London Stone

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Above: London Stone on display in the Museum of London since Friday 13 May 2016 after being carefully cleaned by the museum conservators.

Although it is one of the oldest single stones in London is also one of the least well-known. Millions of Londoners have walked past it each day – on their way to and from work – probably never giving it a second glance. If they have looked at it, few of them have fully comprehended its antiquity or it importance to London. This year it has had to be moved from its present site and the Museum of London has given it a make-over. London Stone has never been removed more than a few feet from its original site – until now. It is therefore a good time to tell its story.

History of the Site of London Stone

The remaining piece of Clipsham limestone that forms London Stone today is undecorated and is only a fraction of its original size – which now measures about 53 x 43 x 30cm. It has no markings apart from a pair of groves worn into the rounded top. The stone is believed to be a remnant from Roman Londinium when it stood in the Forum Agricola, on the present site of Leadenhall Market, and marked the centre of the Roman settlement from which all distances were measured. Clipsham is a quarry which was in use until Medieval times whose site is north of the town of Stamford.

London Stone stood originally towards the southern edge of the medieval Candlewick Street (now Cannon Street) opposite the church of St Swithin. This would have placed it in front of the great Roman building, often identified as the provincial Governor’s Palace, that stood on the site now occupied by Cannon Street station. It has been suggested that the stone was originally some sort of monument erected in the palace forecourt. Some have described it – without any evidence – as being a Roman ‘milliarium’, the central milestone from which distances in the Roman province of Britain were measured.

It also needs to be explained that London Stone stands at the centre of the grid of new streets laid out after King Alfred re-established London in AD 886, after Viking attacks had destroyed the original Saxon town. It therefore may have served some significant function for late Saxon Londoners. It was probably when it received its singular name – ‘Lundene Stane’ in Old English.

London Stone was already a landmark in the City of London by the 12th century. In 1420 John Hind, draper and mayor 1404-05, whose name is spelt variously as ‘Hind’ and ‘Hend’ by Stow, was responsible for having London Stone rebuilt. He was a parishioner of St Swithin and was buried in the church.

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Above: London Stone shown on the Agas map, c1561.

The stone is shown on one of the copper plate map sections of the City of London, produced about 1550. The so-called ‘Agas’ map also shows the stone in Cannon Street. It was probably at least four feet above ground level, judging from the drawing on the map, which means that the stone was probably around six to eight feet in length – bearing in mind that at least half its length would have been buried in the ground. It is shown standing in the centre of the roadway – a position it occupied until 1742 when, being an obstacle to traffic, it was moved to the north side of the street.

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Above: The stone seen set into the wall of St Swithin’s church on the north side of Cannon Street in the early 1900s.

In 1869 it was set into the wall of St Swithin’s church which stood on the north side of Cannon Street. Ornamental bars were added to protect the stone from further damage. St Swithin was a Wren church, rebuilt after the Great Fire of London (1666). Sadly, that church was destroyed in 1941 – during bombing in the Second World War – but the stone escaped unharmed.

After the War the stone was moved a short distance east, to 111 Cannon Street, and set into the wall of a 1960s building that was for a time used by the Bank of China. That 1960s building is about to be demolished and new offices erected. While the work is being carried out the stone has been removed to the Museum of London for safe-keeping. Conservators have carefully removed decades of black grime that built up on the surface. It has been put on display inside the museum until the new building is completed. Once the new offices are completed, the stone will be restored to pride of place in the front wall of the new building in Cannon Street.

The Stone in History and in Folk-lore

In 1450 Jack Cade led an uprising in Kent against the corrupt government of Henry IV. On 3 July that year Cade and his men entered the City of London, via London Bridge. Cade is reported to have struck his sword on the stone claiming to be ‘Lord of this City’.

When William Shakespeare wrote his play ‘Henry IV’ (Part 2) in 1591 he elaborated on the same event, portraying Cade as a buffoon who sits on London Stone as if on a throne. He orders that the City water conduits should run with wine and commands the death of someone who addresses him by his actual name of ‘Jack Cade’ instead of his adopted title of ‘Lord Mortimer’.

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Above: The print of a beggar sitting beside London Stone from ‘A London Pilgrimage’, 1872.

In 1872 Gustave Doré made an engraving of London Stone for a collection of drawings called ‘A London Pilgrimage’ published under his name and that of Blanchard Jerrold.

Considerable folk-lore has built up over the centuries about London Stone. It has become the subject of countless myths including claims that it was the stone from which Arthur withdrew Excalibur. In centuries past, it was one of the tourist sites of London and it still appears on London maps today.

At the end of the 1700s a legend was built up that ‘So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long will London flourish.’ Brutus, by the way, is the legendary founder of Britain.

The poet William Blake (1757-1827) believed the site of the stone was part of a sacrificial stone circle used by druids, whose victims ‘groan’d aloud on London Stone’ (in Jerusalem: Emanation of a Giant Albion).

Final Thoughts

It can be seen that the stone has had a very long recorded history. It has also ‘collected’ plenty of myths about it during its possible 2,000-year existence in London. Although it has been temporarily removed from its ancient resting place, while a new building is erected at 111 Cannon Street, it is good to know that this famous stone will in time be restored to its original spot. We may never find out how it came to be erected in the first place. According to John Clark (Archaeological Collections, Emeritus at the Museum of London) “It is a mysterious and mystic object. I’m not sure if we want to know what it really was.”


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