London’s Early Days

London’s diverse population currently tops 8 million. But who were the first settlers? We take a look at the city from its earliest days up to medieval times.

London Focus

The river Thames has always attracted human life; it was a source of food as far back as the prehistoric era. As well as providing fish and birds, the fertile river banks were farmed, and the bottom of the river yielded flint nodules and rushes, useful for making sharp tools and building. But although there were a few tribes scattered around the Thames, a proper city didn’t start to take shape until the time of the Roman Empire.

In AD43, Emperor Claudius invaded Britain, and quite crucially, built a wooden bridge over the river, roughly where London Bridge is today. The Romans built roads and homes on the north side of this bridge, which facilitated trade with other ports. In fact the first mention of the name “Londinium” was in reference to the new city being a centre for commerce, in approximately AD60.

During the Roman Empire most men worked in crafts such as carpentry, shoe-making and pottery. It wasn’t an easy time by any means, a seven day working week and cramped living conditions (except for the elite) were typical. However leisure activities were of great importance, and there were numerous festivals, amphitheatres, taverns and public baths to provide respite.

It was not to last though, as Boudicca marched through London in AD61 seeking revenge for the rapes of her daughters after the death of her husband King Iceni of East Anglia. The inhabitants of the new Roman colony were killed, and shops and houses (all made primarily from wood) were burnt down to the ground.

It took over a century for London to be rebuilt. Part of the reconstruction was the three kilometre wall which encircled parts of the City of London, the street now called London Wall follows its route. If you’ve ever wondered about the “gate” in names like “Aldgate” it’s because these were the locations of the original gates in the wall.
\n\nAs the Roman Empire came to an end around 410, it seemed the same was happening to London. Under Saxon rule the English converted to Christianity; London began to grow again, although it is believed the city was limited to the area covered by today’s Covent Garden. It was then ransacked by the Vikings, in 841 and 851, and the population moved to the “old town” to the east, where the remains of the wall were. Alfred the Great was tasked with rebuilding London, and by 886 trade was prospering once again. New wharfs encouraged shipping, new churches and markets were appearing. But there was more trouble ahead from the Vikings, who returned to conquer London yet again, and the Danish King Cnut became Britain’s new ruler. He did however establish London as the country’s capital city for the first time (it had previously been Winchester).

In 1042 an Englishman became king again, Edward the Confessor. A devout Christian, he built Westminster Abbey, and lived with his court at the Palace of Westminster. A more familiar London was starting to form; Westminster was the seat of the monarchy, government and legal system, while the City was the centre for trade and finance.

Despite these advances the majority of London’s residents were far from affluent. There was a gargantuan divide between rich and poor, and no financial assistance was available for those less fortunate. The price of a pair of shoes was the equivalent of a day’s wages, hence the proliferation of a patch and mend market.

After Edward’s death there was a scuffle over the throne. Although William Duke of Normandy claimed his cousin had promised him the crown, the English wanted his brother-in-law Harold. Naturally William decided to fight for it, and after defeating Harold at the famous Battle of Hastings in 1066 he came to London, where he was crowned on Christmas Day. William was hardly popular given the way he came to power, so to earn the population’s trust he created a charter that reassured people of their rights in exchange for taxes. But he also increased the city’s defences, and built the White Tower, the largest high rise at the Tower of London. Perhaps he was a little paranoid.
\n\nIn 1215 King John gave Londoners the right to elect a mayor every year. This, together with signing the Magna Carta, gave more rights to the people. In the two centuries that followed more power where decision-making was concerned was transferred from the monarchy to the House of Lords.

Poverty was still London’s greatest problem. Crime, riots and public lynching were frequent. At the same time the trade industry was doing well, with spices, furs and metals arriving frequently via London Bridge. Markets like Billingsgate and Smithfield were in operation; by 1300 there were almost 50,000 people living within London’s walls.

But the surge in population brought with it a disastrous event: the Black Death. With no sewers or sufficient clean water, the disease quickly spread, taking with it 30% of the city’s inhabitants. The deaths of such a large number of London’s workforce meant there weren’t sufficient people left to work, and a new poll tax was introduced by the government to recoup losses. Those who had survived the plague now faced giving up more of their income, and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 ensued.

It was a bloody protest; the Savoy Palace on the Strand was destroyed and the Archbishop of Canterbury was killed. Although those leading the riot were hanged, the poll tax was no more. Thankfully over the centuries there have been far more peaceful protests that have forced leaders to sit up and take note, but those are stories for another day.

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