- Jessica Barnfield
London is a mysterious place, steeped in stories and host to dramatic events that have altered the history of not just London but the UK as a whole. Before you go out and about in London, read our list of the most important events in London’s history.
AD 43: Romans conquer and establish Londinium
Seven years after their invasion in AD 43, the Romans established a settlement known as Londinium. The strategic location of the city allowed the Romans easy access to Europe, and the River Thames provided ample water supply. The early Romans inhabited an area roughly the size of Hyde Park, but it was destroyed by Queen Boudica in AD 60. In the following ten years, the Romans would rebuild the town and watch its rapid expansion. The London base of the Roman Empire lasted until the 5th century, when the Empire went into rapid decline and London was abandoned as a result. The Anglo-Saxons took over the area until around the 11th century.
1066: Tower of London Established to Keep Hostile Londoners at Bay
The initial wooden tower was quickly replaced by stone, making it the first stone castle in England. The establishment of the Tower of London as a centre for punishment crystallised London’s laws and the power the city held over its citizens.
1216: The First Baron’s War
During the First Baron’s War, London was occupied by Prince Louis of France who had gained grassroots support from rebels overthrowing King John. However, upon King John’s death, the French Prince was ousted and support rallied for King John’s son Henry III instead. Louis withdrew from England and the country spent the next few centuries shaking off its ties to French culture. London was central in the development of early-modern English as a direct result of its occupation by a French ruler.
Mid-14th Century: Black Death
London lost almost half of its population during the Black Death, making this one of the single most devastating events in the city’s dark history. The outbreak not only shaped the number of inhabitants in London but also changed their mind-sets. In the wake of such huge loss, Londoners turned to religion with renewed fervour.
1530’s: Henry VIII Reformation
The reformation of the Church had massive effects on London. Property changed hands almost exclusively, turning many religious buildings into private property. By far the most significant of these was the St James leper hospital, which the King claimed for himself and turned into St James’ Palace. The palace was of secondary importance during the Tudor and Stuart reigns, but it gained prominence during the Georgian period before being resigned to second place again by Buckingham Palace.
1605: Guy Fawkes Attempts to Blow Up Houses of Parliament
Gunpowder, treason, and plot… Brits all over the UK remember this historic event with bonfires, fireworks and toffee apples. Guy Fawkes’ highly publicised plot against parliament and his subsequent torture and death quashed many other rebellious intentions towards parliament for years to come. The legacy lives on as we celebrate the thwarted plot each year although Guy Fawkes is often credited as ‘the last man to enter parliament with honest intentions.’
1666: Great Fire of London
No list of this nature would be complete without mentioning the Great Fire. Probably one of the most well-known events in London’s dramatic history, the fire destroyed just under 70 percent of the city’s buildings, including the original St Paul’s Cathedral. The rebuild of the city largely followed the old one; however, central London was never the same again. Many richer inhabitants chose to relocate to the increasingly fashionable West End and aristocratic residences close to the royal court at St James’ Palace. This split the middle-class and mercantile centre of London from the more aristocratic boroughs — a rift still evident today. Somewhat wisely, all new buildings were made of brick not wood, leading to the popular impression today of the UK being a red-brick country.
1834: Another Fire…
Over 200 years after Guy Fawkes made his attempt, the Houses of Parliament burnt down. Rather than an act of terrorism, the fire was, in fact, caused by a workman who was given the task of destroying some sticks once used by the Councillor or the Exchequer. Not wanting to be kept too late, the workman burned the sticks with rather more haste than care, resulting in a fire that ravaged parliament’s main buildings, leaving only Westminster Hall fully intact. The building that is now famous around the world was designed by Charles Barry, completed in 1844. Barry was also responsible for designing Highclere Castle, setting of the ever-popular Downton Abbey.
1863: London Underground
Few Londoners could imagine the great city without its complicated network of trains weaving their way from A to B deep beneath the streets. The Underground is such a London institution that its map design has made its way on to many tourist memorabilia and is one of the most recognised ways to signpost the nation’s capital. The Underground was the first of its kind and revolutionised how Londoners navigated their city. It also spawned imitations in Paris, New York, and beyond. Few cities are complete now without one.
1907: Suffragettes Storm Westminster
Although it would be another 11 years before women were given the right to vote, 15 suffragettes made it to the lobby of the Houses of Parliament on February 13th, 1907, where they passionately protested for women’s right to vote. Over 60 women were arrested, but those that made it to parliament protested until 10pm. The tireless efforts of the suffragette’s characterised London as a place of passion where conflicting opinions would be battled out in the public sphere. Protesting outside the Houses of Parliament is a tradition that continues to this day, and issues such as the Iraq war, rise in tuition fees, and the privatisation of the NHS have all been tackled here.
1997: Cool Britannia
Tony Blair’s now infamous ‘Cool Britannia’ party saw the youngest Prime Minister Britain has had for decades celebrate his victory with a party of London’s hottest movers and shakers. Noel Gallagher rubbed shoulders with Vivienne Westwood and Margaret Drabble. This moment lingers in London’s history as a time where optimism about New Labour was still rife, and Britons truly felt a new political dawn could be just around the corner. This optimism was dampened by the news of Princess Diana’s untimely death, making 1997 a year when London was irrevocably shaken into a new era by a drastic change in the figures that represented Britain to the world.
2005: Terrorist Attacks
When four bombs exploded on London’s transport systems in July 2005, what many had feared as inevitable since 9/11 finally happened. This tragic event shook London to its core, and the city was thrown into mass panic and confusion. The event shocked the British public as all four suicide bombers were of British origin and tipped London into the high terrorist alert status it still holds today.
London’s history is categorised by gruesome plagues, ravaging fires, and tempestuous protests from its own citizens. It is a cultural boiling pot, fusing old and new but also attracting forms of protest and violence due to its size and undeniable power within the global sphere. For better or worse, London’s history has shaped it into what it is today: brooding, volatile, and endlessly resilient.