Around 3.6 million years ago a pattern of alternating ice ages and warm interglacial periods began in the northern hemisphere. It was during this period that the site of London came into being. Warmer interglacial periods created huge floods of melt water, which deposited thick layers of gravel in the area of what is now the Thames. Gravel drained better than surrounding clay, and it is on the gravel areas that people first settled. Pieces of a 250,000 year old skull have been found at Swanscombe near Gravesend in Kent. These remains date from the last interglacial period but one. At Acton, Stoke Newington, Hampstead, Putney and Brentford there are prehistoric remains, indicating scattered human presence before the arrival of the Romans, but there is no evidence of a settlement on the site of central London itself. ( See London by Francis Sheppard.)
London was founded by the Romans. When Julius Caesar and his expeditionary force reached the Thames in 54BC the site of London represented the lowest fordable place on the river. There was already a market in this area when the Romans arrived, close to the site of what is now Southwark Market near London Bridge. Peter Ackroyd also suggests that there may have been a spiritual significance to the site of London, centred perhaps on the spring of water on what is now Tower Hill. (See London by Peter Ackroyd P13). Clearly the lowest fordable point of the Thames was a busy place even before the Romans arrived. Nothing much actually happened in 54BC, as Caesar's invasion of England was little more than a reconnaissance mission. But when Britain was invaded properly in 43AD, by Emperor Claudius, a supply base was quickly set up on the site of London, and a bridge was built. The site of this bridge is now occupied by London Bridge - although the river was much wider then - 1000 meters, compared with 200 meters today. The first street laid out by the Romans around AD50 is still followed by the eastern part of Lombard Street and the western part of Fenchurch Street. Half way between this first street and the river a second street was laid out, and its course is now followed by the eastern part of Canon Street, and by Eastcheap. The city grew rapidly into a town called Londinium, until in 60AD Boudicca, queen of the Iceni tribe destroyed the town during a huge rebellion against Roman rule. This event was so violent that evidence of it exists in London today as a bright red layer of soil, generally about four meters below modern street level. The red colour is the result of oxidised iron in burnt clay.
London recovered from this catastrophe, and by late in the first century it was probably Britannia's largest town. Some time between AD190 and AD225 a defensive wall was built. But these walls couldn't prevent disaster striking London again three hundred years later when the Romans finally withdrew from their province of Britannia. The Saxons who invaded following the Romans' withdrawal were not an urban people. It is unclear what happened to London during these chaotic years. Some authorities have suggested that the area within the Roman walls was left as a largely deserted ruin. Others, such as Peter Ackroyd suggest that London showed more endurance, citing the fact that the provisions of London law continued to be applied. Whatever happened to the City, it does seem clear that outside its walls, a trading settlement grew up, often referred to in contemporary documents as Lundenwick. In the mid ninth century Viking raids led to the abandonment of Lundenwick and a gradual re occupation of the walled city, now known as Lundenburg. This resettlement of the Roman town, or rather the retaking it from Viking invaders, was instigated by King Alfred, who in 886 established a harbour and market near the north end of the present Millennium Bridge. Walking along the North Thames Path between London Bridge and the Millennium Bridge you will pass a plaque erected in 1986 to commemorate the one thousandth one hundredth anniversary of Alfred's new settlement. Meanwhile the memory of the old trading settlement outside the wall survives in modern London in the name Aldwych, meaning "old wic".
London Wall at Tower Hill
The City of London was now once again defined by its walls, and these walls, frequently rebuilt, survived into medieval times. By then greater volumes of traffic left them increasingly redundant. By 1760 most of the walls had been demolished. Only small parts of London's wall are now left. What survives can be viewed at Tower Hill, just outside Tower Hill underground station, and at the Museum of London. Former gates in the wall are recalled in the names of areas where they once stood - Aldgate, Ludgate, Newgate, Aldersgate, Cripplegate, Bishopsgate. The fourteenth century author Geoffrey Chaucer lived in rooms over Aldgate. The Aldgate is actually a good example of echoes that remain of London's walls. The street now called Aldgate runs down towards Fenchurch Street, and about twenty yards before Fenchurch Street there is a road island where Aldgate once stood. A plaque on a wall beside the road carries a picture of the gate. There is a striking change as you leave Aldgate and start walking down Fenchurch Street. Crossing a single road junction the nature of the buildings changes completely. Quite suddenly you are in the City. The City was always a place of business and finance as it is today. Crossing from Aldgate to Fenchurch Street, shiny headquarters of financial institutions tower on each side. Even without its wall, the City still exists.
In the mid eleventh century Edward the Confessor moved his principal residence and seat of authority away from the walled city to what was then the desolate island of Thorney. Here he built Westminster Abbey, and Westminster Hall, creating the centre of English government which has endured ever since. The only decline in Westminster's dominance came during the reigns of Edward I, Edward II and Edward III, when their wars with Scotland temporarily moved some government activity north to York. Edward the Confessor died shortly after Westminster Abbey was consecrated in December 1065. The following year on Christmas Day, William the Conqueror was crowned at the abbey following his victory at the Battle of Hastings. Almost every subsequent monarch, has been crowned at Westminster Abbey, exceptions being Henry III originally crowned at Gloucester Cathedral, and Edward V and Edward VIII who didn't have coronation ceremonies at all.
Under Norman rule London continued to grow. William built the Tower, and the bridge was rebuilt. Sometime between 1176 and 1209 the bridge underwent further major development, a stone bridge replacing the older wooden structure. This London Bridge was a wonder of the medieval world, the first bridge of any size built of stone since the Roman period. London Bridge stood until 1831, covered with houses, shops, and two chapels.
London developed as England's centre of government, and the governance of London itself reflected the slow evolution of authority as it is seen today. The self governing Corporation of London dates back to William the Conqueror who whilst building the Tower to subdue the population, also realised it was wise to try and get Londoners on his side. His letter to the bishop, and citizens of London promising that laws and customs of the city "be preserved as they were in King Edward's time," still survives at the Corporation of London Records Office. This self governing status was greatly strengthened in 1189 when Londoners were rewarded for giving up Richard I's rebellious chancellor William de Longchamp. This man had taken refuge in the Tower, after trying to buy Londoners' support by reducing their taxes. London was rewarded for its loyalty with the grant of the "commune", an association of town's people with independent government. King John who succeeded Richard tried to ignore London's special status, but in 1215 he found himself compelled to grant a charter allowing Londoners to vote for their own mayor. The history of London's government is therefore an illustration of the slow evolution of written law, and democratic government.
The next great turning point in the history of London came in 1666. There are very few buildings in London that predate 1666, since this was the year a fire destroyed nearly the entire city. The Great Fire started on 2nd September 1666 in a baker's shop in Pudding Lane, and raged for five days. The half timbered, thatched roofed buildings of seventeenth century London burnt very easily. It quickly became apparent that the only way to stop the fire was to pull down houses in its path. Lord Mayor Bludworth prevaricated, wondering who was going to foot the bill for demolished houses. Charles II had to intervene personally and order demolition to start. Early efforts failed to work, and in desperation houses were blown up with gun powder. The fire eventually burnt out at Temple Church in Holborn. There are good displays and information about the Great Fire of London at the Museum of London.The site of the baker's shop where the Great Fire started is marked today by the Monument built by Christopher Wren - or to be precise the 202 foot high Monument is 202 feet away from the site of the shop. Wren was responsible for a large part of the regeneration of London following the fire, building forty nine new churches, which included the St Paul's Cathedral that we see today.
Embankment Gardens - the steps mark the old north shore of the Thames before Bazalgette completed his Embankment project
The evolution of London as a physically decent place dominates the city's nineteenth century history. Living conditions in nineteenth century London were appalling. Large areas were given over to "rookeries" where people would be packed together in what today would be called shanty towns. The narrow streets of Seven Dials at St Giles, now in the fashionable West End, were once amongst the worst slums in London. A survey in the 1840s found two thousand eight hundred and fifty people living here in ninety five decrepit houses. These conditions bred disease, and between November and December 1847 half a million Londoners were infected with typhus, out of a population of two and a half million. By the summer of 1858 a rapidly expanding population, and the popularity of the new flush toilet, resulted in a crisis known as The Great Stink. The Metropolitan Board of Works had been inaugurated in 1855, and directed by engineer Joseph Bazalgette work started on a proper sewerage system for London. As well as building a revolutionary sewer system Bazalgette laid out Garrick Street, Queen Victoria Street, Southwark Street, Shaftsbury Avenue, Charing Cross Road, and Northumberland Avenue. He built Hammersmith Bridge, Putney Bridge, and Battersea Bridge, and laid out Clapham Common and Battersea Park. He also directed the building of huge Thames embankments which held his low level sewers, accommodate today's District and Circle Underground lines, and provide space for roads, and public gardens in the centre of London. Bazalgette is a modern Christopher Wren and deserves to be more widely known. In fact he probably has a better claim to fame than Wren, since his practical improvements in London did more for Londoners' welfare than Wren's forty nine churches. Bazalgette's sewers saved millions of people from death by waterbourne disease. His work for the Metropolitan Board Of Works coincided with a general social shift away from laissez faire individualism of the early nineteenth century towards a more modern concept of state intervention for public good. Perhaps this is symbolised best by Victoria Embankment Gardens off Villiers Street. Before the Embankments were built this run down area had been owned by the Crown. On completion of Victoria Embankment the Crown wanted this now valuable land for speculative building. Bazalgette, and the newsagent proprietor WH Smith opposed this. Why should the Crown benefit from sale of land made valuable at public expense? Prime minister William Gladstone fought hard for the Crown, but Bazalgette and WH Smith prevailed. Embankment Gardens were built, open to anyone who wishes to walk through, and remain to this day a memorial to the notion of public good prevailing over private interests. In fact the very existence of London owes much to the unification of fragmentary, self interested authorities which followed on from Bazalgette's large scale projects involving the whole of London. The Times said in 1885 "There is no such place as London at all...(it is) rent into an infinity of divisions, districts and areas" (quoted The Great Stink Of London by Peter Ackroyd P58). Bazalgette's work, to some extent, helped overcome this division. A small memorial to Bazalgette stands beneath the railway bridge running into Charing Cross station. Lamp posts on the Victoria Embankment are original cast iron posts in the shape of dolphins. They are now one of the few surviving structures which still carry the Metropolitan Board of Work's initials "MBW".
London today is the physical and symbolic centre of Britain, still lying at the centre of the road system as it did in Roman times. Compared with other great cities London has a uniquely important position within its country. In the late sixteenth century London was thirteen times bigger that the second largest city in England. By 1901 it was still six times bigger than its nearest rival. In the 1930s over one fifth of the whole population of England and Wales lived in London. Some attempts have been made to reduce London's overwhelming dominance. Important civil service functions have been moved to other cities. The Royal Mint, for example, which has a history in London dating back to King Alfred, was moved to Cardiff between 1968 and 1975. London, however, remains the centre of Britain. All the great symbols of state can be found there, the buildings and locations which a country uses to define itself. These symbols have a considerable power, as realised by the thirteenth century king Edward I , who made sure he destroyed all such symbolic buildings in Wales and Scotland, to centre the country on London. Hitler also realised the power of national symbolism, and made a determined effort to destroy Britain's most famous buildings during the Second World War. Whatever Britain might be, much of its identity lies in the Tower, Westminster Abbey, and the other great buildings of the capital.
To conclude, however, we should remember, that importat though they are, London is bigger than famous landmarks and tourist attractions. As Samuel Johnson said in 1763 to his biographer Boswell:
"Sir, if you wish to have just a notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and courts, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London exists" (Life of Johnson P298).