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.
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.
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”, 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.
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.