A BRIEF HISTORY - Insight Guides: Pocket London - APA

Insight Guides: Pocket London - APA (2016)


Although Julius Caesar landed in England in 56 and 55BC, he came, he saw and he left without leaving any trace of a settlement. It remained for the Emperor Claudius and his Roman legions to conquer the island in AD43 and build what was believed to be the first bridge over the Thames - roughly on the site of today’s London Bridge - establishing the trade port of Londinium.

The Romans built roads, forts, temples, villas, a basilica, forum and a huge amphitheatre (excavated near the Guildhall in 1988) for a population of around 50,000 living in the area now known as the City. The Roman’s rule was often challenged, and so they erected vast stone walls around their city.


In 410, as the Roman Empire declined, London’s legions were recalled to Rome. The walled area of Londinium became a ghost town, buried under silt and grass, and avoided by subsequent invaders. Eventually, the Saxons came over the North Sea to build Lundenwic, and, after a brief return to paganism, the seeds of Christianity - sown in the later-Roman period - sprouted in London again. St Ethelbert, the first Christian king, dedicated a small church to St Paul here; it has since been destroyed and rebuilt five times.

The Saxon kings were constantly at battle with Viking and Danish invaders, and when the Danes conquered and put King Canute on the throne in 1016, London unseated Winchester as the capital of the kingdom. In the 1040s Westminster Abbey was built by Edward the Confessor, a pious though ineffectual king. When the Norman army of William the Conqueror was victorious at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William began the tradition of being crowned at the Abbey. He respected London’s wealth and commercial energy, and shrewdly forged a relationship with the Church and citizenry that benefited all concerned. He also instigated work on the Tower of London.


The Tower of London

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications


During the early Middle Ages London’s influence grew, while the kings of England were diverted by wars in France and Crusades to the Holy Land. Under Henry I, London’s citizens won the right to choose their own magistrates, and during the reign of the absentee king, Richard the Lionheart (1189-1199), the elective office of Mayor (later Lord Mayor) was created.

England’s medieval monarchs did not enjoy blind loyalty from London’s citizens, whose strong trade and craft guilds, which still exist, created a self-determinism and power that often resulted in rebellions. The Palace of Westminster became the seat of government, and one of the reputed reasons for its riverside site was that a mob could not surround it.

By 1340 London’s population hit around 50,000, but in 1348 disaster struck. The Black Death swept across Eurasia, killing 75 million. Details of the horrors in London are scarce, and there are no accurate figures on the final death toll; however, it is estimated that almost half of London’s population was hit.

London was still little bigger than it had been in Roman times, but this was about to change. The decision by Henry VIII to break relations with Rome gave birth to the Church of England and also added property in the form of seized monastery lands, such as Covent Garden (once a convent garden).


Portrait of Elizabeth I

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications


Between the death of Henry VIII in 1547 and the coronation of his daughter Elizabeth I in 1558, religious persecutions and political intrigues drained the kingdom’s coffers and influence. However, under the 45-year reign of Elizabeth, England rose to unforeseen heights, with London the epicentre of a mighty kingdom. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 signalled the dawn of empire, as the British Navy took to the seas in search of riches. The prosperity of Elizabeth’s reign was marked by the blossoming of English literature, with Shakespeare the jewel in the crown of literati including Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson.


In marked contrast, Elizabeth’s successors are remembered principally for their failures. In 1605 James I narrowly escaped assassination in the abortive Gunpowder Plot - Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament about to light the fuse that would have blown up the king at the opening of Parliament on 5 November. This act is still commemorated annually around the country on ‘Bonfire Night’.

James I’s son, Charles I, was even less popular. By attempting to dissolve Parliament, the feckless king plunged the country into Civil War. In 1642 the Royalists (‘Cavaliers’), supported by the aristocracy, went into battle against the Parliamentary forces. The ‘Roundheads’, named after their ‘pudding-basin’ hairstyle, were backed by the tradesmen and Puritans, and led by Oliver Cromwell. The Royalists were defeated at Naseby, Northamptonshire, in 1645. In 1649 Charles I was found guilty of treason and beheaded. Cromwell assumed power and abolished the monarchy, and for a short period Britain was a republic. In 1653 Cromwell declared himself Lord Protector, remaining so until his death in 1658. However, by 1660 the country was disenchanted with the dreary dictatorship of Puritan rule, and the monarchy was restored under Charles II.


The relaxation of the Puritan mores was not long enjoyed. In 1665 a terrible plague stalked London, killing an estimated 110,000 people. Death, disease and decay turned the city into a madhouse, in which piles of bodies were left in its streets, until taken away by cart to be buried.

In 1666 disaster struck again, in the form of the Great Fire. About 80 percent of the old City burnt down, and 100,000 people were made homeless. Incredibly, due to a speedy evacuation, the number of recorded deaths is in single figures. Sir Christopher Wren was appointed joint head of a commission to oversee the rebuilding of the city, and though his grand schemes were never fully realised, he made a huge contribution to the new London, including rebuilding St Paul’s. The Monument (for more information, click here) is his memorial to the fire.

The final great confrontation between king and parliament involved James II, brother of Charles I. A fervent Catholic, James attacked the Church of England and disregarded the laws of the land. However, the people of England had no stomach for cutting off another royal head, and in 1688 James fled the country. The so-called Glorious (peaceful) Revolution ushered in William of Orange and Mary II to the throne, establishing a stable constitutional monarchy. Under William and Mary, a royal retreat was established at Kensington Palace.


Stained glass portrait of Dr Samuel Johnson, Fleet Street

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications


In the 18th and early 19th centuries, London was the capital of a world power. In the coffeehouses of the City and West End, great men of letters such as Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson held forth. Handel was court composer to King George I, and Kew Gardens and the British Museum were opened to the public. But there was a dark side to London - slums grew up south of the river and in the East End, and crime was rife.

Overseas the Empire was burgeoning, until a tax dispute caused a rift between Britain and the American colonies. This escalated into a war over independence, and, to the astonishment of George III, the colonists won. By the end of the 18th century, Britain was threatened with Napoleonic invasion, but Nelson disposed of the French fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Some 10 years later, the Duke of Wellington put an end to Napoleon’s ambitions at the Battle of Waterloo.


The accession of the 18-year-old Queen Victoria in 1837 gave title to England’s most expansive age. The Empire building that was started in Elizabeth I’s day was taken to new heights in the 19th century. Ships filled with the bounty of the colonies not only brought goods with which to trade at the East End docks, they also drew in new languages, cultures and citizens who helped to shape the cosmopolitan capital.

Blue plaques

In 1867 a blue ceramic plaque was erected on the front of 24 Holles Street by the Royal Society of Arts (RA) to commemorate Lord Byron, who was born there. Across London there are now around 850 such plaques, each giving facts about the person concerned. The awarding of a plaque has traditionally been haphazard - although the person being remembered must have been dead for at least 20 years, many plaques have been put up because descendants proposed the suggestion to English Heritage. However, the scheme and its structure are currently under review, so this may change from 2014. The range has so far been dominated by politicians and artists.

In 1851 Victorian progress was feted at the Great Exhibition, held in Hyde Park in Joseph Paxton’s vast, specially designed iron-and-glass Crystal Palace. Transported south of the Thames to Sydenham in 1852, the edifice gave its name to a new Victorian suburb, Crystal Palace; sadly, the grandiose building itself burned down in 1936.

With the money taken at the Great Exhibition, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, realised his ambition: a centre of learning in the form of the Victoria and Albert Museum. This was followed by the Queen’s tributes to her husband, the Royal Albert Hall and Royal Albert Memorial.

However, while the rich grew fat and complacent, the poor were increasingly wretched, and the pen of Charles Dickens pricked many a middle-class conscience with his portrayal of the misery and hopelessness of the souls condemned to poverty in this ‘prosperous’ city. London was growing rapidly, and by 1861 it had 3 million inhabitants. The East End slums expanded to house the newcomers pouring into the city looking for work. The boundaries of London were pushed well out into the countryside with the development of public transport. Newly invented omnibuses, trains and, in 1863, the world’s first underground railway, created a new breed of London citizen; the commuter.


In 1915 the German Zeppelins dropped the first bombs on London, and World War I left London’s young generation grossly depleted. This was a mere foretaste of what was to come 25 years later - Hitler’s Blitzkrieg rained bombs down on London between September 1940 and May 1941, during which the city experienced 57 consecutive nights of bombing. In June 1944 the rockets known as ‘doodlebugs’ were launched, battering London until March 1945. By the end of the war London’s death toll was over 30,000, with 3.5 million homes damaged or destroyed. Through it all strode Winston Churchill, the indomitable spirit of wartime Britain.


Scene on the Thames during the Blitz, 1940

Public domain


Life in post-war Britain was spent clearing rubble and living frugally. By the 1950s, however, spirits were lifting, and, 100 years after the success of the Great Exhibition, the arts were feted again in the capital in 1951 at the Festival of Britain. The greatest legacy of the festival was the South Bank Centre, an arts complex built south of the Thames. London enjoyed a huge boom of popularity into the 1960s, when a stream of rock and rollers, artists and fashion designers put London firmly on the map. Photographers, movie-makers and writers of the day chronicled the times, glamorising life in the British capital. The explosion of anarchic punk culture in the 1970s was followed by the rampant materialism of Thatcherism and Conservative rule from 1979 to 1997.


Most Londoners welcomed Labour’s landslide victory in the 1997 election under Tony Blair. As areas of the city including Bankside were regenerated and London creatives dominated the arts, the British capital was celebrated in the press as ‘the coolest place on the planet’. The millennium saw more successful developments, including the London Eye and Tate Modern. The Labour government decided to restore a measure of self-government to the capital by creating an elected mayor. Changes introduced by the first mayor, Ken Livingstone, included the ‘congestion charge’ aimed at tackling traffic jams.

By 2005, Labour’s ongoing popularity had slipped significantly, thanks in no small part to Blair’s controversial decision to go to war in Iraq. Despite this, the government was re-elected. On 7 July 2005 London suffered a severe blow when, in Britain’s first suicide-bombing, terrorists hit Underground and bus targets in the capital, killing 52 people and injuring around 700. The ‘stoicism and resilience of the people of London’ was praised by Blair, but the attacks tarnished the city’s appeal.


In the 2008 mayoral elections, Livingstone was ousted by Conservative politician Boris Johnson (re-elected in 2012). In the 2010 elections, Labour - by then led by Gordon Brown - was defeated again; the new government was a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, who introduced a programme of austerity measures to tackle the national deficit.

In 2011 the wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton relieved Britain’s sodden mood. This was followed, in 2012, by two feel-good events that were hoped would boost optimism and the nation’s coffers: the Queen’s Jubilee and London’s 2012 Olympics. The games were considered a huge success and according to a 2013 government report, both the Olympic and Paralympic Games have boosted the United Kingdom’s economy by £9.9 billion. 2013 saw economic and tourist growth in London and the enthusiastically received birth of Prince George, the first child of Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge. In April 2015 the the Duchess gave birth to her second child, Princess Charlotte. In May 2015, the Conservative Party won the general election.


AD 43 Emperor Claudius establishes the trade port of Londinium.

61 Boudicca sacks the city but is defeated, and London is rebuilt.

c.200 City wall built. London becomes the capital of Britannia Superior.

410 Romans withdraw to defend Rome. London falls into decline.

884 London becomes the capital under Alfred the Great.

1348-9 Black Death wipes out 50 percent of London’s population.

1534 Henry VIII declares himself head of the Church of England.

1605 Guy Fawkes attempts to blow up James I and Parliament.

1642-9 Civil war between Royalists and Roundheads.

1665 Plague hits London again, killing around 110,000 citizens.

1666 Great Fire of London.

1837-1901 Victorian Empire-building and the Industrial Revolution.

1851 Great Exhibition in Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in Hyde Park.

1863 London Underground opens its first line, the Metropolitan line.

1888 Serial murderer Jack the Ripper strikes in Whitechapel.

1914-18 World War I. Zeppelins bomb London.

1922 The BBC transmits its first radio programmes.

1939-45 World War II. London is heavily bombed.

1951 Festival of Britain. South Bank Centre built adjacent to Waterloo.

1960s London is the capital of hip for fashion, music and the arts.

1980s Margaret Thatcher years. Several IRA bombs hit London.

1986 The Greater London Council is abolished by Thatcher.

1996 Shakespeare’s Globe opens on Bankside.

2000 The Dome, London Eye, Tate Modern and Jubilee Line extension open to celebrate the millennium. Ken Livingstone elected Mayor.

2003 ‘Congestion charge’ imposed to control traffic in central London.

2005 Suicide bombers kill 52 and injure approximately 700 people.

2008 Boris Johnson elected Mayor of London. Global Financial Crisis.

2012 Queen’s Jubilee. Olympics held in London. Johnson re-elected.

2013 The Duchess of Cambridge gives birth to Prince George.

2015 The second child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge is born, Princess Charlotte. The Conservative Party win the general election.