London history

Little is known of the city prior to Queen Boudicca's revolt against the Romans in 61 AD but it has been established that the first settlement, the Roman Londinium, was founded in 43 AD on a terrace near the north bank of the River Thames after Aulus Plautius, the commander of the Roman invasion force, was obliged to build a bridge there. At first the crossing was only of military use to the Romans but the bridge became a focal point and the settlement soon became an important trading post. During the first century AD it became a town of considerable importance, although not an administrative centre. The Roman town occupied roughly the same area as the 'square mile' of the City today. The Romans built their town here as it was the furthest point up the Thames that ships coud easily reach on the tide, and the geological conditions meant the river could be bridged. The original London Bridge was probably built between 100 AD and 400 AD. The Romans were temporarily removed when Queen Boudicca sacked their town in 60 AD, but they returned and strengthened their settlement with a wall about two miles in perimeter, 20 feet high and nine feet thick, and from this time London became the administrative centre of Roman Britain. Remains of this wall can be seen today in Coopers Row where Roman coins are still being found.

The Roman legions withdrew in the 5th century and the importance of the city's site declined. Celts, Saxons and Danes contested the area, but it was not until 886 that London emerged as an important town under King Alfred when it gradually reasserted itself to become a prosperous trade centre. By 1017 the Danish King Canute (995-1035) ruled, and under him Danish traders were allowed to settle in London. Under his successor, Edward the Confessor (c. 1002-1066), who was Norman by descent, French influence came to the town.

London was now the largest, most important and prosperous city in the land but it was not yet the capital. Only after Edward restored the ancient monastery at Westminster and his successor, Harold (c. 1022-1066), was crowned there could London truly claim to be the capital of England. It was really a capital with two centres - the City, ruled by merchants and the guilds, and Westminster, where the monarch had his palace. In 1066 when the Normans invaded Britain, William the Conqueror (c. 1023-1087) granted London its charter and also made the city his capital. The original Roman wall, built some 1,000 years earlier, was till large enough to contain William's city and he set about building a great castle - the Tower of London - to create a centre for defence and a citadel to overawe the populace.

Under the Normans and Plantagenets, London became self-governing and grew commercially and politically. By the 14th century it had become the political capital of England, the largest city and chief port. When the Tudor Henry VIII (1491-1547) came to the throne in 1509, London's population was about 50,000 but by the end of the century it had grown to about 200,000. New palaces were built to replace the Tower of London as the royal residence, notably Westminster, Whitehall and St. James's, and the city reached a new level of pre-eminence during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) when it became the centre of England's Renaissance. The opening of the Royal Exchange in 1566 heralded the growth of the city in world importance - in the years that followed, William Shakespeare's (1564-1616) plays were first performed in the Globe Theatre, book publishing began and London became the centre of England's newly emerging foreign trade.

James I (1566-1625) bestowed on London two great achievements: the architecture of Inigo Jones (1573-1652) and Middleton's New River Project. London's growing population badly needed new sources of fresh water and Hugh Middleton's (1560-1631) great engineering venture to bring fresh water to London from Hertfordshire would have failed but for James's financial backing. Inigo Jones, undoubtedly the greatest architect of his day, was appointed Surveyor of the Royal Buildings, and his influence on building designs in the capital was enormous. With the Restoration of the monarchy and King Charles II (1630-1685) return from exile in 1660, the repressive dictatorship of the Commonwealth ended. Theatres were allowed to reopen and restrictions on building were eased allowing developers to build new houses in the rapidly expanding and increasingly fashionable West End.

By the early 17th century, London was a busy, crowded capital city of narrow and twisting streets. In 1665, the Great Plague swept the city and nearly 70,000 Londoners succumbed to the disease. Within a year this dreadful epidemic was followed by the Great Fire of 1666, which started when a baker's oven overheated in Pudding Lane on September 2, 1666. Because most of the buildings in the city were made of wood, the conflagration quickly spread and 13,000 houses were destroyed. Remarkably, only four people were killed. Only Staple Inn in Holborn survives today as an example of what the buildings in London looked like at that time. Immediately after the fire the Rebuilding Act of 1667 was passed decreeing that all new buildings had to be built in stone or brick. So by the late 17th century an entirely new city had arisen out of the ashes and bore little resemblance to the quaint wooden dwellings of old London. The rebuilding was distinguished by the work of the architect Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), notably in St. Paul's Cathedral (built on the site of the old 7th century cathedral) and over 50 city churches of which more than 20 survive today.

In the 18th century the city again began to grow and the walls and gates of the city, among the last vestiges of the medieval town, were demolished in the 1760s. With the building of elegant housing to the west and north west of the old city, London became the focus not only of politics, but of literary and artistic society. The population started to grow rapidly and developers like the Grosvenor family began to build in Mayfair and St. James. The main architectural innovations of this period were 'the square' and building in fashionable terraces. The royal parks, once royal hunting grounds and estates, were gradually opened to the public and modern London is noted for its abundance of these park spaces - particularly St. James's Park, Green ParkHyde ParkRegent's Park and Kensington Gardens. For many Londoners the 18th century was a time of great opportunity, increasing wealth and tremendous enjoyment.
London grew enormously in the 19th century, acquiring great prestige in the Victorian era as the capital of the British Empire. Urban development continued, with industrial suburbs spreading to the north east and east of the city and the docks and dock-related industries spreading downriver. The docks were originally located near London Bridge in the city centre, but in recent years these inner docks have been replaced by larger and more modern facilities to the east of the capital. The arrival of the railway created another wave of development in the late 1800s and large railway stations were built all round the edge of the main town. London was the first great city to be served by a railway network radiating nationwide and great Victorian termini ring the city centre. To the north of Oxford Street, along the Marylebone, Euston, Pentonville and City roads, the major railroad companies located the stations of Paddington, Marylebone, Euston, St. Pancras, King's Cross and Liverpool Street. The original Midland Grand Hotel, designed by George Gilbert Scott (1811-1978) in 1865, forms the amazing façade if St. Pancras station. With its high pinnacles, towers and gables it looks more like a Gothic castle than a railway station. 

In 1890 the world's first electric underground railroad was built and, during this Victorian era, straight, elegant streets were constructed through the congested inner city. Open spaces, such as Trafalgar Square, were also created. The 19th century was a period of reform and saw the establishment of municipal services: in 1829, Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850) established the Metropolitan Police Force with its world famous "bobbies" named after him. Many suburbs were incorporated into Greater London, all the bridges in the city were rebuilt in stone and the streets were newly illuminated, first with gas and later with electricity.

As a result of the blitz in World War II, the 1950s saw war-damaged London being rebuilt again and, as in the reconstruction after the great fire in 1666, the character and the skyline of the city began changing. What was probably the most notable change came in the 1960s with the 30 storey Museum Radio Tower of the General Post Office building (built in 1965) dominating the West End. Today the London skyline is studded with tower blocks and a number of business skyscrapers rather than spires and church towers. Development continued in the 1980s and 1990s into the new millennium with some high rise buildings, particularly in the financial centre, but London has remained more immune to this form of development than most cities. In the shadow of the tower blocks and skyscrapers, the spires and church towers still exist. In the new millennium, London is a modern city but still retains architecture from the last thousand years.