The beginnings of London can be dated with some exactitude to the invasion of the Romans in 43AD. Prior to the Roman invasion there was no permanent settlement of significance on the site of London. Instead, the Thames River flowed through marshy ground sprinkled with small islands of gravel and sand. There were probably more mosquitoes than people inhabiting the area.
The commander of the Roman troops was one Aulus Plautius. He pushed his men up from their landing place in Kent towards Colchester, then the most important town in Britain. The Roman advance was halted by the Thames, and Plautius was forced to build a bridge to get his men across.
This first „London Bridge“ has been excavated recently, and found to be only yards from the modern London Bridge!
The Roman bridge proved a convenient central point for the new network of roads which soon spread out like a fan from the crossing place and allowed the speedy movement of troops. The Roman settlement on the north side of the bridge, called Londinium, quickly became important as a trading centre for goods brought up the Thames River by boat and unloaded at wooden docks by the bridge.
Just 18 years after the arrival of the Romans, Boudicca, queen of the Iceni tribe of present-day East Anglia, launched her rebellion against the new rulers of Britain. The new trading centre of London was one of her primary targets, and her warriors leveled the burgeoning city to the ground and killed thousands of the traders who had begun to settle there.
The city was quickly rebuilt, with a cluster of timber-framed wooden buildings surrounding the imposing Roman civic buildings. The city continued to grow in size and splendor over the next century, reflecting the increasing importance of trade in Britain.
By the middle of the second century AD, Londinium possessed the largest basilica (town hall) west of the Alps, a governor’s palace, a temple, bathhouses, and a large fort for the city garrison. Gracechurch Street, in the City, runs through the middle of the old Roman basilica and forum (market place).
One of the best Roman remains in London is the 2nd century Temple of Mithras (mithraism was a form of religion popular among Roman soldiers). It was found near Walbrook during construction work in this century, and moved to Temple Court, Queen Victoria Street. Artefacts recovered from the excavation of the temple are now in the Museum of London.
About the year 200 AD a defensive wall was built around the city. For well over a millennium the shape and size of London was defined by this Roman wall. The area within the wall is now „the City“, London’s famous financial district. Traces of the wall can still be seen in a few places in London.
London continued its growth under the late Roman Empire, and at its peak the population probably numbered about 45,000. But, as the Roman Empire creaked its way to a tottering old age, the troops defending London’s trade routes were recalled across the Channel, and the city went into a decline which lasted several centuries.
After the Romans left, the city of London fell into a decline. That’s a polite way of saying that the population diminished drastically and large areas of the city were left in ruins.
London’s location on the Thames was too good for this decline to continue, and the 7th century saw trade once more expand and the city grow once more.
Early in that century, perhaps in 604 AD, the first St. Paul’s Cathedral was founded, on the site now occupied by the present St. Paul’s.
By the 9th century, London was a very prosperous trading centre, and its wealth attracted the attention of Danish Vikings. The Danes periodically sailed up the Thames and attacked London. In 851 some 350 longboats full of Danes attacked and burned London to the ground.
The tale of the next century is a confused one, with first English, then Danish, then Norman kings controlling the city. The Danes were ousted from the city by Alfred the Great in 886, and Alfred made London a part of his kingdom of Wessex. In the years following the death of Alfred, however, the city fell once more into the hands of the Danes.
The Danes did not have it all their own way. In 1014 they were occupying the city when a large force of Anglo-Saxons and Norwegian Vikings sailed up the Thames to attack London. The Danes lined London Bridge and showered the attackers with spears.
Undaunted, the attackers pulled the roofs off nearby houses and held them over their heads in the boats. Thus protected, they were able to get close enough to the bridge to attach ropes to the piers and pull the bridge down. There is some speculation that the nursery rhyme „London Bridge is Falling Down“ stems from this incident.
The attacks ceased when the Danish king Cnut (Canute) came to power in 1017. Cnut managed to unite the Danes with the Anglo-Saxons, and invited Danish merchants to settle in the city. London prospered under Cnut, but on his death the city reverted to Anglo-Saxon control under Edward the Confessor. Edward had been raised in Normandy, so his rule brought French influence and trade.
London was now the most prosperous, and largest city in the island of Britain – but it was not the capital of the realm. The official seat of government was at Winchester, although the royal residence was generally at London.
Edward the Confessor was an extremely religious man, and he made it his dream to build a vast
monastery and church at an island on the Thames just upriver from the city. He refounded the abbey at Westminster, and moved his court there.
When Edward died in 1065, his successor, Harold, was crowned in the new abbey, cementing London’s role as the most important city in England.
In some ways the medieval history of London can be said to have begun on Christmas Day, 1066, when William the Conqueror was crowned king of England in a ceremony at the newly finished Westminster Abbey, just three months after his victory at the Battle of Hastings.
William granted the citizens of London special privileges, but he also built a castle in the southeast corner of the city to keep them under control. This castle was expanded by later kings until it became the complex we now call the Tower of London.
The Tower acted as royal residence, and it was not until later that it became famous as a prison. During the medieval period it also acted as a royal mint, treasury, and housed the beginnings of a zoo.
In 1097 William II began the building of Westminster Hall, close by the abbey of the same name. The hall was to prove the basis of a new Palace of Westminster, the prime royal residence throughout the Middle Ages. On William’s death his brother Henry needed the support of London merchants to maintain his dubious grip on the throne. In exchange, Henry I gave city merchants the right to levy taxes and elect a sheriff.
By the early 12th century the population of London was about 18,000 (compare this to the 45,000 estimated at the height of Roman Britain). In 1123 St. Bartholomew’s Priory was founded in the city, and other monastic houses quickly followed.
At one point in the medieval period there were 13 monasteries in the city. Today, these houses are remembered only by the names they gave to their area, such as Greyfriars, Whitefriars, and Blackfriars.
The city played a role in the outcome of the struggle between Stephen and Maud for the crown in the 12th century. Although they initially supported Maud, her arrogant behavior when she occupied Westminster so angered the citizens that they rose in revolt and Maud was forced to flee London.
In 1176 the first stone London Bridge was built, mere yards from the original Roman bridge across the Thames. This bridge was to remain the only one in London until 1739. Because the passage across this one bridge was narrow and clogged with traffic, it was much quicker and easier for travelers to hire waterboatmen to row them across the river, or transport them up or down river.
In 1191 Richard I acknowledged the right of London to self-government, and the following year saw the election of the first Mayor. This right was confirmed by later monarchs.
In 1245 Henry III began his lifetime work of rebuilding Westminster Abbey, which was reconsecrated in 1269. The other major building project of the medieval period was Old St. Paul’s. The cathedral was finished in 1280.
In 1381 the city was invaded by peasant’s during the Wat Tyler’s Peasant’s Revolt. Although the major complaints of the peasants were aimed at the advisors of Richard II, they took advantage of their occupation of London to loot houses within the city. The Lord Mayor, William Walworth, stabbed Wat Tyler to death in a confrontation at Smithfield.
The London merchants supported Edward IV in his grab for the throne in 1461. In gratitude Edward knighted many of the merchants. A few years later in 1477 William Caxton made history when he printed the first book on his new printing press near Westminster.
Medieval London was a maze of twisting streets and lanes. Most of the houses were half-timbered, or wattle and daub, whitewashed with lime. The threat of fire was constant, and laws were passed to make sure that all householders had fire-fighting equipment on hand. A 13th century law required new houses to use slate for roofing rather than the more risky straw, but this seems to have been ignored.
The government of the city was by a Lord Mayor and council elected from the ranks of the merchant guilds. These guilds effectively ran the city and controlled commerce. Each guild had its own hall and their own coat of arms, but there was also the Guildhall (1411-40) where representatives of the various guilds met in common.