latest guide
library picture

From Londinium to London

London is really a Roman city, although settlements existed in the area in prehistoric times. The Romans marched up to the area in AD43, clashing with local tribes but building a river crossing just east of the present London Bridge. This greatly upset Queen Boudica of the Iceni tribe, who burnt London to the ground in AD60, but the Romans stuck around and turned London into an administrative centre to rule Roman Britain (so no change there then). By the times the Romans were pulling out, Germanic tribes called Saxons had started defending the city against the Dark Ages to come.

So how did The King end up fighting a war against the Houses of Parliament?

Imagine you're in Roman London. In fact if you're in Aldwych you actually are in Roman London. Aldwych is the Saxon word for Old Town. The London of AD60 was a gathering of wooden halls and houses set in open country. No decent defences and no garrison. You would be a frontiersman, a merchant opportunist trying to spin a profit at the edge of civilisation. You accept the higher risks in return for quick profits made by exploiting the idiot natives.

Then suddenly on the horizon, an army appears, looking not unlike the army at the beginning of the movie Gladiator. Except today, Russell Crow isn't here, he's not going to save you, the garrison to the West hasn't turned up because they've decided that London is indefensible. Your stomach sinks and you turn to your family. Nothing stands between you and 80,000 enraged savages except a bunch of fat bankers.

What do you do?

ARRRRGGGHHHH!!!!!!

Well there's a glimpse of Roman London for you.

The Britons may not have been happy to see the Romans arrive but they were none too happy to see them go either. 400 years after Boudica the civilised Romano-British watched the Romans go home with what can only have been crushing dismay

To get a glimpse of this feeling, imagine that you are in modern Britain yet all the surrounding countries are populated by medieval cultures. For some reason our army just ups and disappears leaving us at the mercy of the first invader to turn up. We know that we are about witness our culture backslide four hundred years and we'll almost certainly be enslaved. That's exactly what happened to the Romano British when the Saxon warrior kings arrived. That's why they call it the dark ages.

SAXON LONDON

The Saxons pushed the Celtic Romano-British into Wales, Cornwall and Cumbria. Then it took the Saxons about 250 years to evolve from tribal warrior groups to one nation under one king.

Saxon Londoners largely shunned the Old Roman City and based their new town in the Westminster area. Until King Ethelbert built the first St Paul's Cathedral, supposedly on the site of a Roman Temple of Diana. From then on, the centre of Saxon trade was the Strand/Charing Cross area, right by the river, and Saxon timbers have been discovered shoring up the Embankment. All was pretty hunky-dory until the Vikings came in the 840s, and did their raping and pillaging stuff all over London, until Alfred the Great got them to sign a peace treaty. From Alfred onwards, the Kings of England based themselves in London, building the city up into a political and trading powerhouse.

The Saxons came originally from northern Germany and Southern Denmark they also came over with the Angles of South West Denmark hence the term Anglo-Saxon.

England means land of the Angles. To get an idea of what Anglo-Saxon life was like you could do worse than think the Lord of the Rings. Except it wasn't that nice. You would probably have been a slave or if you were lucky a Churl.

England means land of the Angles. To get an idea of what Anglo-Saxon life was like you could do worse than think the Lord of the Rings. Except it wasn't that nice. You would probably have been a slave or if you were lucky a Churl.

Churls were free but poor. Thanes were those that owned more than five Hydes of land. A Hyde was a piece of land large enough to feed a family on. And yes that's where the name Hyde Park comes from. The aristocracy had a job to do in them days and that job was fighting. And in London it seems the fighting never really stopped with constant wars between various Viking factions and The Anglo-Saxons taking place all through the Saxon era.

Imagine you're a Saxon warrior. The alarm cries go up. Horns are sounded. It's early in the morning and you blearily grab a bow and head for London Bridge, the other warriors are gathering on the wooden bridge. You look out east into the mist. A hundred Viking Longships are sailing right up the middle of the Thames towards you. They are crewed with heavily armoured psychopaths waving big axes. You realise its going to be one of them days.

NORMAN LONDON

Saxon London fell apart in 1013 when King Canute attacked the city, and claimed power, followed by the battle of Hastings in 1066 when William the Conqueror snatched the crown, and London too. Under successive monarchs, Norman London grew in power, and the city was one great building site of churches, towers and palaces.

Until the Normans arrived Londoners had spoken the Saxon language known as old English. Over the next 200 years some 10,000 French words entered the common tongue and the hybrid is called Middle English. The difference marks the earliest beginning of an English language recognisable to the modern speaker.

MEDIEVAL LONDON & MODERN LONDON

Medieval London benefited from the power of the Mayor of London, a post that even predates Parliament. King John reinforced the special status of London in 1215, giving Londoners the right to choose their own leader. In the 1200s, the old wooden bridges across the Thames were replaced with the "Old London Bridge" built in stone, and still in use until 1832! The power of the church increased, as various abbeys and churches grew up, as did elegant palaces for bishops. All this opulent living was shaken by Wat Tyler's Peasants Revolt of 1381, when even the King had to retreat to the Tower of London to escape the mob.

Despite the unrest, London was expanding rapidly, with the largest urban population in the country, and a thriving import/export trade from its docks. (Mayor Richard Whittington made his fortune not from a cat but from trading as a merchant.) By the 15th century, England was a major producer of cloth, and its export made the city rich. The Wars of the Roses did little damage to the fabric of London, despite a siege by Warwick the Kingmaker in 1471.

To get an idea of Medieval London think Robin Hood era. Think knights and crusades, powerful and corrupt monasteries, and pilgrimages. Ordinary folk worked the land or traded goods in town. If you were a Medieval Londoner you would have been some type of artisan or merchant. Nominally Christian but probably still a big believer in demons, spirits and all kinds of weirdness. You work constantly to put wood on the fire and bread in the kitchen. If you're lucky you can afford a pair of incredibly trendy pointy shoes but generally you wear linen and wool. If you get sick you die. There is no real medicine. Doctors believe illness is carried around on bad smells. And in 1348 the Black Death wipes out half the population of Europe. Since you don't know of the existence of America or Australasia and you still believe the world is flat then Europe is the whole world to you. No wonder you feel like god has passed judgement.

That's medieval London!

TUDOR LONDON

It was the Tudor kings who really took the city by the scruff of the architectural neck, expanding Westminster Abbey, building great palaces and nicking others off the church, such as Hampton Court. Of course, Henry VIII did the most to take away the power of the church, and many of the finest monastic buildings were destroyed. Elizabeth I's reign saw stability, the rise of English theatre (thanks to Shakespeare and co.) and an explosion on the number of brothels at Southwark, which were regulated by the Bishop! Maps dating from the period also show how the rich were moving out to country estates out west to avoid the crowded city.

Crowned in 1603, James I brought fresh water to the city for the first time, whilst architect Inigo Jones planned the new developments at Covent Garden and Lincoln's Inn Fields.

If you've ever seen a Shakespeare play or read the text then you'll have a good idea of how people spoke. Tudors considered themselves savvy and modern. It was a time of colonies and adventures on the high seas for merchants and pirates. The Thames was busy with ships. To visualise Tudor London you have to be drunk as they permanently were.

"The streets were narrow, cobbled, slippery with the slime of refuse. Houses were crammed together, and there were a lot of furtive alleys. Chamber pots, or jordans, were emptied out of windows. There was no drainage. Fleet Ditch stank to make a man throw up his gorge. Everybody was, by our standards, tipsy. Nobody drank water, and tea had not yet come in. Ale was the standard tipple, and it was strong. Ale for breakfast was a good means of starting the day"
Anthony Burgess, Elizabethan Life

CIVIL WAR LONDON

Charles I argued with the power of the City, and ended up turning Parliament against him. You can still stand on the exact spot where he stood for his trial in Westminster Hall, at the Palace of Westminster.

Oliver Cromwell gave Jews the chance to return to London (they were banished in 1292) and the first synagogue as built in 1657. The 1660s were not kind to London, as the Great Plague of 1665 was quickly followed by the disastrous Fire of 1666. 68,000 people died from plague, and 80% of the walled city was burnt to the ground in the Great Fire. Sir Christopher Wren saw the opportunity to rebuild London in fire-proof stone, and the City as we know it began to emerge from the ashes.

GEORGIAN LONDON

Georgian London was the era of bridge building, with two new crossings of the Thames. The old gates of the city were demolished and the power of the City merchants decreased. Much of the elegant housing in London was built during this period too, and house-numbering systems were introduced for the first time. Look out for classical symmetrical houses with pillars on the porch, sash windows or a low wall built around the roof. These are hallmarks of Georgian style houses. Londoners put loads of windows into their houses in Georgian times to show off how rich they were. There was a tax on windows at the time.

VICTORIAN LONDON

19th century London began with rich and poor becoming more defined by where they lived. The rich moved west and north, the poor stayed crammed along the river and in the East End. The Victorians used their engineering skills to develop the great transport systems of railways, the Underground and trams. The terrible living conditions were gradually improved through a comprehensive and expensive public sewer-building programme; today's Embankment is basically the manhole cover of a massive Victorian sewer system.

WARTIME LONDON

Edwardian London still saw a marked difference between the poor and the rich, with no welfare state to support those out of work. Central London was heavily bombed by Zeppelins during World War One, but those in the rapidly expanding suburbs were spared. No such luck in World War Two, where the Blitz completely changed the London landscape forever. The rebuilding in the 50s and 60s wasn't pretty, and much of it has been removed to make way for London's modern landmarks such as the Gherkin.

Now, London is as much a melting pot of cultures as is it a patchwork of history. Visit and enjoy.

Back to the Library