologist Leslie Wallace notes, "Because no LPRIA [Late pre-Roman Iron Age] settlements or significant domestic refuse have been found in London, despite extensive archaeological excavation, arguments for a purely Roman foundation of London are now common and uncontroversial."[7]

Early history

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Roman London (47–410 AD)

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Main article: Roman London

A Carausius coin from Londinium mint

A medal of Constantius I capturing London (inscribed as lon) in 296 after defeating Allectus. Beaurains hoard.

Londinium was established as a civilian town by the Romans about four years[8] after the invasion of 43 AD. London, like Rome, was founded on the point of the river where it was narrow enough to bridge and the strategic location of the city provided easy access to much of Europe. Early Roman London occupied a relatively small area, roughly equivalent to the size of Hyde Park. In around 60 AD, it was destroyed by the Iceni led by their queen Boudica. The city was quickly rebuilt as a planned Roman town and recovered after perhaps 10 years; the city grew rapidly over the following decades.

During the 2nd century Londinium was at its height and replaced Colchester as the capital of Roman Britain (Britannia). Its population was around 60,000 inhabitants. It boasted major public buildings, including the largest basilica north of the Alps, temples, bath houses, an amphitheatre and a large fort for the city garrison. Political instability and recession from the 3rd century onwards led to a slow decline.

At some time between 180 AD and 225 AD, the Romans built the defensive London Wall around the landward side of the city. The wall was about 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) long, 6 metres (20 ft) high, and 2.5 metres (8.2 ft) thick. The wall would survive for another 1,600 years and define the City of London's perimeters for centuries to come. The perimeters of the present City are roughly defined by the line of the ancient wall.

Londinium was an ethnically diverse city with inhabitants from across the Roman Empire, including natives of Britannia, continental Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.[9]

In the late 3rd century, Londinium was raided on several occasions by Saxon pirates.[10] This led, from around 255 onwards, to the construction of an additional riverside wall. Six of the traditional seven city gates of London are of Roman origin, namely: Ludgate, Newgate, Aldersgate, Cripplegate, Bishopsgate and Aldgate (Moorgate is the exception, being of medieval origin).

By the 5th century, the Roman Empire was in rapid decline and in 410 AD, the Roman occupation of Britannia came to an end. Following this, the Roman city also went into rapid decline and by the end of the 5th century was practically abandoned.

Anglo-Saxon London (5th century – 1066)

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Main article: Anglo-Saxon London

Until recently it was believed that Anglo-Saxon settlement initially avoided the area immediately around Londinium. However, the discovery in 2008 of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Covent Garden indicates that the incomers had begun to settle there at least as early as the 6th century and possibly in the 5th. The main focus of this settlement was outside the Roman walls, clustering a short distance to the west along what is now the Strand, between the Aldwych and Trafalgar Square. It was known as Lundenwic, the -wic suffix here denoting a trading settlement. Recent excavations have also highlighted the population density and relatively sophisticated urban organisation of this earlier Anglo-Saxon London, which was laid out on a grid pattern and grew to house a likely population of 10–12,000.

Early Anglo-Saxon London belonged to a people known as the Middle Saxons, from whom the name of the county of Middlesex is derived, but who probably also occupied the approximate area of modern Hertfordshire and Surrey. However, by the early 7th century the London area had been incorporated into the kingdom of the East Saxons. In 604 King Saeberht of Essex converted to Christianity and London received Mellitus, its first post-Roman bishop.

At this time Essex was under the overlordship of King Æthelberht of Kent, and it was under Æthelberht's patronage that Mellitus founded the first St. Paul's Cathedral, traditionally said to be on the site of an old Roman Temple of Diana (although Christopher Wren found no evidence of this). It would have only been a modest church at first and may well have been destroyed after he was expelled from the city by Saeberht's pagan successors.

The permanent establishment of Christianity in the East Saxon kingdom took place in the reign of King Sigeberht II in the 650s. During the 8th century, the kingdom of Mercia extended its dominance over south-eastern England, initially through overlordship which at times developed into outright annexation. London seems to have come under direct Mercian control in the 730s.

A silver coin of Alfred, with the legend ÆLFRED REX

The statue of Alfred the Great at Winchester, erected 1899

Viking attacks dominated most of the 9th century, becoming increasingly common from around 830 onwards. London was sacked in 842 and again in 851. The Danish "Great Heathen Army", which had rampaged across England since 865, wintered in London in 871. The city remained in Danish hands until 886, when it was captured by the forces of King Alfred the Great of Wessex and reincorporated into Mercia, then governed under Alfred's sovereignty by his son-in-law Ealdorman Æthelred.

A plaque in the City of London noting the re-establishment of the Roman walled city

Around this time the focus of settlement moved within the old Roman walls for the sake of defence, and the city became known as Lundenburh. The Roman walls were repaired and the defensive ditch re-cut, while the bridge was probably rebuilt at this time. A second fortified Borough was established on the south bank at Southwark, the Suthringa Geworc (defensive work of the men of Surrey). The old settlement of Lundenwic became known as the ealdwic or "old settlement", a name which survives today as Aldwich.

From this point, the City of London began to develop its own unique local government. Following Æthelred's death in 911 it was transferred to Wessex, preceding the absorption of the rest of Mercia in 918. Although it faced competition for political pre-eminence in the united Kingdom of England from the traditional West Saxon centre of Winchester, London's size and commercial wealth brought it a steadily increasing importance as a focus of governmental activity. King Athelstan held many meetings of the witan in London and issued laws from there, while King Æthelred the Unready issued the Laws of London there in 978.

Following the resumption of Viking attacks in the reign of Æthelred, London was unsuccessfully attacked in 994 by an army under King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark. As English resistance to the sustained and escalating Danish onslaught finally collapsed in 1013, London repulsed an attack by the Danes and was the last place to hold out while the rest of the country submitted to Sweyn, but by the end of the year it too capitulated and Æthelred fled abroad. Sweyn died just five weeks after having been proclaimed king and Æthelred was restored to the throne, but Sweyn's son Cnut returned to the attack in 1015.

After Æthelred's death at London in 1016 his son Edmund Ironside was proclaimed king there by the witangemot and left to gather forces in Wessex. London was then subjected to a systematic siege by Cnut but was relieved by King Edmund's army; when Edmund again left to recruit reinforcements in Wessex the Danes resumed the siege but were again unsuccessful. However, following his defeat at the Battle of Assandun Edmund ceded to Cnut all of England north of the Thames, including London, and his death a few weeks later left Cnut in control of the whole country.

A Norse saga tells of a battle when King Æthelred returned to attack Danish-occupied London. According to the saga, 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, thus ending the Viking occupation of London. This story presumably relates to Æthelred's return to power after Sweyn's death in 1014, but there is no strong evidence of any such struggle for control of London on that occasion.

Following the extinction of Cnut's dynasty in 1042 English rule was restored under Edward the Confessor. He was responsible for the foundation of Westminster Abbey and spent much of his time at Westminster, which from this time steadily supplanted the City itself as the centre of government. Edward's death at Westminster in 1066 without a clear heir led to a succession dispute and the Norman conquest of England. Earl Harold Godwinson was elected king by the witangemot and crowned in Westminster Abbey but was defeated and killed by William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings. The surviving members of the witan met in London and elected King Edward's young nephew Edgar the Ætheling as king.

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