Prehistoric London

The first in a series on the history of London up to the time of the Great Fire of 1666, largely taken from my book, “The Flower Of All Cities” (Amberley, 2019) …

Stone Age London

There is – albeit sparse  – archaeological evidence from Stratford to the east of London, Southwark to the south, Hounslow and Uxbridge to the west, and Hampstead to the north, for hunting and gathering activity in the Late Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age); and for woodland clearance and farming in the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) and Neolithic (New Stone Age), between the eighth and fourth centuries BC/BCE.  There are also the remains of a Mesolithic flint-tool manufactory at North Woolwich, and a Mesolithic timber structure of as yet undetermined function  at Vauxhall.  And of a Neolithic henge at Hackney Wells, and a reportedly Neolithic barrow-burial at  what is now known as “King Henry’s Mound” in Richmond Park.

Bronze and Iron Age London

There is  archaeological evidence from a number of localities around London for at least transient settlement and associated activity, by Ancient Britons or Celts, in  the Bronze Age, in the  third and second millennia BC/BCE, and in  the Iron Age, in  the first millennium BC/BCE. 

Boudicca’s Grave
Shrewsbury Tumulus

Bronze Age timbers still survive at Plumstead, together with a number of Bronze Age burial mounds, including  the so-called “Boudicca’s Grave” on Parliament Hill, and the “Shrewsbury Tumulus” on Shooters Hill. 

Caesar’s Camp
Ambresbury Banks

And a number of   hill-forts or  enclosures survive from the Iron Age, including “Caesar’s Camp” on Wimbledon Common, and Ambresbury Banks and Loughton Camp, both in the timeless wilds of   Epping Forest. 

Grim’s Dyke

“Grim’s Dyke”, an intermittently-preserved bank-and-ditch earthwork running  for a distance  of some miles through North-West London, from Pinner Green, or possibly Ruislip, to Harrow Weald Common, or possibly Stanmore, also survives from the Iron Age (Colour Figure 5). It is thought to have been built  by a tribe of Ancient Britons or Celts known as the  Catuvellauni, which had its heartland on the north side of the Thames, in and around London and the northern Home Counties, and its capital at Verlamion (modern St Albans in Hertfordshire).   The  tribal territory of the Catuvellauni was bordered to the east by that of the Trinovantes, to the north by those of the Corieltauvi and  Iceni, to the west by that of the Dobunii, and to the south by those of the Cantiaci and Atrebates.  Incidentally, it is not known for certain what the Ancient Britons called London.  Coates (1998) has suggested “Lowonidonjon”, meaning something like “settlement on the Thames”, and deriving in part from a pre-Celtic name for the  London section of the Thames, “Plowonida” (“river too wide to ford”).

According to the antiquarian John Stow, in his magisterial “Survay of London, written in the Year 1598”: “ …   Geoffrey of Monmouth … reporteth that Brute [Brutus of Troy], lineally descended from the demi-god Aeneas, the son of Venus, daughter of Jupiter, about the year of the world 2855, and 1108 before the nativity of Christ, built this city near unto the river now called Thames, and named it Troynovant [New Troy] … ”.   And: “King Lud … afterwards … increased the same with fair buildings, towers and walls, and after his own name  called it Caire-Lud … .  This Lud has issue two sons, Androgeus and Theomantius, who being not of an age to govern at the death of their father, their uncle  Cassibelan took upon him the crown:  about the eighth year of whose reign, Julius Caesar arrived in this land with a great power of Romans to conquer it … ”. 

Sadly, Geoffrey of Monmouth has since been thoroughly discredited, not least for “interlacing divine matters with human, to make the first foundation …  more  … sacred … ”.  Cassibelan, or Cassivelaunus, though, was an actual historical figure, and most likely belonged to the Catuvellauni (see above).  He  is  recorded as having resisted the Roman invasion under Caesar in 55-4BC/BCE – at the head of 4000 horse-drawn war-chariots, if one colourful account is to be believed!  He  is  speculated to have engaged the Romans  in battle at  Brentford as they attempted to cross the Thames from south to north. 

Equally sadly, the only actual archaeological features  from the Bronze or Iron Ages still surviving  in Central London are  some  enigmatic pits and post-holes interpreted as representing the sites of former homesteads or farmsteads,  in Leicester Square in the West End, near the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, and south of the Thames in Southwark, and the remains of a bridge or jetty at Vauxhall.   Note in this context, though,  that an Iron Age settlement with an enclosure ditch has  recently been discovered in Whitechapel, and is still in the process of being excavated.  There are no features  at all  in the City of London, perhaps at least in part because, again as Stow put it, “ … the Britons call that a town … when they have fortified a cumbersome wood with a ditch and rampart … ”.  This period of the city’s history remains shrouded in mist and mystery.

Part of the “Havering Hoard” exhibition in the Museum of London Docklands

Important archaeological finds  from the Bronze or Iron Ages include much equipment associated with horses and chariots, a horned helmet recovered from the Thames at Waterloo, an ornate shield recovered from the Thames at Battersea (possibly  offered as a plea to the gods of the river at the time of the Roman invasion),  a “hoard” of approximately 500 axe-heads and other artefacts recovered from a site overooking  the Thames near  Rainham in the Borough of Havering, and  the so-called “Dowgate Plaque” from the City of London.  That is not to mention  more or less everyday items such as worked flints, pot-sherds, and coins, some of them from Cannon Street in the City.

The Olde Cheshire Cheese

The last in the series on historic secular buildings of London …

Fleet Street, first recorded in 1188, is named after the River Fleet, which used to debouch into the  Thames south of Ludgate Circus (but which was culverted and built over in the eighteenth century),  and thus ultimately from the  Old English “fleot”, meaning, in this context, a tidal? inlet navigable by boat.  The first printing press was set up in Fleet Street  in 1500, by the wonderfully named Wynkyn de Worde, and a plaque on the wall of the Stationers’ Hall commemorates the event.  The street was also the home of a number of legendary drinking establishments, haunted by Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, and, a little later, Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens (not to mention Oliver  Goldsmith, William Hogarth and Jonathan Swift).   These included the “Olde Cheshire Cheese”, dating back to 1584, the “Mitre”, dating back to at least 1603, and the “Devil”, or “Devil and St Dunstan”, dating back to at  least 1608, all of which burned down in the Great Fire and were later rebuilt. 

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The “Olde Cheshire Cheese”, rebuilt in 1667, survives to this day, and retains much of its late seventeenth-century character. What are purported to be parts of the Medieval Whitefriars Priory can be seen in the cellar.

The “Chop Room” in the “Cheese” is famed the world over for its “marvellous rump-steak pudding”, and “the alactrity with which … edibles are supplied … is unmatched in the metropolis”.

Apothecaries’ Hall

Another in the series on historic secular buildings of London …

London’s Trades Guilds, or Livery Companies,  so-called for their distinguishing attire, began to be founded from the turn of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries onwards,  possibly essentially as part of an attempt to control the freedom to trade at a time of comparative over-population and shortage of work.  The Livery Companies established working practices and maintained quality standards (through so-called “searches”).  They  also provided apprenticeships for members at the beginning of their working lives, and alms for those at the end of theirs.  And they may, or may not,  have exerted control over commodity prices. 

Of the total of 77 Livery Companies   in existence in London at the time of the Great Fire of 1666, 13 (17%) were involved in the cloth and clothing sectors of the economy; 12 (16%) in food and drink; 10 (13%) in construction and interior design; 10 (13%) in metal-working; 5 (7%) in wood-working (including shipwrighting); 4 (5%) in leather-working; 3 (4%) in arms manufacture; 3 (4%) in equestrian accoutrement manufacture;  3 (4%) in the medical profession; 2  (3%) in chandlery; 2 (3%) in the clerical profession; 2 (3%) in entertainment;  2 (3%) in transport; and the remaining 6 (8%) in sundry trades.  London’s economy was evidently still dominated by the manufacture of goods, rather than by services, at this time.

Almost all of the Livery Companies’ Halls were burned down in the Great Fire of 1666, with only parts of the Apothecaries’ and Merchant Taylors’ surviving.

The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1617, and the Apothecaries’ Hall on Blackfriars Lane was originally built in 1633, on part of the site of the former Blackfriars Priory, which had been dissolved in 1538.  The hall was substantially burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666, and subsequently rebuilt by Thomas Lock in 1668.  Only parts of the walls of the original building survive.

Apothecaries in Medieval and post-Medieval London were essentially purveyors of herbs and herbal medicines (the word derives from the Latin apotheca, meaning a storehouse where wines, spices and herbs were kept). Sad to say, the medicines were entirely ineffectual against the principal killer diseases of the time, Plague and Sweating Sickness.

One notable apothecary of the time was John Parkinson (1567-1650), who grew his own medicinal plants in a garden in Long Acre in Covent Garden, and sold his own medicines in a shop on Ludgate Hill, a short walk from the Apothecaries’ Hall.   He  was one of the founder-members of the Apothecaries’ Company, and also the apothecary to James I, and Royal Botanist to Charles I.   He also wrote  “A Garden of All Sorts of Pleasant Flowers” in 1629, and  “The Theatre of Plants” in 1640. 

Another notable was Gideon de Laune (1565-1659), the son of a Huguenot who had fled to London to escape religious persecution in his native France. He was another of the co-founders of the Apothecaries’ Company, and the apothecary to James I’s queen, Anne of Denmark. There is a fine marble bust of him in the Company’s Hall

Newington Green Terrace

Another in the series on historic secular buildings of London …

Newington Green was first recorded in 1480  as Newyngtongrene, referring to a village green near (Stoke) Newington.  It is said that Henry VIII hunted hereabouts, and installed mistresses in a house here.

Newington Green Terrace
Plaque bearing date 1658

The green is the home of the oldest surviving brick-built terrace in London, dating to 1658. 

Newington Green Church

In 1758, the non-conformist minister and radical moral philosopher Richard Price moved into one of the houses in the terrace, and began preaching  at the nearby Newington Green Church (founded in 1708). The pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft also had as association with the church.

Mary Wollstonecraft plaque

Newington had become an important centre for Non-Conformism and Dissent after the passage of Clarendon’s “Five Mile Act” (“An Act for restraining Non-Conformists from inhabiting in Corporations”) in 1665.

Dissenting Academy public house

Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Bloomsbury

Another in the series on historic secular buildings of London …

Bloomsbury takes its name from a corruption of Blemondesberi, meaning the manor of (William) Blemond, who owned land here in the thirteenth century. 

Lincoln’s Inn Fields was first recorded in 1598 as Lincolnes Inne Feildes, and indicated on the map of 1520 as Cup Field and Purse Field.  Part of the area was developed into a square surrounded by town-houses in the 1630s.  A “Time Team” dig in the square in 2009 uncovered evidence there of a temporary encampment that had most likely been set up in the immediate aftermath of the Great Fire of 1666 (which took place a little to the east).

No. 59/60 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, on the west side, was built between 1638-40, and survives to this day.

Nos. 12-14, on the north side, were rebuilt between 1792-1824 by Sir John Soane, and since 1837 have housed an extraordinary museum that bears his name. Among the eclectic mix of thousands of antiquities and artworks on exhibit there are the sarcophagus of the Egyptian Pharaoh Seti I (1323-1279BCE), and the original paintings of Hogarth’s “A Rake’s Progress“, executed between 1733-5.

The Queen’s House (Greenwich)

Another in the series on historic secular buildings of London …

Greenwich was first recorded as Grenewic in 964, taking its    name from the Old English “grene”, and “wic”, meaning settlement. 

Greenwich Palace, also known at one time or another as  Bella Court and as Placentia, was built here by Henry V’s brother, Humphrey de Bohun, Duke of Gloucester, in 1426, and rebuilt by Henry VII between circa 1500-06.  The palace is notable as the birthplace of Henry VIII and of his daughters Mary and Elizabeth I.  Only some fragments survive.

Distant view of Queen’s House, with part of east wing of Royal Naval College at end of colonnade
Tulip Stairs

The so-called Queen’s House was  originally built by the Palladian architect Inigo Jones, between 1616-40.  It is one of the earliest Renaissance buildings in London, actually begun before, although not completed until after, the Banqueting House in Whitehall (see previous post).

Beard-off at Somerset House

It currently  houses the National Gallery of Naval Art, owned by the National Maritime Museum. One of the paintings on exhibit is of the Somerset House Conference, which brought about the end of the Anglo-Spanish War of 1585-1604.

The Royal Naval College was built on the site of the substantially demolished Greenwich Palace by Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, between 1692-1728. It had to be built in two widely separated halves to allow the Queen’s House to the rear to remain in the view  from the river and waterfront (leading Samuel Johnson to describe it  as “too much detached to make one great whole”).  

Whitehall Palace

Another in the series on historic secular buildings of London …

Whitehall Palace was originally built for the  Archbishops of York in the thirteenth century, circa 1240, when it was known as York Place.

Whitehall Palace
James I, with the Banqueting House in the background

It was subsequently   acquired by Henry VIII from the then Archbishop of York, Cardinal Wolsey, in 1529, whence, from Shakespeare’s “King Henry the Eighth”, “You must no more call it York Place: that is past; For since the Cardinal fell that title’s lost.  ‘Tis now the King’s, and called Whitehall”; and extended both by Henry and by James I.  The palace was undamaged in the Great Fire of 1666, but substantially burnt down in another fire in 1698. 

The exterior of the Banqueting House today
The interior of the Banqueting House

Essentially only the Banqueting House, designed by the  Palladian architect Inigo Jones in 1622, and notable as the first Renaissance building in central London, with a ceiling by Rubens, still stands (together with “Henry VIII’s wine cellar” in the nearby Ministry of Defence building in Horse Guards’ Avenue, the site of his tilt-yard in Horse Guards’ Parade, part of his real tennis court in the Cabinet Office building at No. 70 Whitehall, and “Queen Mary’s Stairs”, built in 1691, on the Embankment).   

The execution of Charles I outside the Banqueting House

Charles I was executed outside the Banqueting House on January 30th, 1649.  It was a freezing cold day, so he put on an extra shirt, that no-one might see him shiver (“the season is so sharp as probably may make me shake, which some observers may imagine proceeds from fear[and] I would have no such imputation”).

The Holbein Gate

The Holbein Gate, built in 1532 and notable as the probable place of the clandestine marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in 1533, survived the fires of  1666 and 1698, but was demolished in 1759. 

Cloth Fair

Another in the series on historic secular buildings of London …

Cloth Fair takes its name from the cloth fair held here from the twelfth century until the nineteenth (thus also Cloth Court and Street).  In Medieval times, the fair attracted  clothiers, drapers and wool merchants from far and wide (members of the Mercers’ and Merchant Taylors’ Companies also attended to ensure fair trading, and there was even a peripatetic “Pie Powder”  Court that took its name from the a corruption of the French “pieds poudres”, meaning dusty feet).  By the beginning of the Victorian era, it had become more of an “entertainment”, marked by increasing levels of unruliness, such that it was finally discontinued in 1855. 

Remarkably, No. 41/42, which was built between 1597-1614, still stands, in so small measure due to restoration work by the architects Seely (Lord Mottistone) and Paget, who purchased the property in 1930, and owned it until 1978.   Ian Nairn described the house as “ … an embodiment of the old London spirit.  Chunky, cantankerous, breaking out all over in oriels and roof-lights, unconcerned with … anything else other than shapes to live in”. It was first owned by one William Chapman, who was evidently a businessman of some means. Further information about it may be found in Fiona Rule’s “The Oldest House in London“.

Images of the street from  the early 1900s show that there were several other pre-Great Fire houses still standing there  at that time.  Among them was the “Dick Whittington” Inn, which was demolished in 1916.  Two salvaged carved wooden satyrs from its corner posts are now in the Museum of London. 

The Inns of Court

Another in the series on historic secular buildings of London …

The Inns of Court, so named because they are where law students trained, and indeed still train, to become barristers,  are Gray’s Inn,  Lincoln’s Inn, and Inner and  Middle Temple.  Temple was founded in the early fourteenth century, immediately after an individual’s right to legal representation at trial was enshrined in law in the late thirteenth; Gray’s inn in the late fourteenth; and Lincoln’s Inn, in its present location, in the fifteenth. The Inns of Chancery, where,  until the late eighteenth to early twentieth centuries, novices trained preparatory to being “called to the bar” in the Inns of Court, were,  in the case of Gray’s Inn, Barnard’s Inn and Staple Inn; in the case of Lincoln’s Inn, Furnival’s Inn and Thavies Inn; in the case of Inner Temple, Clement’s Inn, Clifford’s Inn and Lyon’s Inn; and in the case of Middle Temple, New Inn and Strand Inn. 

John Fortescue wrote of the Inns in 1470, “In England, laws are learned in three languages, namely English, French and Latin [and] not in universities, but in a certain public academy situated near the King’s courts [in Westminster].  That academy is not situated in the city, where the tumult could disturb the student’s quiet, but in a suburb.  There are in this academy ten lesser Inns of Chancery to each of [which] at least a hundred belong.  These students are for the most part young men learning the elements of the law, who, becoming proficient as they mature, are absorbed into the greater Inns of Court, of which there are four in number, and to the least of which belong 200 students or more. … . [I]n these greater inns there can no student be maintained for less expenses by the year than 20 marks.  And if he have a servant to wait upon him, as most of them have, then so much the greater will his charges be.  Now by reason of these charges the children only of noble men do study the laws … .  For the poor and common sort of the people are not able to bear so great charges … and merchant men can seldom find in their hearts to hinder their merchandise with so great yearly expenses.  And thus it falleth out that there is scant any man found within the … laws, except he be a gentleman born … . Wherefore they more than any other kind of men have a special regard to their nobility and to the preservation of their honour and fame.  And to speak uprightly there is in these greater  inns, yea and in the lesser too, beside the study of the laws, as it were an university or school of all commendable qualities requisite for noble men.  There they learn to sing, and to exercise themselves in all kinds of harmony.  There also they practise dancing, and other noble men’s pastimes, as they do which are brought up in the king’s house”.

Gray’s Inn in the sixteenth century (“Agas” map)

Gray’s Inn, situated on Gray’s Inn Road, north of Holborn, takes its name from the Gray family, whose former manor house  here became the site of an Inn of Court in the late fourteenth century (the house is no longer here).   The Hall was built in  1560, and survived the Great Fire of 1666, only to be destroyed during the Blitz in 1941, alongside the Library, built in 1555 (and the Chapel, rebuilt in 1689). 

Gray’s Inn

Francis Bacon (1561-1626), of whom there is a statue here, was, among other things, a “Master of the Bench” here, that is, a member of the governing body.  He also played a leading role in the creation of the colonies in the Americas, the egalitarian vision for which he set out in his “New Atlantis”. 

Incidentally, London’s Inns of Court played a formative, though little-known, role in the founding of the United States of America.   William Taft (1857-1930), the sometime Chief Justice and President of the United States, noted that “many of the law officers of the Colonies … , appointed by the Crown before the Revolution, were members of … [the Inns of Court]”, and that the Inns were thus instrumental in “instilling in the communities of the Colonies the principles of Common Law”.  Others have even suggested that the principles of secession also came from the Inns.

Barnard’s Inn Hall exterior
Barnard’s Inn Hall interior

The surviving Barnard’s Inn Hall, now the site of the relocated Gresham College,  dates to the late fourteenth- or early fifteenth- century. 

Staple Inn Hall was built by Vincent Enghame and another between 1545-89, destroyed by a Flying Bomb in 1944, and rebuilt in 1955 (the original  one was built, on the same site, at least as long ago  as 1333). 

Staple Inn Buildings

The surviving half-timbered Staple Inn Buildings on High Holborn were also built in 1589.   

Lincoln’s Inn in the sixteenth century (“Agas” map)

Lincoln’s Inn, situated on Chancery Lane, between Holborn to the north and Fleet Street to the south, takes its name either from the Lincoln family, or from the Earl of Lincoln,  whose former land here  became the site of an  Inn of Court in the fifteenth century (the Inn of Court had previously been  located in Thavies Inn and Furnival’s Inn  in the fourteenth century). 

Lincoln’s Inn “Old Hall”

The surviving “Old Hall” dates to 1489-92 (although it also incorporates parts of the former  Bishop of Chichester’s house, dating to the early thirteenth century); the “Old Buildings” to 1524-1613 (the  Gate-House to 1517-21); and the Chapel to 1619-23. 

Temple in the sixteenth century (“Agas” map)

Temple, situated between Fleet Street to the north and the Thames to the south, takes its name from the Knights Templar of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, who relocated themselves here in the twelfth century (having previously been located in Holborn), and whose former land here became the site of the  Inns of Court of Inner and Middle Temple after the order was suppressed in the early fourteenth. 

Inner Temple Gate-House

The surviving Inner Temple Gate-House, a timber-framed town-house, including a room known  as “Prince Henry’s Room”, after Henry, the son of James I, is  Jacobean, and dates to 1610-11.

Middle Temple Hall front elevation
Middle Temple Hall rear elevation
Middle Temple Hall interior

The surviving Middle Temple Hall is Elizabethan, and dates to 1571.  Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” premiered here in 1602.  It was performed here again exactly 400 years later in 2002, with an all-male cast, authentic  hand-made costumes and period music and instruments.

St James’s Palace

Another in the series on historic secular buildings of London …

The Tudor Gatehouse and Chapel Royal
Chapel Royal
Friary Court

St James’s Palace was originally built by Henry VIII between 1531-6, on a  site where, according to Stow, “the citizens of London, time out of mind, founded an hospital … for leprous women”.  It became one of the principal residences of the royal family for the next several hundred years.

The Queen’s Chapel

The palace has been considerably extended subsequent to its original construction. The Queen’s Chapel was built by the famous Palladian architect Inigo Jones between 1623-7, and was first used as a chapel by Charles I’s queen, Henrietta Maria, who was a Catholic. During the Civil War, it was used as a barracks by Parliamentarian forces. After the Restoration of the Monarchy, it was again used as a chapel by Charles II’s queen, Catherine of Braganza, who was also a Catholic, and who established a friary adjoining.