A Brief History of London
London is almost 2,000 years old. A perusal of London’s history can help explain how the small Roman settlement on the banks of the Thames became today’s multicultural city of more than 7 million inhabitants. Historians have written tomes about each era. Here is a brief, abridged history lesson.
Archaeologists have found Paleolithic flints and Mesolithic axes in different parts of London, but these tools were most likely left by visitors who were hunting or fishing beside the Thames.
The Romans, who invaded Britain in 43 A.D., get the credit for establishing the first permanent settlement, their city of Londinium. Although it was a remote outpost of the Roman Empire, Rome’s largest ships could reach this port city, and so Londinium grew and prospered.
That is not to say that the locals completely bought into the regime change.
A famous-thanks to the writings of some Roman historians-uprising was led by Queen Boudicca (Boadicea was the more common spelling) of the Iceni tribe, from what is now East Anglia. In 60 A.D. or 61 A.D., Boudica led her people as well as the Trinovantes (from Essex) against the Romans. The revolt killed an estimated 70,000 to 80,000, destroyed Camulodunum (Colchester) and Verulamium (St. Albans), and burned Londinium to the ground.
It would not be the last clash of cultures, as Britain, and London with it, would be shaped over the centuries by different waves of people, some coming as invaders and others as immigrants. The Romans stuck around until 410 A.D., when the declining Empire refused to send new soldiers to replace the troops it had withdrawn a few years earlier. The Londinium that the Romans created fell into decline.
London’s geographic location and its importance as a port meant that the city would make a comeback, albeit one that would be shaped by the actions (often violent) of the people who came to the island during the next 600 or so years-the Angles, the Saxons, the Jutes, and the Vikings.
Christianity’s introduction and spread throughout Britain also shaped London’s history. Christianity had gained a foothold in Britain by the middle of the second century-think of all those calligrapher monks working in isolated abbeys on rocky islands. When St. Augustine baptized King Ethelbert of Kent (tradition says the conversion occurred in 597, but more likely it was in 601), the religion had hit bedrock.
By 604, the first St. Paul’s Cathedral was being built in London. In the 1040s, King Edward the Confessor began to transform a small monastery church into Westminster Abbey. The king, who would later be named a saint, also moved his court there, and so London became a royal city.
Another group of invaders-this time the Normans-came, conquered, and crowned their King William in Westminster Abbey in 1066. William started what became the Tower of London; it served as his home as well as a fortress from which to control his newly conquered subjects.
Medieval London had its highlights.
Its first Lord Mayor was elected in 1192; a stone London Bridge was completed in 1209; William Caxton established his printing press (England’s first) in Westminster in 1476.
Medieval London life could also be brutal. The Black Plague, or Black Death (we now know it as bubonic plague), first appeared in London in 1348. London would suffer repeated plague outbreaks, the last in 1665.
By the time of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603), London had a population of 200,000. London and the rest of the country had weathered the religious upheavals caused by Elizabeth’s father, Henry the VIII, who broke with Rome and placed himself as the head of a Protestant church, and then by her half sister, Mary I, who attempted to return England to Catholicism.
The last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth stabilized and ruled a country that held off the Spanish Armada, initiated colonization in distant lands, and sponsored voyages of discovery by such men as Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh. Southwark became London’s entertainment and red-light district, complete with bull- and bear-baiting rings and theaters.
The Globe Theatre, where many of William Shakespeare’s plays debuted, was built in 1599.
The Great Fire of 1666 led to a rebuilding of London. Although the great architect Christopher Wren did not succeed in carrying out his plans for a perfectly laid out city, the London that grew out of the ashes would become a world economic superpower long before that word was coined.
Colonization and the maritime-driven trade that accompanied it helped to create the British Empire, turning London into the world’s busiest port city and a banking capital by the 18th Century.
Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901) provided a name for the era and saw London’s population grow from 1 million to 6 million in one century. A city of enormous wealth for some, London was also a city of enormous poverty, with a population that outstripped the limited city services. As reformers focused on the living and working conditions in slums and factories (dramatically described by Charles Dickens), some laws, such as compulsory education for children, did improve lives. The 1880s and 1890s marked an increase in the membership and power of trade unions.
London in the 20th Century was shaped by two world wars. Monuments to the fallen remind us of the many lives that were lost in the Great War of 1914-1918. A generation later, Britain entered World War II in 1939. The Blitz-an intensive bombing campaign by the German Luftwaffe during 1940-1941-and the V1 and V2 rocket attacks of 1944 killed tens of thousands of civilians and damaged or destroyed much of London.
Post-war immigrants from countries that were formerly part of British Empire, together with the large number of European Jews who had fled to London during the 1930s, contributed to the city’s cosmopolitan makeup. The London that faces this new century is a vibrant and multicultural city that will provide new chapters for those history books.
by Katie Calvert