The Romans arrived in 43 AD and established ‘Londinium’ as a permanent military camp, although their principle settlement was in modern day Colchester. In 60 AD, after a failed uprising by the Iceni tribe under Boudica, Londinium was burned to the ground, only to emerge as the new commercial and administrative capital of Britannia.
The Saxons and the Danes
By the fourth century the Roman Empire was failing and in 410 the Romans officially abandoned the city, leaving Londinium to the mercy of Saxon invaders. In 841 and 851 the Danish Vikings attacked and in 1016 the Danish leader Canute became King of all England. London was designated the capital, a position that it has held ever since. The brief Danish rule ended with the accession of Edward the Confessor (1042-66) whose reign saw the geographical separation of power in the capital, with royal government based in Westminster and commerce centred upstream in the City of London.
1066 to the Black Death
Edward appointed Harold, Earl of Wessex, as his successor. Harold was defeated by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Over the next few centuries, the City waged a continuous struggle with the monarchy for a degree of self-government which culminated in the Magna Carta of 1215. London was granted the right to elect its own Lord Mayor. In 1348 the city was hit by the Europe-wide bubonic plague, the Black Death. This disease, carried by black rats, wiped out half of the capital’s population in two years.
It was under the Tudor royal family that London began to prosper and the population increased dramatically, trebling in size during the course of the century. The most crucial development of the sixteenth century was the English Reformation, the separation of the English Church from Rome. Despite huge religious strife between Catholicism and Protestantism, the Tudor economy remained in good health. In the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) London also witnessed a specifically English Renaissance, especially in the field of literature, which reached its apogee in the brilliant careers of Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare.
In 1603, James VI of Scotland became James I of England (1603-25), uniting the two crowns and initiating the Stuart dynasty. The infamous Gunpowder Plot by Guy Fawkes and a group of Catholic conspirators failed in 1605 when they attempted to blow up the king at the State Opening of Parliament. Under Charles I (1625-49) the animosity between Crown and Parliament culminated in full-blown Civil War. After a series of defeats, Charles surrendered to the Scots and was eventually tried and executed in 1649. London then became a Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, and found itself in the grip of the Puritans’ zealous law, until Charles II (1660-85) announced the Restoration of the Monarchy. The good times came to an abrupt end with the onset of the Great Plague of 1665 which claimed 100,000 lives. In 1666, London had to contend with The Great Fire when 80% of the city was destroyed and more than 100,000 people were left homeless. The Great Rebuilding, as it was known, was one of London’s most remarkable achievements, and it extinguished virtually all traces of the medieval city.
London’s expansion continued with the accession of George I (1714-27). The volume of trade had more than tripled and London was by now the world’s largest city with a population approaching one million. Although London was wealthy, it was also experiencing the worst mortality rates since records began; disease was rife, but the real killer was gin. At its height, gin consumption was averaging two pints a week, and the burial rate exceeded the baptism rate by more than two to one. Policing the metropolis was also an increasing preoccupation for the government, who introduced capital punishment for the most minor misdemeanours. Nevertheless, crime continued unabated throughout the 18 th century so the prison population swelled and transportation to the colonies began.
The 19 th century
The 19 th century witnessed the emergence of London as the capital of an empire that stretched across the globe. The city’s population grew from just over one million in 1801 to nearly seven million by 1901, bringing with it overcrowding and pollution, especially in the slums of the East End. The accession of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) coincided with a period in which the country’s international standing reached unprecedented heights, and the spirit of the era was perhaps best embodied by the Great Exhibition of 1851, which took place in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. While half of London struggled to make ends meet, the other half enjoyed the fruits of the richest industrialised nation in the world.