A couple of low hills in the middle of a marsh don’t sound like a very promising start for a world class city, but that’s just how London, England began, over two millennia ago.
And the story of its development is as exciting as any thriller.
There was probably a settlement of sorts when the Romans invaded Britain for the second and decisive time, back in 43AD. But it was probably Roman engineers who built the first proper bridge across the River Thames in order to march further north. From these first steps grew the Roman city of Londinium.
Today, the nature of the London topography gives a clue to the marshy nature of its origins. Look at any map of London and the snake-like route of the Thames still betrays the meandering nature of its original marshy course. The twin hills — on one of which now sits St Paul’s Cathedral — rising from this marshland would have instantly appealed to the military eye of a Roman general as a good defensive area upon which to build a fort.
As was their custom, the Romans would have probably used timber for their first fort, replacing that speedily built structure later with locally quarried stone, brought in by the river. Gradually the Roman city become an enclosed one, roughly a mile square. The name “Square Mile” still exists today, as the informal name for the City of London — now one of the world’s leading financial centers.
Nearly a thousand years after the Romans, a rival to Londinium arose. In 1065, the King of England, Edward the Confessor, completed his church of Westminster, on an island in the marsh, the Isle of Thorney just west of what was, by now, called London.
1065 was a significant date in the history of London — and, indeed, Britain — it being the final year of Saxon rule. The following year, after the death of Edward, William the Conqueror, from Normandy, on the north coast of France, invaded Britain to claim what he believed to be his inheritance: the crown of England.
Once victorious, William set about getting his new kingdom organized. Not only did he cause the writing of the Doomsday Book — the first record of the lands and property of the whole country, he started a massive building program of both castles and cathedrals.
One of the first castles constructed was the Tower of London, in the old Roman city, right on the banks of the River Thames. It became William’s royal palace and continued so until 1529. It was, by then, the reign of Henry VIII, who, having seized the Palace of Whitehall, a little way up river, from his erstwhile chum, Cardinal Wolsey, relocated to there. Thereafter, the Tower became a prison, notably for Wolsey, several of Henry’s soon to be ex-wives and any others who dared to contest the king’s right to divorce at will.
That shift of the monarchy from the old Roman city to the Westminster area, coupled with the rising prosperity of England, meant London started to split into two camps. The rich merchants in the old Roman city, steadfastly resisted any attempts at restrictions by the government to the west in Whitehall.
For the government’s part, they had to tread warily because they needed the financial acumen of the City of London to provide them with their revenue. So started a wary mutual respect and loathing, which continues, to a certain extent, right up to the present day.