Above: One of two symbolic dragons marking the boundary of the City of London at the southern end of London Bridge.
This article presents a few thoughts on how the City came into existence and how it became what it is today. It is not intended to be an outline history – which is a very long story. The City of London is often called ‘The Square Mile’ because it is a relatively small area when compared with other cities in England and, indeed, in other countries. In fact, the City is only 0.61 square miles (1,572 square km) in area.
The City owes its origins to the Romans who founded a township on the north side of the Thames at an estimated date of AD 43. There were three good reasons for choosing the location – (1) It was one of the only places beside the Thames that had well-drained land. It was situated on two very small hills (now known as Ludgate Hill and Cornhill) each being only 63 feet (19.2 m). (2) Between the two hills ran a small stream – known today as the River Walbrook. That stream would have provided a source of fresh water. (3) The southern bank of the Thames was made up of a series of gravel banks which meant that a wooden bridge could be built linking the two banks. It gave access to stable land on the s southern bank from the Roman township on the north bank. The Romans called the township Londinium. We know this because the name was found on a stone inscription. After occupying the township for nearly two centuries, those who lived there then decided to build an enclosing wall – known today as the Roman Wall. Some of it still remains to be seen. Because the wall was so massive, it was to define the street plan for the next 1,500 years. Most of the wall was not taken down until 1760. The Roman occupation of Britain ended about AD 410 when the legions were recalled to Rome.
In the 5th century, the Saxons – started to settle in England. They came from what is now called North Germany. Being farmers, they were looking for more land – to tend animals and grow some produce. Until the 20th century, it was assumed that some Saxons would have settled inside the boundary of the Roman Wall. It is possible that some of them did because we know that in AD 604 St Paul’s Cathedral was founded within that wall. However, in the 1980s a breakthrough in London’s archaeology came when a group of archaeologists found evidence for Saxon houses in the Aldwych and Convent Garden area. It is now nearly 40 years since that discovery was made and a name has been given the Saxon occupation of that part of London – Lundenwic. Most of Saxons living in what is now Central London were living beside the Thames in the area of today’s street called the Strand.
So what happened in the City? As has already been mentioned, St Paul’s Cathedral was founded in AD 604 which means there must have been some people living within the Roman Wall. Because the depth of water further upriver from the City is shallower, it is also likely that trading ships from other countries in what is now France and Germany would have brought goods to be landed at the quays were situated beside the City from Roman times. One fact that is known is that the Vikings took over the land within the Roman Wall and occupied it. One simple piece of evidence is that there have been three churches dedicated to St Olave (or ‘St Olaf”) in the City. One of them remains to this day.
In AD 886 Alfred the Great re-established English control of the City. It is also believed that it was at this time new streets were laid out, giving the alignment to some of today’s streets around Cheapside and Eastcheap. A few years later, in AD 899, a harbour was established at ‘Ethelred’s Hythe’ – which we now call Queenhithe. It is recorded in contemporary charters as a trading shore by the Thames, where goods were sold directly from beached boats. A second harbour or dock was established at the same time at Billingsgate. The time when the City was re-established under English control has also been given a name – Lundenburg. It was the time of the City under Anglo-Saxon control.
What happened next is known to every schoolboy and schoolgirl – it was 1066 – And All That! Before we talk about the Normans, one other fact in history should be mentioned. There is no royal palace in the City of London and Parliament is not situated in the City of London either. Although the City if financially powerful, it is not the ‘seat of power’. This all goes back to the days before the Norman Conquest. For reasons that have never been fully explained, in 1050 Edward the Confessor founded a new church that has become Westminster Abbey. It took fifteen years to build before it was ready for consecration. In the same year, Edward also had a new palace started – known as the Palace of Westminster. It was used as a palace by all the Kings of England until Henry VIII. In addition, it was in that palace that the Kings of England presided over the early parliament. Sadly, Edward the Confessor died in 1065 before either the new abbey church or the new palace had been completed.
Returning to the story of the City, William the Conqueror had proclaimed himself King of England after victory at the Battle of Hastings. He was crowned king in Edward the Confessor’s new abbey. William decided to make Edward’s new palace the main place where he lived. This then set a precedent for a palace in London and also for the seat of government. During Norman times, various kings realised that although the power lay at Westminster, the money was in the City. Trade with the City and other ports in Europe meant that the City became incredibly rich. The City also gained revenue from the export of wood from customs duty being paid – hence the need for the Customs House. All wool exported went via the City. When various Norman kings needed money – to fight a war ‘in foreign parts’ they went to the City to ask for that money. The City was not about to hand over the money without something in exchange. What could the king give them in return as payment? There were several things, actually. The City did not like the idea that the king appointed their Lord Mayor. The king appointed a Frenchman because he did not trust an English Lord Mayor. When the king needed money, the City insisted that he sign a charter giving the City the right to appoint their own Lord Mayor. To this, the king agreed, along with other rights and privileges. One of the reasons that the City is so powerful today is that it has bought the right to those powers and wisely kept the charters signed by various kings to prove it!
The City has its own administration – the Corporation of London. It is now officially and legally called the Mayor and Commonalty and Citizens of the City of London which is the municipal governing body of the City of London. In 2006 the name was changed from Corporation of London as the corporate body needed to be distinguished from the geographical area thus avoiding confusion with the wider London local government, the Greater London Authority (GLA). While on the subject, the City of London appoints a Lord Mayor for a period of a year. The ‘Lord Mayor of London’ should not be confused with the ‘Mayor of London’ who is appointed every four years and presides over the GLA from offices in City Hall, near Tower Bridge.
The Corporation’s structure includes the Lord Mayor, the Court of Aldermen, the Court of Common Council, and the Freemen and Livery of the City. The ‘Liberties and Customs’ of the City of London are guaranteed in Magna Carta’s clause 9, which remains in the statute. In addition, The Common Council is the police authority for the City of London – a police area that covers the City including the Inner Temple & Middle Temple. The City has its own police force – the City of London Police – separate from the Metropolitan Police, often called ‘The Met’. The Met polices the remainder of Greater London, consisting of its 32 London Boroughs.
The City of London holds a unique place in the administration of England. The City is not part of a county. If you go to Norwich, they will tell you that Norwich is the county city of Norfolk. It is in the County of Norfolk. Similarly, Canterbury is the county city of Kent. In the case of the City of London, it was once surrounded by the County of Middlesex but it was not part of Middlesex.
The City of London has its own Coat of Arms consisting of the shield of St George (a Red Cross on a white background) who is the patron saint of England. In the top left-hand quarter is the sword of St Paul, the patron saint of the City who is said to have been martyred by the sword. Either side is a ‘supporter’ in the form of a silver dragon, probably suggested by the legend of St George and the Dragon.
Today, some would argue that the City is too powerful because it continues without ever having been reformed. This is probably because those who govern are the same people who also control the way in which the City operates. This brief look at the City is only concerned with its history. We will leave others to decide whether the City’s power is good or bad. One thing cannot be disputed – it is very successful.
Comment – New Academic Year
For those who are on the email list for Know Your London, welcome back to another year of following a set schedule which extends over six years. In that time we look at topics related to every part of Inner London.
If you have recently joined – or even if you have been with us for some time – it might be worth mentioning that you can get far more out of this Website if you read the blogs on the Website. To do this, click on the BLUE heading in your email and it will take you to an exact copy of the page on the Website. The advantage is that down the right-hand side are a list of Categories. They can help you locate groups of blogs by a geographical area and also by subject.
All the Inner London boroughs are listed by the first three letters of the name and beside it are the old Metropolitan Boroughs. For example, if you were looking for articles on Deptford, you will find them under ‘Lew-Deptford’ because Deptford is now part of the London Borough of Lewisham. A few articles are written about Outer London boroughs, like Croydon. Their names are written in full. The Website is really set up to tell the history of places in Inner London but occasionally an interesting place is just over the border, in an Outer London borough. Such places are therefore included on the Website but there are only a few of them.
Another advantage of reading blogs on the Website is that you can also comment on a blog that you are reading. It also allows you to share additional information about the blog – if you would like to do so. Several readers have written something like ‘I used to live in that road and I had no idea of all its interesting history’. Other readers are trying to track down pictures related to an area and they need help in knowing which authorities to contact. It’s great to hear from all of you out there – whatever the reason.
Two final thoughts . . .
Towards the end of the Categories list – under ‘Lon’ (abbreviation for London) – you will find ‘Lon-Overview’ this shows the overviews for areas of study on this Website that have already been written. It is by no means complete and more overviews need to be added. An ‘Overview’ gives you a short synopsis with the main features of an area of study.
Also under ‘Lon’ in the Categories list, you will find ‘Lon-Quick Look Around’. This is similar to an ‘Overview’ but a ‘Quick Look Around’ applies to a small part of an area of study. For example, there is an ‘Overview’ for ‘/Wes-Piccadilly’. There is also a ‘Quick Look Around’ for ‘/Soho’ and for ‘/Mayfair’ which are two parts of that large area of study.