A brief history of London

Archeologists have never found evidence of a prehistoric settlement in the London area even though historians think that the Thames was an important tribal boundary.

In 50 AD, the Romans established a civilian town known as Londinium near the river. The first settlement was destroyed by a local queen, Boudicca, but Londinium was rebuilt and became a large city.

statue of Boudicca

In the second century, it surpassed Colchester and became the new capital of Roman Britain. There were about 60,000 inhabitants in London at that time. It was considered as a modern city, with a basilica, bath houses, an ampitheatre and many temples.

In spite of a massive defensive wall, Londinium was attacked by Saxon pirates during the third century. Additional defensive walls were built to protect the city from invaders. In fact, six of the traditional seven gates of London were erected in Roman times.

Saxon fighters

In 410, the Roman occupation of Britain came to an end and Londinium, a major garrison city, was deserted.

During the sixth century, Anglo-Saxon settlers settled first outside the Roman walls then inside. Their population grew very slowly and London was part of the kingdom of the East Saxons and ruled by a christian king Saebert of Essex. It was incorporated into the kingdom of Mercia.

At the end of the ninth century, London was sacked several times by Viking invaders. The city was now known as Lundenburgh. Thanks to its increasing wealth and growing population, Lundenburgh was now a major city but again, it was raided by the Danish army that occupied it till the extinction of his king’s dynasty in 1042.

The new English King, Edward the Confessor, restored English rule and founded Westminster Abbey. He died childless  in 1066. Harold Godwinson was then crowned but defeated at the Battle of Hastings by his norman opponant, William the Conqueror who became the new King of England.

Harold's death

William established a fortress in London to dominate the native population. He also granted a chater in 1067 that extended the city’s rights, priviliges and laws. More than half of the London area belonged to monastries, nunneries, covents and other religious houses or congregations.

The influence of London became stronger than ever. It was a thriving port and a very dynamic commercial city. There were about 80,000 londoners in 1300!

During the reformation, London also became the principal early centre of Protestantism. King Heny VIII dissoluted the monastries and confiscated all their properties that were re-distributed to noblemen. London became one of Europe’s most important commercial centres.

Henry VIII
 Its population, fuelled by Welsh and French protestant immigrants rose to 225,000 in 1605 but it was hit by a severe plague epidemic in 1665 that killed more than 20% of Londoners.

The Great Plague was followed a year later by another catastrophe : in 1666, a fire broke out during the night. The Great Fire destroyed 60% of the city but it helped to put an end to the plague as most of the vermins responsible for transmitting the virus were eradicated.

The Great Fire of London
 A new town had to be rebuilt and Christopher Wren, a talented architect, was commissioned to supervise the rebuilding. First, he replaced the old Saint Paul’s Cathedral and decided to develop the East End and extend London’s docks downstream.

In 1700, London was one of the most thriving ports in the world.

View from the East

In 1762, George III acquired Buckingham Palace and asked his architects to enlarge the palace.

Buckingham Palace before its extension

In the XIXth century, London became the world’s largest city and capital of the British Empire. Quite suprisingly, it was also the capital of poverty, with thousands of inhabitants living in slums.

The coming of the railway transformed London, as new suburbs quicky developed in neighbouring counties. The urbanisation of London intensified rapidly. The wealthier classes emigrated to the suburbs whereas the poor inhabited in the squalid city centre. The living conditions there were really hard.

Under the supervision of Joseph Balzaguette, 2,100 km of tunnels and pipes were built under London to take away sewage and provide clean drinking water. Epidemics of cholora and other terrible diseases disappeared completely.

In 1900, the county of London was divided into 28 boroughs (there are 32 boroughs today). Most of its famous monuments were built in the XIXth century:

Victoria and Albert Museum
– Trafalgar Square
– Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament
– Tower Bridge
– the Victoria and Albert Museum
– …

During WWI and WWII, London was bombed extensively and suffered severe damage and heavy casualties (30,000 Londoners died and more than 50,000 were seriously injured).

During World War II

There are more than 7 million inhabitants in London today. The capital is still a magnet city which attracts millions of immigrants and tourists every year. It is still one of the largest financial centres in the world.

London today


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