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.
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Standing on London Wall surrounded by the brutalist concrete of the Barbican estate and 21st century office blocks is a rare piece of Medieval London. Largely hidden in recent decades, the redesign of the highwalk and a new pavement-level garden means Londoners can now see the ruins of St Alphage church.
The original St Alphage (or St Alphege) Church was built slightly north of the current site around the 11th century and adjoined the London Wall. The second church was originally the Priory Church of the St Mary-within-Cripplegate nunnery, which was believed to have been founded before 1000, but had fallen into decay by 1329. While the original church was demolished during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s under Henry VIII, the Priory Church survived and took on the name St Alphage. It was repaired in 1624, with its steeple rebuilt in 1649. St Alphage was slightly damaged during the Great Fire of London in 1666 and be 1747, the steeple was in such bad condition, the bells couldn’t be rung so four were sold. In 1774, the church was declared unfit for use and was rebuilt at a cost of £1,350, with the tower retained. The new church opened in July 1777.
By the turn of the 20th century, the tower and porch were in poor condition, with the north entrance rebuilt with a neo-Gothic façade by 1913. It was damaged during World War I and repaired in 1919. However, the same year, the church’s fate was sealed for good. The bells went to St Peter’s Church in Acton, west London, with the nave being demolished in 1923. During World War II, the tower was maintained as a base for prayer, although was gutted by a fire in 1940.
As the City of London Corporation started to redevelop the ravaged City during the 1950s, the church’s porch and upper levels of the tower were moved. What remained (and what you see today) were Grade II listed in January 1950. The current structure features a central tower made of flint and rubble and arches on the north, west and east sides. When the London Wall road and the Barbican Centre were constructed in the 1950s, pedestrian access to the ruined church was cut off, while an ugly concrete highwalk didn’t give much of a view of the remains.
In recent years, the highwalk has been redeveloped and some of the 1960s office blocks demolished to make way for more modern 21st century buildings. The new highwalk, unveiled in 2018, is more delicate and gives a great overview of the ruins. Meanwhile, pedestrians can access the remains of St Alphage at street level via a small garden, featuring greenery and concrete block seating.
- St Alphage Garden, City of London, EC2Y. Nearest station: Barbican.
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When it comes to London’s royal palaces, most of them tend to be rather young, with the oldest parts of Buckingham Palace dating back to 1703 and Clarence House, a few years shy of its 200th anniversary. However, long before the monarch resided at Buck House, the King or Queen had a home in the huge Palace Of Westminster. Today, the title belongs to the Houses of Parliament, the seat of our Government.
Most of the Medieval Palace of Westminster was destroyed by a huge fire in the 1800s, to be rebuilt as the iconic masterpiece, which remains today. However, two buildings managed to survive, the 11th century Westminster Hall, and the 14th century Jewel Tower. Now owned by English Heritage, the diminutive Jewel Tower is open to the public. Recently, I paid a visit to this small, but interesting piece of Medieval London. It’s a small space with the exhibition taking about an hour to see.
The Jewel Tower was built around 1365-6 at the southern end of the Palace of Westminster to house the treasures of King Edward III (1312-1377). The Tower stood at the end of the garden and was protected by a moat to the south and west of the building. It was built under the direction of master mason Henry Yevele (1320-1400) and master carpenter Hugh Herland (1330-1411) on land which had been appropriated from Westminster Abbey, to the chagrin of the monks. The keeper would have worked on the ground or first floor, logging the King’s treasures coming in and going out of the Tower. The most valuable goods were kept on the second floor.
For 150 years, the Tower was used to house the subsequent Kings’ treasures until a fire at the palace in 1512. The building then became home to less valuable items, such as clothing, bed linen, furniture and royal children’s toys, according to an inventory in 1547. In 1600, the building was repurposed for the Government, rather than royals, when it became a parliamentary office. A three-storey timber extension was added to the side of the Tower as a house for the Clerk of the Parliament. The ground floor of the Jewel Tower became the kitchen and scullery, while the first floor was used as a repository for various parliament documents. In 1621, the building was renovated to become more secure to protect the important documents. On the first floor, a brick vault was added with a metal door featuring the year inscribed on the exterior and the cipher of King James I (1566-1625). That very door still exists today and can be seen on your visit.
By the 18th century, the Tower was apparently a bit of a state so work was taken to renovate and improve it. Larger windows and a new chimney were added, while the building was made more fireproof to protect the documents inside. Throughout the century, the Tower was gradually hidden by the buildings popping up around it. By 1827, the House of Lords’ records had been moved out of the Tower because it was too small and it was known as part of Old Palace Yard, with the name Jewel Tower dropping out of use. Read the rest of this entry
The history of a Medieval remnant of the old Palace of Westminster.
Whatever your taste in architecture, few Brits would deny the Palace Of Westminster is one of our greatest architectural treasures. While the current buildings mostly date back to the mid 1800s during Sir Charles Barry‘s reconstruction, the oldest part of the building, Westminster Hall, has been there since Medieval times. There has been a palace on the site since the 11th century, although the royals have chosen other properties as their main residences from around the 16th century.
The Hall was first built in 1097 under King William II (1056-1100) and was the biggest hall in England, measuring 73 by 20 metres. However, the stunning hammer-beam roof you see today wasn’t added until 1393. Commissioned by King Richard II (1367-1400) in 1393, it was created by Chief Mason Henry Yevele and carpenter Hugh Herland. The roof is made of oak farmed in Surrey and weighs an impressive 600 tons. Aside from its practical use, the roof also featured decorative angels, with 13 statues of kings dating from Richard back to Edward The Confessor placed in niches along the walls. Six years later, it was under the very roof he commissioned that King Richard was deposed by Henry of Bolingbroke, who went on to become King Henry IV (1367-1413). The deposition went on to be immortalised in Act IV of Shakespeare’s play Richard II. King Richard later died in prison.
Over the centuries, the Hall was primarily used for early Parliament, legal matters and court cases, with Court of King’s Bench, the Court of Common Pleas and the Court of Chancery based there. The 1875, these courts merged to become the High Court of Justice and met at the Hall until moving to the Royal Courts of Justice in 1882. Notable historical figures to have undergone trial in Westminster Hall included King Charles I, William Wallace, Guy Fawkes and Thomas More. The building has also hosted the lyings-in-state for members of the royal family, such as Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother in 2002, but also a few notable state figures such as Sir Winston Churchill in 1965.
However, the Hall wasn’t just the location for serious functions, many monarchs’ coronation banquets took place between the 12th and 19th century. Addresses during the monarch’s jubilees and during foreign leader’s visits, such as Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, have also been heard within the Hall.
By the early 19th century, the ageing Hall wasn’t looking too great so architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837) oversaw the dilapidated north façade being completely rebuilt between 1819-1822. Over a decade later, there was more work needed to maintain the crumbling building under Sir Robert Smirke (1780-1867), who replaced the wall facings with a layer of Huddlestone stone and lowered the floor between 1834-1837. During the building works in October 1834, a fire broke out at the Palace of Westminster’s House of Lords Chamber due to an overheated stove. A majority of the 11th century palace complex was destroyed, but the Hall was fortunately saved thanks to a change of direction in the wind and fire-fighting efforts.
After much discussion, a Royal Commission settled on Sir Charles Barry’s (1795-1860) Neo-Gothic design in 1836. The designs incorporated Westminster Hall, with the Palace eventually completed in 1870 – 10 years after Barry died. Under his plans, the grand south window was removed and was replaced by an arch and stairs to St Stephen’s Hall, which remain today. Between 1914-23, the roof was in dire need of repair after the discovery of damage by death-watch beetle, with many trusses replaced and the structure strengthened by hidden steelwork.
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It’s one of the oldest churches in London, but barely known to so many as it’s quietly hidden away amidst the legal buildings of Temple. A stone’s throw from Middle Temple Hall is the 12th century Temple Church. Although the church is usually open on weekdays for a small charge, this month sees the building welcome visitors over 19-20 September for free as part of Open House London. For those who don’t know, Open House London is chance for Londoners and tourists to see inside buildings normally off limits to the public, or usually costing to enter, for free.
The name Temple covers an area in the City of London between Fleet Street and the River Thames, east of Aldwych. The name Temple actually stems back to a Medieval group known as the Knights Templar. They comprised of wealthy and powerful soldier monks who protected pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. Their financial skills were an early form of banking and they were renowned for their fighting during the Crusades. Back in England, they named their headquarters after Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Originally based in High Holborn, by the 1160s the Knights Templar found they needed a bigger site for their rapidly expanding organisation and purchased a new site near the Thames, which we now know today at Temple.
The original church was circular – with this now acting as the nave – and was based on the 6th century Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The church was consecrated in February 1185 by Patriarch Heraclius of Jerusalem (1128-1190/1191) and it is believed King Henry II (1133-1189) was in attendance. The circular church measured 55 feet in diameter. It is believed the walls were painted different colours, while further decoration was provided by the Purbeck Marble columns – now acknowledged to be the oldest, surviving free-standing examples of these today. As well as the church, the Knights Templar also built residences and military training facilities on the surrounding land. Read the rest of this entry
Thanks to the Great Fire of London and the Blitz, there aren’t many buildings left in the City of London dating back to before the mid 17th century. However, thanks to a stroke of luck – namely a Georgian Londoner who cared little for Tudor architecture – one historic piece of London dating back to the 13th and 16th century still survives today.
Situated on West Smithfield, a stone’s thrown from the historic St Bart’s Hospital, is the St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse. Sandwiched between a French restaurant and a red brick Georgian-style structure, the narrow gatehouse comprises of a 13th century arch, topped by a two-storey, 16th century Tudor building. The name St Bartholomew’s comes from the nearby church St Bartholomew-The-Great, which was formerly an Augustinian Priory, founded by Rahere (d.1134) in 1123 (Rahere is buried in the church). When King Henry VIII (1491-1547) ordered the dissolution of the monasteries, a lot of St Bartholomew’s was demolished in 1539, including the nave, although the Norman crossing and choir still remain today. The original Priory church measured a whopping 300 feet by 86 feet.
Also surviving is part of the west doorway into the southern aisle of the church, an archway dating back to the 13th century. Following the dissolution, Sir Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich (1496/7-1567) bought the church and surrounding land in 1546/47, sub-dividing it for housing. In 1595, a Tudor, timber-framed building was added by William or Philip Scudamore. The simple, narrow structure features two-storeys with a small attic above. Under the first floor window is a coat of arms. In between the two windows on the second floor is a statue of St Bartholomew, one of the 12 Apostles, who the Priory and adjoining hospital were named after.
Miraculously, the gatehouse managed to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666 due to the protection of the priory walls. The fire actually ended just a three-minute walk away on Giltspur Street and is commemorated by the Golden Boy of Pye Corner. At some point in the 18th century, whoever owned the gatehouse didn’t care much for its ‘old-fashioned’, Tudor façade so it was given a Georgian makeover and was used as a shop for two centuries.
Finally, in 1916, it was the destructive act of war that ended up uncovering the building’s original design. A nearby German Zeppelin bomb raid caused damage to the Georgian shop front, revealing the Tudor origins underneath and exposing more of the 13th century stonework from the original nave. Following the end of World War I, it was fully restored by 1932 and is now Grade-II listed. If you walk through the arch and turn right to see the doorway leading into the building, you will see ‘1240’ and ‘1932’ inscribed in the stonework – commemorating the year of the arch’s construction and restoration. The interior of the building includes bolection panelling from around 1700, with original panelling dating back to 1595 in the attic. When the building was restored in the 1930s, it was dedicated the memory of architect Sir Aston Webb (1849-1930), his brother Edward Alfred Webb (former churchwarden of St Bart’s) and Frederick L Dove, ‘who worked together on the restoration of the fabric of the church for over forty years’. A plaque to mark their work and the Webbs’ coat of arms has been erected within the gate.
Today, the gatehouse is a private building, but served as the rectory for the church for many years. Between 1948 and 1979, the then-rector’s wife Phyllis Wallbank MBE (b.1918) set up and ran the Gatehouse School, an independent Montessori school. Obviously due to the size, the building couldn’t educate too many students and it eventually moved to a larger site in Bethnal Green, East London, in the 1970s. Today, the surviving church of St Bartholomew-The-Great is the oldest Parish church in London.
- St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse, West Smithfield, Smithfield, EC1A. Nearest station: Barbican or Farringdon. The Gatehouse is not open to the public, but can be admired from the outside. For more information about St Bartholomew-The-Great church, visit their official website.
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To read about the nearby 41-42 Cloth Fair, a 16th century London home, click here.
The history of 14th century ruins of a former royal residence.
There are many royal London residences past and present visited by tourists today, such as Buckingham Palace and Hampton Court Palace. However, not all monarchy’s abodes have survived the test of time. The remains of one such royal residence can still be seen today, and in an area somewhat off the usual tourist trail.
The foundations of King Edward III’s (1312 – 1377) manor house stands near the River Thames in Rotherhithe. With the grass surrounding the ruins dipped low, you could easily imagine where the former moat used to flow around it. The house was built as a country escape outside the City of London by the King in 1353. At the time, the land upon which the foundations were laid was a low-lying island surrounded by marshland. The original manor house comprised of several stone buildings around a court. Water flowed around three sides of the complex so the king could arrive by boat along the Thames. On site included a gatehouse, hall with grand fireplace, kitchens and the king’s private chambers.
Although many royal residences were established as bases for hunting, Rotherhithe had no royal park so this function was ruled out. However, King Edward III was known as a keen falconer, with some historians believing he used the manor house as a base for falconry over the river or surrounding marshland.
Following Edward’s death, the waterline changed in the decades that followed, so by the late 16th century, the south bank of the river had reclaimed some of the Thames, pushing the waterline north so a road ran alongside it. However, the moat remained and eventually surrounded the manor house on all four sides. The Crown sold the property to private owners and it was known as ‘the moted place’. In the 17th century, there was a pottery on the site, followed by warehouses during the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1907, the façade of the north wall of the house had actually been incorporated into a warehouse building. The warehouses were eventually demolished in the 1980s as part of a redevelopment plan, giving archaeologists at the Museum Of London the chance to excavate and restore the site in 1985. Fortunately, the remains weren’t rebuilt over and are visible to the public today to visit.
Metro Girl likes: While you’re in the area, check out the nearby Angel pub, with an outdoor terrace overlooking the Thames.
- Bermondsey Wall East, Rotherhithe, SE16. Nearest station: Bermondsey or Rotherhithe.
To read about the Medieval ruins of Winchester Palace, just over 30 minutes walk away, click here.
To read about Metro Girl’s visit to the Thames Tunnel built by Brunel, click here.
For more Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.
The history of these striking 12th century ruins on Bankside.
While London has been in existence for over 2000 years, there is little that remains from the earlier centuries. The Tower Of London and sections of the old Roman Wall are just a few pre-17th century remnants of the City of London. Over the centuries, the city has been ravaged by fire, plagues and bombs. Back in the 13th Century, the population of London was extending beyond the City walls, as the adjoining City of Westminster was also rapidly growing since the 11th century – with people spreading across the River Thames to the South Bank.
Of course, during Shakespeare’s times, Bankside had become renowned for being the Soho or Shoreditch of London of the time – where the population went to party and be entertained. However, a few centuries before the Elizabethan playhouses entertained the masses, Bankside became home to Winchester Palace – a city base for religious leaders.
The town of Southwark belonged to the old Diocese of Winchester – when the Hampshire city was the capital of Saxon England – and was a handy base for the Bishop when he needed to visit London for royal or state business. Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester at the time, decided to construct the palace in the 12th century as a permanent base. The palace included a Great Hall, prison, wine cellar, brewery and butchers, among other buildings on the large site. As well as providing somewhere to rest, it soon became a place for entertainment. The palace played host to royal guests over the decades and was the location of James I of Scotland and Joan Beaufort’s wedding reception in 1424. The bishops certainly lived well – even having access to tennis courts, garden and bowling alley.
The palace remained in use for nearly 500 years until the 17th century when the building was divided up into warehouses and tenements. However, like many of London’s greatest buildings, it was largely destroyed by fire in 1814. The existing ruins, which lie on the Thames Path, were partially re-discovered in the 19th century following another fire, and redevelopment of Bankside in the 1980s uncovered more. Today, all that’s left is the stunning rose window and the gable wall with doors leading to the pantry, buttery and kitchen.
- The remains of Winchester Palace lie on the Thames Path, just west of the Golden Hinde ship replica and a few minutes walk from Southwark Cathedral. Free to visit. Nearest station: London Bridge. For more information, visit the English Heritage website.
To find out about another historic building along the Thames Path, read the story behind Hay’s Galleria.
For the rest of Metro Girl’s blog posts on London history, click here.