Basilica

Above: The base of one of the ‘piers’ from the Basilica. It is still in situ below ground, under Leadenhall Market.

If your Latin is a bit shaky – or possibly non-existent – it might be a good idea to explain what a Basilica was. The word can also be applied to a church but, in the context of the ancient Roman settlement known as Londinium – which stood on the site now occupied by the City of London – the easiest way to describe the building in today’s terms is as ‘a town hall’. Getting into a more detailed explanation, the word means an ancient Roman public building where courts were held, as well as serving other official and public functions. It was where the magistrate or other officials were seated. The basilica was centrally located in every Roman town, usually adjacent to the main Forum (the market place).

It may surprise you to learn that, although the remains have been in the ground for the almost 2,000 years, the sites of most Roman buildings surviving from Londinium have only been discovered since the time of the Second World War. Until 1760 the entire length of the Roman Wall surrounding Londinium was complete, along with the ancient gatehouses. After that date, the City Corporation removed the gatehouses and allowed citizens to remove the wall (at their own expense). That is why only a few short lengths of the wall remain to be seen today.

Historians in the 18th and 19th centuries knew that there were pieces of Roman masonry in the ground and occasionally they were uncovered due to a new building being erected. However, the ‘bigger picture’ of how Londinium was laid out did not emerge until the 1950s and it continues to be revealed as time goes by in the 21st century. The Basilica was one of the ‘big finds’ of the 19th century in the City of London. The remains were revealed during the construction of Leadenhall Market in 1880-82 and further foundations were also discovered in Cornhill. That could be considered as the first step in finding out the layout of the buildings and streets of Roman London (Londinium).

Since the 19th century, techniques in archaeology have improved dramatically. During the Second War London suffered terrible devastation, including the City of London. In 1945, archaeologists hardly had to dig down in the ground to notice a whole variety of Roman structures. Evidence for the sites of several Roman baths was uncovered along with the footings of the Roman Wall in several places along its original course. The 1950s saw the discovery of the Temple of Mithras. The 1980s saw the discovery of the first evidence for the Roman amphitheatre. Many other remarkable finds relating to Londinium were discovered but they are discussed in other blogs.

Above: Model in the Museum of London showing the Basilica (the large building towards the top of the picture) with the Forum, or market place, below.

Returning to the Basilica, it is generally accepted that the Romans invaded Britain in AD 43. Londinium was probably founded about AD 50 and for nearly 400 years the town remained the centre for administration, finance and trade in Roman Britain. It is believed that the Basilica was built originally in AD 70 and was enlarged later – between AD 90 and AD 120. It was the largest building of its type north of the Alps.

Above: Large scale map of part of the City of London showing the position of the Basilica and the Forum relative to the modern Gracechurch Street.

The picture at the top of the article shows a base of a ‘pier’ which is the only surviving part of the Basilica in situ. Its position is at basement-level below the present Leadenhall Market. It served as the base of an arch in one of the Basilica’s arcades. The Basilica stood on the north side of of the Forum which is seen in the model of the Basilica and the Forum. Comparing the length of the Basilica on the large scale map, it was more twice the length of the Royal Exchange (seen along the top of the map) and more than three times the E-W width of Lloyds Insurance (whose modern building by Rogers is seen on the far right of the map). In short, the Basilica was huge and covered a large part of the present Leadenhall Market in the east and extended west along about a third of the length of Cornhill.

Above: Overlay plotted onto a section of Google Maps, showing the line of the Roman Wall and the position of the Basilica and the Forum in Londinium.

On the ground, a road led north from the wooden bridge – later to become the site of the old medieval London Bridge. The road later became Fish Street Hill and the southern part of Gracechurch. What is today the northern part of Gracechurch Street was used in Roman times by the Forum and the Basilica. From the north side of the Basilica, a road ran north, passing through what was later called Bishopsgate and may have been responsible for the formation of the modern street with the same name.

From what has been said, the site of the Basilica has been well-known since Victorian times – when the present Leadenhall Market was constructed 1880-82. Almost exactly 100 years later, the land to the NW of the market buildings was acquired in order to build new offices. Rescue excavations in the form of an archaeological dig took place between 1984 and 1986 before the construction work began. The dig was carried out by the Museum of London who, in order to make the general public aware of what an important site this was, had a large hoarding erected beside Leadenhall Street with the wording ‘Site of London’s first Town Hall’ painted on it. The excavated site was at the corner of Leadenhall Street and Gracechurch Street and the resulting offices were called Leadenhall Court.

Modern offices have a relatively short life. Having stood for only about 30 years, the building is (at the time of writing) empty and plans have been submitted to demolish what stands on the site and erect new taller offices to be known as ‘1 Leadenhall Street’. Whether any further archaeological finds will be made remains to be seen. The foundations completed during the late 1980s may have completely obliterated any remaining archaeological evidence. It is just possible that the ancient Basilica site will make the headlines once more over the next few years.

-ENDS-

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