The History of London

London before the 19th century

Roman London

The settlement of Londinium, the precursor to the city of London, was founded in the year 50 A.D. after the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 A.D. The Romans built a bridge over the river Thames after their invasion and concluded that this would be an excellent spot for a port. However, the settlement was razed by the Celtic queen Boudica during the Iceni revolt around 61 A.D. and burned to the ground, but was later rebuilt as a planned Roman city. After its rebuilding in the late 1st century the city prospered, expanding rapidly and growing in size until Londinium finally superseded the city of Colchester as capital, making Londinium the largest city in Britain. The city met its peak during the 2nd century with a population of around 60 000 people but was later mostly destroyed in a fire around 122 A.D. but was again rebuilt. Afterwards the size of the city and its population had shrunken and in the middle of the 2nd century and forward the city did not expand, instead supporting a smaller but stable population. A wall of stone was built around the city to defend it from attacks and was considered one of the greatest building projects in Britain at the time and it clearly defined the borders of the city.

Saxon London

After the fall of the Roman empire the city of Londinium was abandoned in the late 5th century, and whilst the city still might have had a few denizens who remained, Londinium lost its status as a city and capital of Britain. However, the city of Londinium was reincarnated during the 6th century in the form of the Anglo-Saxon trading town of Lundenwic which was located a mile west of the old Roman city. This new Saxon London, much like the old Londinium, became a major port and place of trade in the 7th century, records showing that the exports of the town consisted mainly of either raw or woven wool. During the 9th century however, the city went into a decline as Viking raiders plundered the town on two different occasions. The first time in the year 842 and the second time in the year 851 when they set fire to the town, an easy feat as the buildings where all made of wood. The city was finally captured during a Viking conquest in 871 which conquered most of the Anglo-Saxon territory of the time, but the city was again brought under Saxon rule by Alfred the Great in 886. To protect his kingdom, the Saxon king established fortified towns across southern England. Within ten years the old Roman walls of Londinium were repaired and the defensive ditches around the old city remade. The Saxon town of Lundenwic was abandoned and its population and trade moved to

Londinium which they renamed Lundenbuhr, making the foundation for present day London. The city grew slowly until 950 when the city started expanding at a more rapid pace. In 994 the Vikings attempted to take the city but was ultimately repelled and by the time of the 11th century London was without a doubt the largest city in England and superseded the city of Winchester as capital.

Medieval London

During the middle ages there came a successional crisis in England. With the passing of king Edward the Confessor no clear heir was presented and thus his cousin William, the duke of Normandy, claimed the throne. However, the English "witenagemot," a form of royal council, elected Edwards brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson, as king instead and crowned him in the newly completed Westminster Abbey. This outraged William causing him to invade England. William, now William the Conqueror, was ultimately crowned king of England in 1066 on Christmas day after defeating King Harold and his army at the Battle of Hastings. To keep the newly conquered Londoners under control William constructed a wooden tower and castle in the south-eastern corner of the city, the beginning to the tower of London, which would later be improved upon by later kings by replacing the wooden tower with one made of stone during the end of the 11th century.

 Other notable construction projects in the late 11th century was the construction of Westminster Hall, today the House of Parliament, as the beginning to a new royal residence and during the late 12th century the construction of a stone bridge over the river Thames close to where the old Roman one once stood. London population grew expansively from the 12th century to the 14th century from a mere 18 000 people, which at the time was quite a lot, to nearly a 100 000 denizens. However, almost a third of the population died during the Black Death in the mid-14th century, but recovered quickly. In 1381 London was also the site for the peasant's revolt, the revolt was eventually calmed by the king after the revolts leader was stabbed to death by the lord mayor of London. Medieval London was a maze of tightly packed houses and streets and being the most populated city in England combined with abhorrent sanitation caused the city to have many outbreaks of the bubonic plague. Fire was also a constant problem as many of the houses where made mostly of wood and other material, like clay, with roofs of stray.

Early Modern London

During the 16th century and during the middle ages most of the land in London was owned by the Catholic church. This changed, however, when King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries

and started tending towards Protestantism, releasing the land of the church into private ownership. The main export in London was still wool as well as woollen cloth which was shipped to the low countries, Belgium and the Netherlands, but also animal skins, lead and tin as well as small quantities of saffron were also traded in London. In the late mid-16th century England felt a commercial boom, resulting in the construction of The Royal Exchange, a place where merchants can trade wares. Mercantilism grew and trading companies like the East-India trading company were established and with trade moving to the new world London became the main northern seaport. This also caused a boom in population as migrants arrived from abroad, the population grew from around 50 000 to around 225 000 in 75 years from 1530 to 1605. William Shakespeare and his associates also lived in London during the late 16th century. But due to the large population and poor sanitation, London was frequently plagued by diseases like the bubonic plague during the early 17th century which culminated in the Great Plague from 1665 - 1666 which killed over a fifth of the population.

 The Great Fire of London followed the plague in 1666, quickly burning most of the wooden houses but was unable to get across the river Thames which protected the other side of the city. It took ten years before the destroyed parts of London were rebuilt, the king also ordered that all new houses had to be built of stone and brick, not wood, to avoid this kind of disaster again. During the 18th century London matured as an international centre for trade and commerce and in 1762 king George III acquired Buckingham house which would later be improved upon and become Buckingham Palace. Unfortunately, London was dogged by crime during the 18th century, resulting in around 200 penalties to be punishable by death.

Text: Lucas Westerholm and Julia Mäntysaari


Medieval London, 22-02-2017

 Londinuim, 22-02-2017