London history in a nutshell FEATURE
Feature article by BritEvents.
Share this feature
As one of the world's great cities, London has much to offer the visitor. But its position as a global powerhouse hasn't simply emerged overnight; instead, it has taken nearly 2,000 years for it to establish itself as a centre of cultural, financial, historical and political importance. We trace London's development from AD 43 to the present day.
In AD 43, a camp called Londinium was established by the Roman armies under Claudius after he'd crushed the local Celts. It wasn't long 18 years to be precise before the Celts were back, this time led by the fearsome Queen Boadicea. They laid waste to London, although it was later retaken by the Romans, who built a larger camp over the original site. This port flourished into a city, and by the time the Romans left in 410, it was home to 50,000 people.
London was then overseen by various foreign powers, including Saxons, Danes and Vikings; its most notable leader was Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, who took power in 871. He ruled the kingdom from Winchester but continued to develop London's fortifications against attack. William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, who invaded and overthrew Harold, the last Saxon king, at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, was the first ruler to acknowledge London's importance.
Before the Normans arrived, a division had developed between London's commercial and political centres when Edward the Confessor built his court at Westminster; this division was to intensify during the Norman reign, and culminated in the 1100s when London established the office of Lord Mayor. Meanwhile, London's early architecture was taking shape: William the Conqueror ordered the construction of the Tower of London in about 1080, and in 1209 the first stone bridge named London Bridge was built across the Thames.
In 1240, the first parliament sat in Westminster, formalising the division between the political and commercial classes. While the parliament became a seat of government distinct from the City of London, the latter continued to spread out over the Roman site. By the 1400s, trade was flourishing in the City and saw several large homes spring up along the Thames as London merchants became wealthy. Life wasn't always rosy, however; disease, particularly the Black Death, was so prevalent the population remained largely static.
Tudor London saw the reign of Henry VIII, the all-powerful monarch who sent several prominent people to the Tower of London to be executed. These included two of his six wives, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, and his chancellor, Sir Thomas More. He also broke with the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 in the Reformation that led to the destruction of many of London's medieval churches and buildings.
The Tudor succession was a troubled affair that was eventually settled in 1558 by the ascension of Henry VIII's youngest daughter, Elizabeth I. Her long reign saw London blossom culturally, partly owing to the arrival of William Shakespeare, the dramatist who bought part-ownership in the Globe Theatre.
Turbulence characterised the Stuart dynasty, which ruled through most of the 17th century. Its second monarch, Charles I, precipitated a civil war that led to his beheading outside the Banqueting Hall in 1649. The royal line was replaced by a republic that ended 11 years later when Charles I's son, Charles II, returned to London in what became known as the Restoration. His reign was marred by a return of the Black Death in 1665, and the Great Fire of London in 1666, both of which took a terrible toll on the city.
Christopher Wren became famous after the Great Fire when he rebuilt many of London's landmarks, such as St Paul's Cathedral. Meanwhile, London continued to grow as a centre of finance, and the First Bank of England was established by William Paterson in 1694.
During the 18th century, with the Hanoverians now in charge, the arts flourished, exemplified by the establishment of the Royal Academy of Art in 1768. Britain lost its American colonies with the Declaration of Independence in 1776, but the 19th century saw significant progress under the Victorians. London's first horse bus emerged in 1829, and by 1863 it was home to the world's first underground railway. Twelve years later, the Embankments were built on either side of the Thames; it was a fitting development for a city that had become the capital of the mighty British Empire.
By the 20th century, that Empire was slowly starting to disintegrate. This was accelerated by the Second World War; the Blitz, or German air raids, which took place between September 1940 and May 1941, killed 30,000 Londoners and wreaked devastation on large swathes of the capital including the East End and the City. London residents took shelter in the Underground stations that had developed from the Victorian's underground railway system.
The post-war years were difficult as London struggled to get back on its feet the loss of the Empire and the shock of the Blitz had inflicted a double blow. But Londoners proved they had something of the spirit of those early Romans by forging ahead with the Festival of Britain in 1951. The next three decades had their troubles but they failed to halt London's inexorable march towards a brighter, wealthier future. For many, that future started in 1997 when the country elected the youthful Tony Blair as Prime Minister.
Whatever the disappointments that have resulted from recent governments, there's no doubt London's position is secure as one of the world's great cities alongside New York, Paris and Rome. It has come a long way since those days as a camp site for invading Romans.