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A Brief History of the City of London

This blog post was updated on October 4, 2018.

Today, the City of London is a global powerhouse at the heart of the UK’s economy, but the City’s important role throughout the history of London and Britain cannot be overstated.


During medieval times, the City constituted the whole of London. A look at any modern-day map confirms that the City is still essentially the epicentre of the greater metropolitan area.


References to the City date back to 60 AD when Roman historian Tacitus wrote of the area as an important centre of commerce.


Remains of London’s Roman past exist today in the form of remnants of the London Wall, a defensive perimeter constructed by the Romans during the Second Century.


An exceptional place for visitors arriving on flights to London to learn about Roman era, the City, and more is the Museum of London, which is located near a section of the London Wall in the City.


By the end of the Stuart era (17th and early 18th centuries), urban London began expanding beyond its medieval bounds with the City continuing to serve as the area’s economic hub.  However, the tragedies of 1665 and 1666 put a hold on the City’s good fortunes, if only in the short term.  Not even the Black Death nor the infamous fire of 1666 could put the reins on the City for long.


The Great Plague, an outbreak of bubonic plague, struck during the summer of 1665.  Also known as the Black Death, the disease was carried by fleas living on rats, finding the overpopulated areas of the City and the East End an ideal home.  The bubonic plague was essentially incurable with symptoms including fever, chills, swelling of the lymph glands, madness and inevitable death.  More than 7,000 people died within the first week of the epidemic, with tens of thousands suffering similar fates.  Sadly, only another calamity of equally devastating magnitude could wipe out the effects of the Great Plague.


In 1666, the Great Fire of London destroyed much of the City, eradicating the plague in its smoldering ruin.  The result of an oven having been left burning, the fire started in a bakery on Pudding Lane in the heart of the City.  Since many of London’s buildings were wooden at that time, the fire swept rapidly through the City leaving little standing in its wake.  So hot was the fire that the lead roof on the original St Paul’s Cathedral actually melted.  In total 85 churches burned.  Remarkably, despire widespread destruction, only five people died as result to the Great Fire.


With much of the City (and indeed much of greater London) razed, the daunting challenge and incredible opportunity to rebuild the area from scratch became manifest.  The commission to rebuild was to be Christopher Wren’s, one of Britain’s most celebrated architects. For his architectural efforts, Wren was knighted in 1673.  His works, most notably the acclaimed reconstructed St Paul’s Cathedral as well as many other churches and landmarks in the City and throughout London, remain significant parts of London’s skyline.


The 20th century saw a mix of good and bad times.  Bankrolling the British Empire, the City secured its position as global financial epicentre.  During World War II, the City and nearby East End were major targets for the Blitz.  Major sites and structures damaged or destroyed included St Paul’s, Bank Station, the Old Bailey as well as a number of important churches. Recovering from World War Two, the City maintained its status and today claims to have the largest concentration of financial employment in the world.


It’s storied past of wealth coupled with destruction has made the City a unique area to explore, where iconic modern high rise office towers, such as Norman Foster’s Gherkin mingle with Roman ruins and architectural examples of virtually every area in between. From it’s ancient past as a Roman trading outpost to its status as the wealthiest square mile in the world, the City of London is full of fascinating history.


Image Credit: Chris Osburn (Author)

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