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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There aren’t many Roman remains visible in London today, with most destroyed over the centuries by evolution of building and war. In the early centuries of the 1st Millennium AD, the area we know today as the City of London was home to a population of 60,000 people. Although provincial by today’s city standards, Londinium was a bustling centre of trade and industry and included a Basilica, Forum, Amphitheatre, Temples, Bath houses and a Fort.
Roman London had a tricky start and was razed to the ground by Boudica, queen of the Celtic Iceni tribe in AD 60/61, when it had only been established around 20 years prior. The invading Romans were undeterred and rebuilt, creating a stone fort just outside the main town in the north east around 110AD. Built in what we know as the Barbican area today, the Cripplegate fort was home to the city garrison with an estimated 1000 soldiers.
Between 190 and 225AD, the north and west walls of the Fort were incorporated into the new London Wall, part of an extensive programme of public works. The new wall, made of mostly Kentish ragstone, enclosed the city from Tower Hill to Blackfriars and was over 3 kilometres long and surrounded by a defensive ditch. If you wanted to enter Londinium, you had to do so via one of the main gates: Bishopsgate, Aldgate, Newgate and Ludgate. Meanwhile, the Fort had two gates on the north and west, with remains of the latter still visible.
Today, what’s left of the West Gate is protected in a locked room in a car park in the City. I recently had the chance to visit the ruins on a tour by the Museum Of London. The remains were discovered in 1956 during extensive excavation and rebuilding after the City was seriously damaged during the Blitz. You can see the foundations and lower parts of the Fort Wall, North Turret and Guard Room and the Central Pier of the Double Gateway. Parts of the South Turret were excavated at the time, but were not preserved. There is also a scale model of how the gate would have looked in its heyday.
- The Museum Of London run occasional tours of the Western Gate ruins. Keep an eye on the MOL’s events page for dates and booking.
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.
Leadenhall Market is one of London’s oldest markets, dating back to the 14th century.
While the market dates back seven centuries, the site has actually been one of the city’s commercial hubs since the Roman invasion, when it was the location of the Basilica and Forum. Originally built in 70AD, it was expanded in 120AD, covering 2 hectares. The forum was a large open-air square and became a popular meeting place, with market stalls erected within the walls. However, the buildings were destroyed by Rome in 300AD as punishment for London supporting Carausius (d.293AD), who declared himself Emperor of Britain to the chagrin of Rome. It wasn’t until the early 5th century that the Romans finally left and Britain was independent from Rome.
In the early 14th century, the Manor of Leadenhall was owned by Sir Hugh Neville. Originally the local area was a meeting place for poulterers, then cheesemongers from 1397. The market sprung up in a series of courts beside Nevill House – known for its lead roof – on Leadenhall Street.
In 1411, the Corporation of London acquired the freehold of the land as a gift from former Mayor Richard ‘Dick’ Whittington (1354–1423). After the manor house was destroyed in a fire, it was replaced by a public granary, chapel and school as a gift to the public from Mayor at the time, Simon Eyre, Meanwhile, the market was expanded with traders selling poultry, grain, eggs, butter, cheese and herbs. Around this time, Leadenhall was considered the most important market in London and became quite the tourist attraction, with visitors coming to marvel over the bustling trade within the stalls. Over the 15th and 16th century, the market also offered wool, leather and cutlery for sale. The market was mentioned in Samuel Pepys’ diary in 1663 when he bought a leg of beef for six pence.
When the Great Fire ravaged London in 1666, the stone of Leadenhall Market actually prevented the flames from spreading north-east and escaped largely unscathed in comparison to most of the City. Leadenhall was subsequently rebuilt as a covered stone market with the stalls divided into sections; the Beef Market, The Green Yard and Herb Market. The Green Yard was listed as having 140 butchers stalls at one point, with fishmongers in the middle. Read the rest of this entry
Did you know there’s some 2nd century ruins hidden underneath a City of London office block?
This weekend sees the return of Open House London – an annual event which has been growing rapidly every year. I went to my first Open House in 2012 and managed to see three very different buildings in one day. It involved a lot of queuing, but it was worth it to get the chance to see inside some historical and unique London buildings which are normally off limits to the public.
One such ‘building’ I saw last year was Billingsgate Roman House and Baths, which will again be open on Sunday this year. The ruins are located in the basement of an office block in Lower Thames Street in the City of London, so are rarely open to the public. Due to health and safety reasons and space in the basement, only small groups are allowed at a time to see the ruins so be prepared to queue. I waited about 90 minutes to get inside, but it was thoroughly worth the wait and I would do it again. As you may know, there’s not much left of Roman London in the capital. Above ground there are parts of the old city wall of Londinium in Barbican, Tower Hill and Cooper’s Row. Meanwhile, there’s probably a lot of Roman London deep below ground, but only a small amount we know about or are able to access. This is why Open House London is so special, because it gives us the chance to visit one of the city’s few accessible Roman ruins.
The remains at Lower Thames Street were first discovered in 1848 by workmen constructing the Coal Exchange. Archaeologists have dated the house from the late 2nd century AD, with the bath house within its courtyard from the 3rd century. It is believed the building was still in use up until the early 5th century AD when Roman Londinium was in decline. When the house was built, it would have been by the waterside of the Thames. The adjoining bath house includes a cold room, warm room and hot room – which can be seen today when you visit the ruins. On your visit, you will be given a tour by volunteers from UCL’s Institute of Archaeology, supported by the Museum of London, City of London and English Heritage.
- Billingsgate Roman House and Baths is usually open for Open House London in September each year or the Museum Of London run occasional tours. 101 Lower Thames Street, City of London, EC3R 6DL. Nearest station: Monument. For more information visit Open House London website or the official blog for the Billingsgate Roman Bath House or check out the Museum Of London’s event page.
For other blog posts on Open House London, read:
- ‘Roman’ bath at The Strand: What the ‘Dickens’ is the history behind this old watering hole?
- Inside out: A rare chance to step inside the Lloyd’s Building at Open House
- Open House London 2015: Royal residences, Roman baths and more.
- Open House London 2013: Highlights gallery from Royal Courts of Justice, Foreign Office & City Hall
- Middle Temple Hall: Legal life, Twelfth Night and a rare survivor of Elizabethan architecture
- Knights, Shakespeare and lawyers: Visit the Medieval Temple Church at Open House London.
- Derelict beauty: A visit to Caroline Gardens Chapel with Open House London
- Regency London, John Nash and the Third Reich: Visiting The Royal Society’s Carlton House Terrace with Open House.
- Neo-classicism, masques and an execution site: The history and beauty of Banqueting House.
For more of Metro Girl’s blog posts on London history, click here.