History of London – A Story of Conquests, Disasters, Wars and Progress

History of London

Roman London

London was born in 50 AD when the Romans, who had invaded Britain in 43 AD decided to build a town by the bridge that they had built across the Thames with the intention of having a port. London is derived from the Celtic word Londinios. Originally, it did not have stone walls but probably a ditch and an earth rampart with a wooden palisade on top. A stone wall was erected around London by the end of the 2nd century and there was a ditch outside. 20 bastions were added to the wall in the middle of the 3rd century. The forum in the form of a square with shops and public buildings arranged around it was built in the centre of Roman London. The basilica or ‘town hall’ (500 ft long and 70 ft high) was the most important building in the forum. Roman London featured brick works, potteries, glass works, and donkey-powered mills for grinding grains to flour and bakeries. London in the Roman era was an important port with wooden wharves and jetties and it was used to export grain and metal while luxury goods were imported. There were several public baths although the rich people had their private baths at home. The baths were also used for socialising. Water at homes was sourced from wells and cess pools were used. Underground drains were used for removing rainwater. An amphitheatre capable of holding 8,000 people where gladiators fought to the death, were also a feature of Roman London. Cockfighting was very popular.

Saxon London

After the Romans left in 407 AD, London was abandoned until a new town arose outside the walls on the site of Covent Garden. In 597 AD, the Saxons began to be converted to Christianity by Roman monks and a bishop was appointed for London in 604. Gradually, London became a trading centre by the 8th century. There were many wooden huts with thatched roofs in the Saxon London era and there is evidence of loom weights. The exports were wool, either raw or woven and imports included wine and luxury foods like grapes and figs. The Danes looted London in 842 and in 851 they burned a large part of the town. Thereafter they conquered northern and Eastern England including London. However they were defeated by King Alfred the Great in 878 but the country was split between them with the Danes keeping London. However, Alfred took back London in 886 and repaired the walls of the old Roman town. Soon foreign merchants came to live in London. The Danes tried to conquer London again in 994 but they were defeated. Edward the Confessor built the wooden Westminster Palace and later Parliament used to meet here. He also built Westminster Abbey.

London in Middle Ages

William the Conqueror occupied the royal palace at Westminster and was crowned King of England in 1066. He conferred certain rights to London through a charter and he built a wooden tower to stand guard over London but in 1078 – 1100 it was replaced by a stone tower leading to the beginning of the Tower of London. In 1176 the wooden bridge across the Thames was replaced with a stone one. In 1180, London had clean air, Christian religion, St Paul’s Cathedral, 126 parish churches, the Tower with 4 gates and fields and meadows with small rivers. It was a lively place with a horse market in Smithfield, which was also the place for executions. The friars came to London in the 13th century and set out to preach. The Jews came after the Norman Conquest and they lived in a ghetto. They suffered from persecution and 30 Jews were killed in 1189 and in 1264, 500 more were killed. All of them were expelled from England in 1290. The Peasants Revolt took place in 1381 and in 1348-1349, about 15,000 people died when the Black Death struck.

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6th and 17th Centuries

The church owned much of the land in London in the Middle Ages but King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and released a great deal of land for new buildings. He opened the Hyde Park to the public in 1635. During this period Richmond Park was created and Queens House was completed. Rich men continued to build houses west of London and a fruit and vegetable market was built at Covent Garden. The Civil War began in 1642 between the king and parliament. The last outbreak of Bubonic plague was in 1665 and in 1666 the Great Fire of London took place. About 13,200 houses were destroyed and about 70-80,000 people were made homeless.

Fashionable houses were built in London at various places in the late 17th century. French protestants fleeing religious persecution came to London and mostly settled in Spitalfields. Piped water was made available to wealthy Londoners in the 17th century. The Bank of England was set up in 1694.

18th Century

In the 18th century, the city started expanding and several hospitals were also built. Buckingham Palace was built in 1703 and altered in the 19th century by John Nash. The first monarch to live there was Queen Victoria in 1837. The Marlborough House, British Museum, Somerset House and Mansion House were also built in the 18th century.

19th Century

The population grew to 6 million by the end of the 19th century. Estates were built by rich men and there was all-round growth in the city, mainly due to the railway. There were epidemics of Cholera in 1831-1866. Manufacturing activities grew.

20th Century

While there was a lot of progress, the two World Wars created havoc. Many people were killed but after the wars, buildings and new towns were built. London boomed in the 1950s.

21st Century

London continued to grow rapidly at the beginning of the 21st century.