Not a whole lot is known about London prior to the arrival of the Romans. Even most Britons don’t pay much attention to their history prior to the arrival of William the Conqueror and the Normans from France in 1066. Which means if you want to discover really ancient London, you will need a guide, because it is hard to find. My wife’s friend Helen turned out to be one of the few Britons interested in this period. As such last week she made it her business to show us ancient London, or what’s left of it.
Most of it disappeared more than a millennium ago. What’s left of it is mostly inaccessible, or buried deep underground. Modern London was built on top of previous incarnations of London. If you know where to look though you can find scattered Roman ruins and get an experience few tourists and Londoners ever get. You can find a lot more of Anglo Saxon London, which generally built on top of whatever the Romans left.
Londinium as the Romans called it was established around AD 50, about seven years after the Romans invaded Briton. It doesn’t appear that the Celts and other inhabitants of the island were much interested in cities or conquest so the Romans pragmatically picked a place that facilitated commerce (the Thames River) but was wide enough but not too wide for a Roman bridge, hence London’s birth. It’s unclear why it was called Londinium, but the speculation was that Londin and Lundin were common Roman names at the time.
If you visit the Tower of London, you will discover that this infamous tower was built on top of Roman ruins at the sight. Some of it can still be seen, but it’s hard to discern which part the Romans built and which the Saxons built. (Hint: the Roman part is closer to the ground.) In the City of London itself, Roman ruins are few and far between but can be found by the adventurous traveler.
Perhaps the best-preserved portion of the old Roman city wall can be found next to what is now the Grange City Hotel on Cooper’s Row. It suggests that the entire wall was quite impressive in Roman times.
For much of the rest, look underground. At St. Bride’s Church off Fleet Street, if you venture below ground and into the crypt you can see Norman walls and arches. You also can glimpse (through a mirror) at a portion of the old Roman wall. Fleet Street by the way is over the Fleet River, which still flows into the Thames, but is now well below the pavement. It used to be London’s principle and smelliest open sewer.
It’s easier to find Norman architecture. While visiting the crypt at St. Bride’s Church make sure to check out the church upstairs too because you are visiting what is arguably London’s oldest church, at least of those still standing, but with still an active congregation. The Normans liked semicircular arches, which makes their structures easy to identify. The first stone walled St. Bride’s Church goes back to AD 600. In 1205 the church hosted the Curia Regis, a precursor to parliament. The Tower of London also has some remnants of the Norman Conquest visible in its architecture.
Nothing quite this old exists in the United States of course, which is why I was drawn to it. There were various Indian civilizations of course, but they left little for archeologists to marvel at. Probably the oldest structure in the United States can be found in St. Augustine at the Castillo de San Marcos, which didn’t become a proper fortress until 1695, but had earlier wooden variations. By that time of course the Normans were long gone from England and St. Bride’s could already trace its origins back a thousand years.
Proper British history seems to begin around the reign of the Tudors. I’ll be looking at some of the many places impacted by the Tudor reign in subsequent posts. Get ready for some very bloody stories.