Inspired by a recent visit to the Big Smoke, I thought I’d write a post that examines England’s capital, the bustling city of London.
London’s history can be traced to Roman times. Whilst there is evidence for scattered, limited settlements in the general area (some of which have been dated to 4500 BC, making them ancient even before the Romans showed up), the first incarnation of Londinium was built and settled between 47-50 AD. This was burnt to a crisp by the forces of Queen Boudica and her Iceni tribe in either 60 or 61 AD, but following the defeat of Boudica, the Romans swiftly rebuilt the settlement. The city rapidly expanded, and by the 2nd Century, was said to house between 30,000 and 60,000 people.
Fire (a recurring theme in London’s storied history) destroyed much of the town at some point shortly after 122 AD, and the city didn’t substantially grow for a time, though it is believed to have recovered – at least in terms of population – by 140 AD, when Londinium is once again said to have housed up to 60,000 people. Disease is said to have played a part in a population decline towards the end of the 2nd Century, and it is around this time that the Romans built a defensive wall around the city, part of which still stands today, nearly 2,000 years later.
Roman politics (infighting in particular) played a role in the evolution of the city. London overtook Colchester as the Roman Empire’s Britannic capital in the 2nd Century. Fortifications and public buildings sprouted, and some of Londinium’s growth, particularly from a military point of view, is attributed to Clodius Albinus, who attempted to stage a coup against Emperor Septimius Severus in the 190s. His coup failed, but it helped change the defensive face of the burgeoning city.
Londinium continued to grow, and this drew the attention of Saxon pirates, who began to regularly raid the city in the 3rd Century. During the course of the 3rd Century, rebellions, uprising, piracy, and declarations of rule by would-be emperors (Marcus Aurelius Mausaeus Carausius declared himself Emperor of Britannia and northern Gaul in 286) contributed to acts of savage violence, and in the 4th Century, continued attacks on Britannia, and Roman troubles back at home, led to the Roman presence declining.
Without turning this post into a long-winded history lesson (have a look here if you want that), Roman rule over Londinium effectively ended in 410 AD, and from then on, it was the turn of the Anglo-Saxons, until 1066 and the infamous Battle of Hastings, which led to a long period of Norman rule. The city itself gradually became known as London, and continued to ebb and flow, amidst a string of wars and conflicts for control over the kingdom of England. The Normans eventually gave way to the era of the Tudors and Stewarts, an era which featured the Great Fire of London in 1666 (which destroyed much of the original city). Other major issues (such as the outbreak of Plague in 1665) contributed to the reshaping of London, in more than one context.
Not only did the city (which had been half-destroyed by the fire, and suffered a huge population loss during the plague) get rebuilt to a different set of plans, London moved away from wooden construction, and turned to brick, in order to better resist fire in the future. More and more people were also starting to live in the suburbs around the main city, helping to create what is today known as ‘Greater London’ (not to be confused with what became known as the ‘City of London’).
By now, London was the capital of the British Empire, and whilst there were other important cities (the port towns of Southampton and Portsmouth saw a lot of shipping, as did Bristol), London’s status as the political, economic and perhaps even social heart of not only Britain, but the Empire, meant the city grew and grew, and by the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the city was at the core of several major innovations. The world’s first underground railway linked several major locations to one another. The Thames saw numerous docks established. People – rich and poor alike – were attracted to London, hoping to carve a prosperous life for themselves. By the Victorian era, you had both sides to the town very clearly on display. On the one hand, the rich lived lives of pomp and luxury. On the other, the poor were often crammed into squalid workhouses, where disease could spread easily. London was at once a place of pageantry, and a seedy, sordid town.
London – and Londoners – proved to be especially resilient. The city was bombed during World War I, but it was during World War II that London came under constant attack, with swathes of the city destroyed by Nazi bombs. Despite this, the strength and determination of Londoners did not waver, and the city was rebuilt once more.
Today, London is very clearly a city that has grown organically. It has evolved over time, and reflects some very different eras, in terms of layout and architecture. You can find Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Tudor, and all sorts of other influences across the city. From St. Pauls Cathedral, to the Houses of Parliament, to Big Ben, to Tower Bridge, to the likes of the Shard, the Gherkin, and the Dome, London is filled with unique and famous landmarks. It’s a busy, cosmopolitan metropolis, that reflects its ancient origins, whilst striving to be a modern beacon. It’s truly a remarkable place.