The History of London: A Guided Tour Through the Developing City

From the Lecture Series: A History of England from the Tudors to the Stuarts

By Robert Buchholz, D.Phil., Loyola University Chicago

At the beginning of the Tudor period, London was already by far the most important city in the realm. By the end of the Stuarts it would be 10 times as large, the center of a worldwide empire, and arguably the source of the most vibrant culture in Europe. Let’s take a tour through the development city, and through the History of London.

Reconstruction drawing of Londinium in 120 AD from Museum of London
Reconstruction drawing of Londinium in 120 AD (Image: By Carole Raddato/Public Domain)

The Roman City of Londinium

The history of London begins with the Romans at Londinium around 60 of the Common Era—that’s within about 20 years of the first serious Roman establishment in England. Its location is crucial. First, the River Thames is a highway, which allows access to both Europe and the empire on one hand, but also to the interior on the other. It’s very convenient for the Romans that this river is here. They picked this spot because this is the last point—that is, the most western point—in the river that’s still wide enough and deep enough for big ships at high tide. That means it’s also the first spot that’s narrow enough to be bridgeable. This means it will be a crossroads: north-south, east-west.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of England from the Tudors to the Stuarts. Watch it now, Wondrium.

As a result, London becomes a crucial crossroads for trade, a thriving city of perhaps 100,000 even then within 40–50 years of founding. It is also a vital military chokepoint. To protect London’s one square mile, the Romans build a wall around it. That wall would stand intact into the mid-17th century. On the day of our visit in 1603, the wall is still there and it has some significance in keeping out invaders or teams from the Wars of the Roses that you don’t agree with.

Map of Roman London
The thick black line on the map shows the wall and gates built by Romans to protect London (Image: By Fremantleboy, Drallim/Public Domain)

London Bridge

The north-south connection is in many respects not the most important one. It’s not as important as east-west. In 1603, there were still only two ways to get across the river: by barge or by London Bridge. That version of London Bridge had been built in the 12th century. Because land in London is at a premium, the Bridge itself is covered with houses and shops.

Painting of the Old London Bridge by Claude de Jongh 1632.
In 12th century, since land in London was at a premium, the Bridge itself was covered with houses and shops(Image: By Claude de Jongh/Public Domain)

Because it forms the southern entrance to the city (the Bridge goes north to south), its south gate is famous for the grisly sight of the heads of traitors mounted on pikes. Here you might take your final leave of William Wallace, Thomas More, Bishop Fisher, and Thomas Cromwell—some of the most eminent people in English history looking down upon those who are entering London at this point.

London mostly developed along the Thames’s northern bank, which is why I say that the north-south connection is not that important. The southern bank comprised the borough of Southwark, which was just outside the jurisdiction of the city fathers. That’s important because it means that Southwark was a place of relative freedom. In fact, Southwark is a combat zone.

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It’s a place where you go if you want to see bearbaiting or bullbaiting. It’s where you go to the theater. It’s no accident that the Rose and the Globe are built in Southwark so that they won’t be shut down by the city authorities. There are a lot of taverns here. If we want an exciting, slightly dangerous time, we’re heading across the river to Southwark.

The Heart of London

For most Londoners, the heart of London is on the north bank. Their perambulations move on an east-west track along the river. The north bank maybe divided into London proper within the old Roman wall to the east, and the royal borough of Westminster to the west. The only land route between them is the system of streets that goes Cheapside, Fleet Street, the Strand, and King Street (King Street will later be Whitehall). This network of streets wasn’t fully paved yet in 1603 and you know what that means: clouds of dust in summer and seas of mud into which carriage wheels and small animals would be swallowed up in winter.

Nevertheless, along the Strand stood some magnificent bishops’ palaces, which would be confiscated at the Reformation. Most people travel east to west via water taxi, that is, the London oarsmen and their barges. If we walk down to the river, we hear their cries of, “Oars! Oars!” If we’re young ladies up from the country, we may think that we’ve just been insulted.

Even this route is not without danger as London Bridge forms rapids. These were impossible to shoot at full tide and difficult at ebb. What this means is that one of the more popular aristocratic forms of suicide in London is to try to shoot the rapids at high tide.

Just east of London Bridge on the north bank lay the chief source of the city’s wealth: the docks. Here the river is filled with big ships, lorries, etc. Goods had to pass through the Royal Customs House, which makes it the most important source of the government’s revenue. Spreading eastward is a complex of wharves, shipwrights, sailors’ houses, taverns, and brothels. Eastward from the docks would form that district to be known as the East End. This is a first point of entry for many immigrants to London. It does not yet have the unsavory reputation that it would in Victorian England, but it’s not by any means the wealthiest part of London.

Painting showing the earlier Custom House in city of London
The Custom House, London (Image: By Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) and Augustus Charles Pugin (1762–1832) (after) John Bluck (fl. 1791–1819), Joseph Constantine Stadler (fl. 1780–1812), Thomas Sutherland (1785–1838), J. Hill, and Harraden (aquatint engravers)/Public Domain)

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Trade Brings Wealth, Wealth Brings Building

The wealth from trade flowed into a financial district within the old Roman wall which would soon come to be known, and is known today, as the “City.” The City is London’s Wall Street. Here we find the Guildhall, where the Lord Mayor and 26 aldermen govern London; numerous smaller halls, one for each guild or livery company (the shoemakers’ hall, the fishmongers’ hall, etc.); and the Royal Exchange, which was built by Sir Thomas Gresham in the heart of the City in 1566–1567. The Royal Exchange is just a place where businessmen go to strike deals.

Towering over the City was old St. Paul’s Cathedral, the religious heart of the City and one of the largest churches in Europe. It’s 585 feet long. That makes it the biggest building in London and the second longest church in Christendom. Its steeple is almost 500 feet high. Compare that with Salisbury Cathedral at about 220 feet high. That steeple, however, had burnt down in 1561, so in 1603, we just see a sort of flat-top. In fact, by 1603, old St. Paul’s Cathedral is falling apart. It’s in desperate need of renovation, so I suppose it’s a mixed blessing that it will burn down in the Great Fire of London of 1666 and be rebuilt in its present magnificent Baroque form by Sir Christopher Wren.

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Finally, the Tower of London stands on the Thames on the southeast corner of the old city. It was built by William the Conqueror as a fortress to protect the jewel of his kingdom. By 1603, it’s used as a prison and very rarely as a royal palace—usually only the night before the king’s coronation procession through the streets of London.

Engraving of the Tower of London in 1737
Tower of London in 1737 (Image: By Nathaniel Buck, Samuel Buck – British Museum/Public Domain)

Apart from these great buildings, London within the walls in 1603 is a ramshackle maze of narrow winding lanes and hastily thrown up, rickety, tumbledown houses made of wood and plaster, all crowded together because of the premium on space. No wonder that early-modern London is subject to fires, disease, building collapses, and crime. This in turn helps to explain why the monarchy and the aristocracy moved west. In fact, there’s a very good natural reason for the monarchy and aristocracy to move west. The Thames flows west to east and the prevailing winds move in the same direction. That means that all of your soot and human waste go east, so you want to go west.

At the heart of Westminster is a complex of buildings that form the nerve center of the English administration. I suppose pride of place belongs to Westminster Abbey, built by Edward the Confessor and rebuilt by Henry III. This is where every monarch is crowned and then buried at the end of their reign until about 1820. Coronations still take place there today, as far as we know, in the 21st century.

Near Westminster Abbey is Westminster Hall. It was built by William II in 1097 as part of Westminster Palace. It’s 240 feet long and 40 feet high, making it the biggest hall in England, though William Rufus referred to it as a “mere bedchamber.” This is where the law courts meet in 1603: King’s Bench, Common Pleas, Chancery, and Exchequer. It’s also where the great trials took place: Thomas More and Bishop Fisher in 1535, Anne Boleyn in 1536, the Duke of Somerset in 1552, Guy Fawkes in 1606, the Earl of Strafford in 1641, and King Charles I in 1649. You can actually go and stand on little brass markers which purport to stand for where these defendants would have stood in their trial.

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Yet, from the 1650s, Westminster Hall is also filled with shops and arcades, so it’s sort of a great shopping mall with a bit of Court TV added in. This is a popular rendezvous point. This is where Samuel Pepys goes when he wants to meet a lady other than his wife.

This is also where the king held his coronation banquets. These were distinguished by two ceremonies, one planned and one unplanned. The planned ceremony is that a member of the Dymock family will ride in on a horse, throw down a gauntlet, and challenge anyone in the hall to challenge the king’s title to the throne. There never were any takers. The unplanned ceremony is that traditionally at coronation banquets, the guests stole everything that moved: spoons, forks, serving dishes, tureens—you name it. I found this in my own research on the royal household. Immediately after a coronation banquet, there’s always a lot of business for the London silversmiths because they’ve got to replace all this stuff.

When we think of the Palace of Westminster, the mother of all Parliaments, we think of the magnificent gothic structure on the banks of the Thames. The original Westminster Palace was far less impressive. Westminster Palace had been a royal residence since the Middle Ages. It was partially destroyed by fire in 1514. When Henry VIII acquired Whitehall in 1529, he thought it would be a good idea to give the rundown old palace to Parliament. The House of Lords met in Map of London c. 1600’s.

A sketch showing the Conjectural restoration of Westminster by H J Brewer
Conjectural restoration of Westminster during the reign of Henry VIII (Image: By H J Brewer/Public Domain)

In any case, the heart of Westminster in 1603 is not the Parliament House, as it was also called, but the king’s Court at Whitehall. Whitehall Palace is a vast disorganized collection of buildings on the river comprising well over 1,000 rooms. You’ll recall that it had been confiscated by Henry VIII from Cardinal Wolsey, who’d made the mistake of inviting the king over for dinner. Never do that if your house is better than the king’s.

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Here in 1603, the monarch and the Court lived, worked, and played. Here the king convened the Privy Council and decided on policy. Most offices of the central government had their offices here. That’s why the term “Whitehall” is still synonymous with government in England today, long after the palace itself burnt down in 1698. The Court produced and enjoyed elaborate pageants, masques, plays, banquets, and ceremonies here. This is where God’s lieutenant on Earth, his ministers, and foreign ambassadors could be seen, accosted, and perhaps influenced.

Courtiers lined the galleries hoping to be noticed for their beauty, their bravery, or their wit. They vied for royal favor, office, titles, pensions, and lands. Most vie in vain. The annals of the Court are full of rueful tales of ambitious young men and rapacious young women who squandered their fortunes, reputations, self-respect, and youth on the pursuit of honors, lands, and fame that never came.

Still, even if you didn’t want honors, lands, and fame, this is the place to see all the latest fashions, hear the latest gossip, pick up an art commission if you’re an artist, or meet a spouse. In other words, what I’m arguing and have argued in my own published work is that the Court of England was at once Whitehall and Capitol Hill, but also Parnassus and Hollywood, Bloomsbury and the round table of the Algonquin Hotel. It was a consummate meeting of minds and a sublime meat market. We have nothing like it in our society today, so they came, and they came, and they came.

In the 1630s, the Russells, Earls of Bedford, commissioned Inigo Jones to design something rather different: the first London housing development to attract members of the gentry, Covent Garden. In fact, Covent Garden is the first London square. The idea behind the square is a relatively airy dwelling place that is also private and therefore secure. Streets don’t run through the square, so there’s a sense of living almost within a college cloister in a compact space.

The Plague Hits London

More than half a century after our visit to London, the city will be laid low by a series of disasters. Plague had attacked London many times since 1348. In fact, what is supposedly the Great Plague of 1665—the one immortalized in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year—may not have been the most terrible.

The figures for plague are astounding. Listen to these statistics: In 1563, 17,400 Londoners died. That’s 24 percent of London’s estimated population at the time. In 1593, the plague came back, killing 14 percent. In 1603, it came back again, killing 23 percent. In 1625, it killed 20 percent of London’s population. In 1665, it killed 55,800 people. That’s only 18 percent, so that really wasn’t as rough an outing with the plague as the previous ones had been. I should tell you that the 55,000 number may be low. I’ve seen estimates as high as 100,000, which would make the Great Plague of 1665 the “great” plague.

When the plague hit, the Court and aristocracy got out of town. In 1665, they went to Oxford. The Lord Mayor and aldermen, however, usually stayed on the job, issuing well-meaning orders that often did more harm than good. For example, they quarantined victims with their families in houses marked with a red cross. Being locked up with plague victims was almost certainly a death sentence. They opened pest houses. These were intended to be hospitals, but of course they were centers of breeding for plague.

They ordered the killing of all dogs and cats, thinking that dogs and cats spread the disease, when in fact, of course, the cats killed the rats that helped spread the disease. Bad move.

image of men collecting the dead for burial during the Great Plague of 1665
Collecting the dead for burial during the Great Plague of 1665(Image: By unknwn/Public Domain)

Finally, they ordered mass burials of the dead with no attendees. That is to say, you weren’t allowed to attend your friend’s or your family member’s funeral. People flouted this one. They went to the funerals anyway, taking great risk to do so—perhaps a comment on the religious feeling of English men and women. It’s also a comment on that issue of whether they loved each other or not. It was a great risk to do this.

No one knew that the 1665 outbreak would be the last. Londoners continued to fear plague well into the 18th century.

Fire was also a frequent hazard, given London’s close-packed wooden buildings. Just as London was recovering from the 1665 plague, the Great Fire began. In the early hours of September 2, 1666, in Pudding Lane near London Bridge, in the house of Thomas Farrinor, the king’s baker, he or someone had probably not damped the fire to the royal ovens as effectively as he or they could have done. At first, the fire was well contained. It didn’t spread much. Sam Pepys got up, looked at it, and went to bed. So, rather less defensibly, did the Lord Mayor of London. His famous quote upon seeing the fire was, “Pish! Why a woman could piss it out.”

In part because of high winds and in part because London had experienced a dry summer, the fire raged for nearly a week. Few were killed, but it destroyed nearly the whole of the old walled city, including old St. Paul’s. Many Londoners had stored their goods in the crypt, thinking that surely God would spare St. Paul’s. The Guildhall burned down. The Royal Exchange burned down. Eighty-seven parish churches burned down, as did 52 company halls and 13,200 houses at a total cost of perhaps 10 million.

I think it’s characteristic of London that it can’t be stopped. They rebuilt London and rebuilt it more magnificently than before. The city was in fact rebuilt within only a few years.

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Sir Christopher Wren designed many of the new churches, as well as the new St. Paul’s Cathedral, which ever since has remained a symbol of London’s indomitability. There’s a famous story I can’t resist telling. As he was laying out his plans to rebuild St. Paul’s Cathedral on the rubble, he sends a boy to find a stone just to use as a paperweight. The boy comes back with a stone upon which is written the word resurgam: “I will rise.” St. Paul’s would return.

Common Questions About the History of London

Q: Who actually founded London?

According to medieval writer Geoffrey of Monmouth, a man named King Lud founded the city of London.

Q: What would be the age of London?

London is thought to be around 2000 years old.

Q: What was the city called before London?

Prior to being called London, the city was referred to as Londinium by the Romans.

Q: Is there a meaning behind the name of London?

There are two names associated with the meaning behind the name of London: the place of the bold one, and the land of unfordable river as it was when the Romans built a bridge across the Thames that began the founding of London.

This article was updated on 12/20/2019

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