A Brief History of the City of London

Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton

London began as a Roman city, essentially a military base and trading post along the Thames, which was navigable well past it. The first London Bridge (the only one over the Thames for well over a thousand years) was built around 40 AD, with walls being erected about 200 years or so later—walls which encircled the “square mile” which would become the core of the medieval city. However, the city declined after the Romans left as a result of the decline of trade. When the Saxons arrived, they built on the outskirts of the derelict city, but the town itself became less populated. However, a long period of recovery began around 604, when London became a bishopric for the expanding Christian church and the first St Paul's Cathedral was erected (which lasted until destroyed 961. London began to recover, partially because of the bridge and its importance on trade routes. During the reign of Alfred the Great (circa 886) the King took control of the city and repair on the walls began, as well as repair of the wharves along the riverside. This brought in more trade from the Continent and London began to become cosmopolitan again. By 918, London was almost treated as its own shire and was considered an independent city. During the Viking invasions of the early 11th century, the bridge collapsed, but it was quickly rebuilt.

By the time of the Conquest had already acquired a reputation for being able to influence the choice of the King. William, conscious of this, began to fortify the city once he had gained control of it. The result was the White Tower, centre of the Tower of London complex. The second St. Paul's was destroyed by fire in 1086 and a new cathedral started soon thereafter. (When completed some 200 years later, it was one of the largest in Europe.) London was not considered "the capital" during William's lifetime because his court was itinerant, but it was considered one of the chief cities. Gradually, however, it became the de facto capital, mostly because the mint was gradually consolidated there, the only city large enough to have a stable population of die-makers for coin-stamping.

By the twelfth century, there was a continual struggle between the Crown and the City for who would govern London. Royal sheriffs, appointed by the King to govern the city, tended to try to milk the city for money and were resented by City residents. Around the twelfth century (maybe earlier) the city was divided into 24 wards, each headed by an alderman. These alderman held courts (ward moots) and also formed a panel of legal experts for the Court of Hustings, which was responsible for overseeing trade.

Henry II granted London a new charter early in his reign, confirming its privileges. London was free of certain royal taxes and were given hunting rights outside the city, but it was still under control of a royal sheriff. But by the late 12th century, the freemen of each ward elected an alderman, and from these aldermen they elected their sheriff, a right granted to them by Richard I. The position of mayor was also created, and the mayor's court replaced the Court of Hustings, where one of the king's sheriffs had formerly presided. King John granted London a charter that allowed them to elect their sheriffs early in his reign, and late in his reign confirmed their right to elect a mayor in the annual folk-moot (to be confirmed by the King), as well as formally establishing the mint at the Tower. The mayor ranked equal to a viscount and was always addressed as Your Worship; but the title Lord Mayor was not regularly used until 1545. The Lord Mayor was First Citizen within the city and ranked just after the sovereign within the city, and just after the sovereign’s privy councilors outside the walls.

In 1273 the Common Council of London was formed, elected by the freemen to consult with the Mayor and Sheriffs on city affairs. It consisted of 25 men. The Common Council was eventually elected in the wards, but the election of Mayor and Sheriffs was in the hands of the livery companies (guilds).

Guilds began as early as Saxon times, when groups of men (usually involved in a common trade) would swear mutual oaths of fidelity and aid, hold a monthly feast ,and provide support for the widows of members or members accused of crimes. By the twelfth century, the two types of guilds-- craft and merchant—began to receive charters. Merchant guilds made rules concerning sales, saw that the markets were properly run, and that no trade happened without a license. In most cities, they were far more powerful than craft guilds, but for some reason they never acquired much power in London, and the craft guilds—those centred around a trade-- took on their usual duties. Guild heads were originally called aldermen, but by the reign of Edward III the heads took the title of Master or Warden. Edward II had decreed that no one could be admitted to the freedom of the city (e.g. be a citizen) unless they were a member of one of the city companies. Each company had liverymen--the leading members of the company, who were entitled to wear a particular style of dress. Guild halls began to be built rapidly after 1400. The companies often put on spectacular pageants on feast days of their patron saints. At one point there were at least 111 guilds, but eventually many amalgamated. There were twelve "Great Companies"--Mercers, Grocers, Fishmongers, Drapers, Goldsmiths, Skinners, Merchant Taylors, Haberdashers, Salters, Ironmongers, Vintners, and Clothworkers--these were the largest and most powerful; in the 15th century almost all the Mayors came from the Mercers, Grocers, or Drapers. By that time, many guild members did not even practice the trades associated with their guilds, but rather had acquired wealth in foreign trade.

A brief look around medieval London
By 1222 the City was the "square mile" now considered to be the City of London proper. Outside the walls were the liberties and sokes--areas under London jurisdiction but sometimes free of certain tolls or taxes. You can still see the basic shape of the medieval city today by looking at a map of modern London. Many of the streets still bear the names of the trades practiced or the goods sold there. By medieval standards, London was huge, but in the thirteenth century the population was perhaps 30,000. By the late 12th century there were about 136 small parishes. Medieval London was definitely a city of bells. There were also many monastic foundations, including that of the Templars; after that order was dissolved, their buildings were overrun by lawyers, becoming the centre of the Inns of Court.

Along its walls, London had six gates: Aldgate was toll free and overseen by a priory; Bishopsgate, which was eventually maintained by the Hanseatic merchants; Cripplegate, which was very old and whose gatehouse became a prison; Aldersgate, which was built just after the Conquest; Newgate,. whose gatehouse also became a notorious prison for felons and traitors; and Ludgate, which was probably originally "Floodgate" because of its proximity to the Fleet river and which also became a prison, for debtors and thieves.

The first stone London Bridge was begun 1176 and took 33 years to build; it lasted until 1832. Houses were built on it almost immediately and it became a fashionable shopping district. London’s main markets were Cheapside and East Cheap (cheap being Danish for Market) The City was dominated by St. Paul’s, which was located on a high point and featured a tall steeple (which was struck by lightning and destroyed in the 16th century). By the late 16th century, the Cathedral was somewhat neglected, with markets being held inside. Some attempts at restoration were made in the 17th century, but the Cathedral was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and the present Cathedral (which looks nothing like its predecessor) replaced it.

Copyright 1998, Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.