London Stone – the myths and history of this City landmark explored
What is the London Stone and why is it famous?
Many of us have heard the urban myth about the ravens at the Tower of London, claiming the Crown and Britain ‘will fall’ if they leave. However, there’s another old legend tying the capital’s success to a piece of stone.
The London Stone has been a part of the city’s history for centuries, yet so many Londoners haven’t even heard of it. Today, the London Stone stands on bustling Cannon Street, protected from the elements in a display in the wall of a modern office building. The block of oolitic limestone measures 53m x 43cm x 30cm, although was originally much bigger. The London Stone was first recorded in 1100, although its origins are believed to date back much earlier. Some historians believe the stone has been in situ since the Romans occupied London, perhaps being related to the local governor’s palace, which stood on the current site of Cannon Street railway station. It’s also been claimed that King Arthur pulled his sword Excalibur from it.
In Medieval London, it stood on the south side of Candelwrichstrete (Candlewright Street), which was widened to create Cannon Street in the 17th century. It was a popular landmark and listed on many maps of the area. A French visitor to London in 1578 described the Stone as having much larger dimensions of 90cm x 60cm x 30cm. London historian John Stow wrote in 1598 of “a great stone called London stone” adding it was “pitched upright… fixed in the ground verie deep, fastned with bars of iron”. The Stone is even mentioned in William Shakespeare‘s Henry IV, Part II in the 1590s. The scene refers to Jack Cade, leader of the Kentish rebellion in 1450, striking the London Stone with his sword and declaring himself Lord Mayor of London.
Although the reason for the Stone’s reduction in size is not known, it’s highly likely it was damaged during the Great Fire of London in 1666. By 1742, the Stone was considered an obstruction to traffic so was moved to the north side of Cannon Street, beside the door to the Church of St Swithun, London Stone. Fifty-six years later, it was moved again when it was built into the south wall of the Church. It was during the 18th century that it was claimed the success of London depended on the stone’s survival. Georgian writers claimed there was an ‘old saying’ referring to the London Stone’s other name as ‘the Stone of Brutus’. It read: “So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long will London flourish.” In the 1820s, it was relocated a third time when it was set on its own plinth in the middle of the church wall. It was later covered by a protective iron grille at the request of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society in 1869.
After 150 years of being sheltered by the church, the London Stone narrowly avoided complete destruction during World War II. Unfortunately, the Christopher Wren-designed St Swithun wasn’t so lucky and was bombed in 1940. The ruins were eventually demolished in 1962, with archaeologists discovering remains of a Roman road underneath, further fuelling speculation of the Stone’s Roman origins.
During the 1960s, the site of the church was replaced by a modern office block, which was home to the Bank of China. The London Stone was built into the uninspiring block and, just as before, protected behind an iron grille. A bronze plaque nearby read: London Stone: “This is a fragment of the original piece of limestone once securely fixed in the ground now fronting Cannon Street Station. Removed in 1742 to the north side of the street, in 1798 it was built into the south wall of the Church of St. Swithun London Stone which stood here until demolished in 1962. Its origin and purpose are unknown but in 1188 there was a reference to Henry, son of Eylwin de Lundenstane, subsequently Lord Mayor of London.”
In June 1972, the Stone, its Georgian surround and Victorian grille were designated a Grade II listed structure. Moving into the 21st century, the Stone remained in situ in the side of a ground-floor branch of a WHSmith until 2016. When plans were made to demolished the Sixties building and replace it with another, the London Stone was moved to the Museum of London for safe-keeping for two years. Finally, in October 2018, it was unveiled back in its original home, but with a new presentation plinth and glass instead of an iron grille to allow Londoners to see the capital’s old relic. While we’ll probably never know the true origin of this stone, at least its been preserved for future Londoners and visitors to the City.
- London Stone, 111 Cannon Street, City of London, EC4N 5AR. Nearest station: Cannon Street.
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Posted on 21 Feb 2019, in History, London and tagged City of London, history, Medieval London, Roman, Sir Christopher Wren. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on London Stone – the myths and history of this City landmark explored.