People have lived in the London area for more than 5,000 years, but there used to be forests and marshes instead of a city. London itself was begun by the Romans about 2,000 years ago. They called their town Londinium.
The Romans (A43– 410)
The Romans invaded England in 43 AD. They landed in Kent, made their way to the River Thames and sailed up it. The Romans knew it was important to control a crossing point at the river Thames, so they decided to build a settlement on the north bank. They chose a spot in two small hills and where the river became narrower. They built a bridge over the Thames, and there has been a ‘London Bridge’ in the same area ever since.
The Romans laid out buildings, streets and a port, and shortly afterwards they built a bridge. They called the settlement Londinium and it soon became the capital of Roman Britain.
In AD 61 the native Iceni tribe, led by Queen Boudicca, rose up against the Romans. They burnt Londinium to the ground and killed all its inhabitants.
The Romans regained control and rebuilt London, this time adding a Forum (market) and Basilica (a business centre), and slowly building a wall around the city to protect it from further invasion. The Romans ruled in Britain until 410.
The population of Roman London was between 12,000 and 20,000.
In Roman times, the River Thames was 300 meters wide (today it is 100 meters wide).
Saxons and the Vikings
Later in the 5th century, Anglo-Saxons settled just west of Londinium and formed the town of Lundenwic. Saxon London consisted of many wooden huts with thatched roofs.
Disaster struck London in 842 when the Danish Vikings looted London. They returned in 851 and this time they burned a large part of the town. King Alfred the Great totally defeated the Danes in 878 and they split the country between them. The Danes took eastern England including London while Alfred took the South and West. Despite the peace treaty Alfred’s men took London in 886. Alfred repaired the walls of the old Roman town. In 1016 the Vikings attacked London again but this time the Saxons fought them off.
It is thought that this nursery rhyme probably records an attack against London by the Viking, Olaf, at the beginning of the 11th Century. King Olaf of Norway attacked England but he was unable to sails up the Thames past London Bridge. At that time London Bridge was made of wood. Olaf and his men tied ropes to the wooden struts supporting it. They then rowed away and London Bridge collapsed.
The Vikings and Saxons ruled jointly England until 1042, when Edward the Confessor became King of both the Vikings and the Saxons.
Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) built a wooden palace at Westminster. Later Parliament met here. Because of this Westminster became the seat of government not the city of London itself. Edward also built Westminster Abbey, which was consecrated a few weeks before his death.
Christianity grew stronger in Anglo-Saxon Britain. In 604 AD a cathedral was founded in London and named after the apostle, Saint Paul. There is still a cathedral on the site.
Tudor London (1485 – 1603)
Henry VII became King in 1485, followed by Henry VIII. They were the first Tudor kings ( Tudor was their family name).
London grew in importance under the Tudor rule. It became the centre of trade and government.By the end of the Tudor era there were about 200,000 people living in London.
King Henry VIII created palaces such as St James. He is also famous for closing the cities monasteries in 1536, after the Roman Catholic church refused to grant him a divorce. During the reign of Elizabeth l, London was wealthy and successful city. Theatre became popular, helped by the arrival of playwright William Shakespeare sometime between 1585 and 1593.
The most famous theatre is The Globe, in which Shakespeare owned a share. His plays were performed there. The original theatre was burnt down in 1613 and immediately rebuilt, but closed by the Puritans in 1642. In the 1990s a new Globe Theatre was built, as close to the original as possible, and thrives with constant productions of Shakespeare’s plays.
The river Thames was very important in Tudor times as Britain’s navy was expanded. Dockyards were built and ships were sent to explore the world.
Stuart London (1603 – 1649) (1660 – 1714)
The first Stuart King, James I , came to the throne in 1603. He was already King James the Sixth of Scotland. He united the two countries under one king.
In 1605 a group of men tried to blow up both him and the Houses of Parliament. This Gunpowder Plot failed.
Houses of Parliament
In 1625 Charles II came to the throne. In 1635 he opened Hyde Park to the public and in 1637 created Richmond Park for hunting.
Civil war broke out in 1642 between supporters of the king and parliamentary forces, led by a Puritan called Oliver Cromwell. The King lost and was beheaded in London in 1649 and Britain became a republic known as the Commonwealth. In 1660 the monarchy was returned.
Plague and Fire
London suffered to disasters in later Stuart years.
In 1665 the Great Plague killed about 70,000 people. The bubonic plague was brought to London by rats on board trading ships. It spread very quickly because people lived in very close quarters and hygiene standards were very low
In 1666 the Great Fire of London destroyed two thirds of the City: 13,200 houses, 430 streets and 89 churches. The fire could be seen from forty miles round the capital. It started as a small fire accidentally in Pudding Lane in the City of London, and raged for four days as an enormous fire.
The reason why we know so many details about the fire is that two men who were alive at that time kept diaries in which they described the dramatic events. The names of these two people were Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn.
To prevent such a disaster happening again King Charles ll commanded that all new houses in London should be of stone and brick not wood. Christopher Wren constructed St Paul’s Cathedral as well as many churches.
Buckingham Palace was built in 1703 for the Duke of Buckingham.
Georgian London (1714 – 1837)
In 1714, George I became king. He began a line of Kings and Queens called the Hanovers, who rule Britain until 1837. At this time, Britain was one of the most powerful countries in the world, with London at the heart of its trade
London quickly grew in size and population during the Georgian era. In 1801 the population reached about one million. Merchants and bankers grew rich and many lived in the new West End. Other people suffered terrible poverty. Thousands lived in filthy East End slums, where disease, crime and drunkenness were common.
Many new town houses were built. These houses were tall and three windows wide. They had arched doorways, with a window above called a fanlight. You can still see this kind of house today.
The streets of London were badly lit and full of beggars and thieves.
Several hospitals were founded in during the Georgian era including Westminster (1720), Guys (1724), St Georges (1733), London (1740) and Middlesex (1745).
Victorian London (1837 – 1901)
In 1837, Victoria became Queen at the age of 18. The time while she was Queen is called the Victorian era. London was busy with trade and industry, and it grew fast. Better lighting, plumbing and transport developed, too. By the time Victoria died in 1901, London was a very different city.
During the reign of Victoria, London expanded enormously as industry came to Britain and railways were built linking much of Britain to the capital. London was the centre of world trade and had a large, powerful Empire.
Many of the buildings in London today were built in Victorian times. The most famous is probably the Houses of Parliament, built in 1834 after a fire destroyed the original buildings.
By the 1840’s gas lights were being used to light streets all over London. Electric light was first used in Holborn in 1883. By the 1840’s there were also horse drawn buses and from the 1870’s horse drawn trams.
The World first Underground railway (‘The Tube’) opened in 1862. At first carriages were pulled by steam trains. The system was electrified in 1890-1905.
The Twentieth Century
London grew even bigger in the twentieth century. Many more people went to live in the city suburbs and travelled to work by train, bus or car. The city changed too, with new buildings replacing those damaged by bombs during the war years.
The First World War
The First World War began in 1914. The first air raid hit London on 1915 and during the war over 835 people were killed in air attacks.
The Second World War
In 1939 the Second World War broke out and some 690,000 children were moved out of London. The blitz began in 1940 and caused a lot of damage to London, with some of the worst damage being done around (and including) St Paul’s Cathedral. By the end of the war 30,000 people had been killed in London and much of the city’s buildings lay in ruins.
Later in the twentieth century, air travel became more important. New airports were built to link London with the rest of the world.
At the start of the new millennium, London continues to grow. It now has a population of over seven million, making it by far the biggest city in Britain. The start of the millennium has been marked by the building of many new attractions and exhibitions, so there is more to see and do in London than ever before.