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History of London

The Tower of London

London has a history that goes back 2,000 years. During this time, it has experienced plague, devastating fire, civil war, overwhelming aerial bombardment, and terrorist attacks, yet, it has still grown from nothing to become one of the mercantile capitals of the western world.

See City of London for details on the historic core of London.

Table of contents
1 Legendary Foundations and Prehistoric London
2 The Meaning of Londinium
3 Roman London
4 Saxon London
5 Norman London
6 Stuart London
7 Modern London
8 Population
9 Historical Places of Note in London
10 External Links

Legendary Foundations and Prehistoric London

In the medieval mythology of Geoffrey of Monmouth London was founded by Brutus the Trojan in the Bronze Age and was known as Troia Nova which was corrupted to Trinovantum. King Lud renamed the town CaerLudein from which London derived. Geoffrey provides prehistoric London with a rich array of legendary kings and intersting stories. However, archaeologists have found no evidence of a prehistoric or British town. There have been scattered prehistoric finds, evidence of farming, burial and traces of habitation but nothing more substantial. The archaeological coverage has been so intense particularly since the mid 1970s that it is unlikely that a pre-Roman town exists waiting to be found.

So, during the prehistoric times London was a rural area with scattered settlement. Rich finds such as the Battersea Shield found in the Thames near Chelsea suggest the area was important, there may have been important settlements at Egham and Brentford and there was a hillfort at Uppall but no City.

Westminster Abbey

The Meaning of Londinium

However, the name Londinium is thought to be pre-Roman in origin although no consensus on what it means. Recent research by Richard Coates has suggested that the name derives from pre-celtic Old European - Plowonida - from 2 roots, 'plew' and 'nejd'. meaning something like the flowing river or the wide flowing river. Londinium therefore means the settlement on the wide river. He suggests that the river was called the Thames upriver where it was narrower, and Plowonida down river where it was too wide to ford. For a discussion on the legends of London and Plowonida see [1]. The story of the settlement being named after Lud is considered unlikely.

Roman London

Londinium was established as a town by the Romans after the invasion of AD 43 led by the Emperor Claudius. Archaeological excavation (undertaken by MOLAS) since the 1970s has also failed to unearth any convincing traces of major settlement before c 50AD - so ideas about Londinium being a military foundation around the Fort that protected London Bridge are now largely discounted.

Archaeologists now believe that London was founded as a civilian settlement by 50 AD. A wooden drain by the side of the main roman road excavated at No 1 Poultry has been dated to 47 AD which is likely to be the foundation date.

Ten years later, the British queen Boudicca, leading the Iceni, sacked (plundered) Londinium (c. 60 AD). Excavation has revealed extensive evidence of destruction by fire at this date, and recently a military compound has been discovered in the City of London which may have been the headquarters of the Roman fight back against the British uprising.

The city recovered after perhaps 10 years and reached its population height by about 140 AD, thereafter it began a slow decline which left very little infrastructure remaining in 410 AD when the Roman occupation officially came to an end.

Saxon London

When London recovered the Saxon settlements in the area were not in the ancient walled City of London, but to the west, naming this area Lundenwic which meant London Port, the area is known as Aldwych (Ald=Old and wych=port) which reflects the fact that some time, in the late 9th or early 10th Century the focus of settlement shifted from the 'Old Port' back to the old City of London. This may have been due to administrative changes introduced by Alfred the Great after his defeat of Guthrum and the Danes. Alfred appointed his son-in-law Earl Aethelred of Mercia who was the heir to the destroyed Kingdom of Mercia as Governor of London and established two defended Boroughs to defend the bridge which was probably rebuilt at this time. London became known as Lundenburgh, and the southend of the Bridge was established as the Borough of Southwark or Suthringa Geworc (defensive work of the men of Surrey) as it was originally known.

Norman London

London remained an important town, though, and the walled area was resettled in fear of
Vikings. The Normans constructed several forts, including the Tower of London to prevent rebellions and William the Conqueror granted a charter in 1067 upholding previous Saxon rights, privileges and laws. Its growing self-government became firm with election rights granted by King John in 1199 and 1215. The nearby up-river town of Westminster became the Royal capital, and the area between them entirely urbanised by 1600.

See City of London for details on the origins of the City government.

Palace of Westminster in the 1800's

Stuart London

The Great Plague in 1665 significantly reduced London's population, and in 1666 the Great Fire of London destroyed much of the city. Sir Christopher Wren was responsible for the rebuilding of London's churches including St. Paul's Cathedral. The destruction of housing in the city encouraged many former residents to build new homes outside the walls.

Modern London

The urbanised area continued to grow rapidly, spreading into Islington, Paddington, Belgravia, Holborn, Finsbury, Shoreditch, Southwark and Lambeth. This process was increased by the railways and the policies of slum clearances. In 1855 the Metropolitan Board of Works was set up with responsibility for transport and other projects - and a London County Council was set up in 1888 with authority for the inner area of the urbanised region.

During World War II, London, as many other British cities, suffered severe damage, being bombed extensively by the Luftwaffe as a part of the Blitz. London was a popular target with the Luftwaffe was the city was heavily industrialised. Many children in London were taken to the countryside so they would not get killed in bombing.

The outward expansion of London was slowed by the war, and the Green Belt established soon afterwards. Greater London Council was set up in 1965 with authority for much more of the urban area than the London County Council, but was abolished in 1986, leaving the 33 cities and boroughs as the only sub-national authorities in London. In 2000, the Greater London Authority was established, covering the same area of Greater London as before and representing one of the nine regions of England, separated from the South East. The London Commuter Belt covers an area much wider, but is not considered part of London.

Crystal Palace in 1851


1 - a few farmsteaders
50 - 5 - 10,000
140 - 20 - 40,000
300 - 10 - 20,000
400 - less than 5000?
500 a few hundred?
700 a few thousand in the new city of Lundenwic
900 a few thousand in the resestablished city of Lundenburgh
1000 - 10,000
1100 - 10,000 - 20,000
1300 - 100,000 (according to research by Derek Keene
1350 - 50,000 following the Black Death
1500 - 100,000 - 150,000
1600 - 200,000 - 250,000
1700 - 600,000 (nearly 10% of the population of England and Wales)
1750 - 700,000
1801 - 959,300 (at the time, the World's largest City)
1831 - 1,655,000
1851 - 2,363,000
1881 - 3,830,000
1901 - 4,536,000
1925 - 4,612,000
2001 - 7,172,036
2016 - 8.2m according to forecast in 'London's Place in the UK Economy' Corporation of London Sept. 2002

the first Census was in 1801 so early dates are guesstimates based on archaeological density of sites compared with known population of the City of London between 1600 - 1800 (i.e.50,000). Dates 1300 onwards are probably based on better evidence from historic records.

Historical Places of Note in London

London Bridge in the early 1890s

External Links