The Romans left at the beginning of the 5th Century as the Roman Empire crumbled, leaving London largely deserted. Britain was invaded by the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes (who came from Holland, Germany and Denmark). These Anglo-Saxons were farmers and tended to live outside big towns. We know very little about what happened to London in this period.
By the beginning of the 7th Century the city had become important enough to justify the building of a cathedral, St Paul’s.
We know very little about London for a few hundred years, although during the 9th and 10th Centuries there were many attacks by the Vikings.
“London Bridge is falling down, Falling down, falling down, London Bridge is falling down, My fair lady.”
Soon afterwards, the Normans invaded from France and William I (William the Conqueror) took control. He quickly began to build a stronghold to guard London – the Tower of London. The Tower has been used as a castle and a palace, a zoo and a weapons store, a mint (where coins are made) and a prison.
London was the centre of trade and government under the Tudor monarchs. We know that there were about 200,000 people living in London by 1600. There were three main areas of population: within the old City walls, in the nearby town of Westminster, and on the south side of the river, in Southwark. Most of London as we know it today was still fields. The Tudors established a number of palaces in London and the area around, and also made deer parks so that they could indulge in their favourite occupation of hunting. You can still see deer in Richmond Park, in south London.
The river Thames was very important in Tudor times as Britain’s navy was expanded. Dockyards were built and ships were sent to explore the world – the Americas and India, for example.
The first theatres were built in London during this time. The most famous is of course The Globe, in which Shakespeare owned a share. His plays were performed there. The original theatre was burnt down in 1613 and immediately rebuilt, but closed by the Puritans in 1642. In the 1990s a new Globe Theatre was built, as close to the original as possible, and thrives with constant productions of Shakespeare’s plays.
A small fire, accidentally started in Pudding Lane in the City of London in September of 1666, was the cause of an enormous fire which lasted four days and wiped out 80% of London. Amazingly, very few people lost their lives, but buildings which had been crammed very close together and were made of wood were easily destroyed. After the fire all new buildings were made of stone and brick.
Britain was a very powerful nation in the 18th Century and London, with its trading capabilities, was the centre of its power. Goods were brought into London from all over the world. During this century, London also became an important financial centre. Much of the business of the day was done in coffee houses in the Square Mile, especially in Exchange Alley, the site of London’s stock exchange.
Many of the buildings in London today were built in Victorian times. The most famous is probably the Houses of Parliament, built in 1834 after a fire destroyed the original buildings. Many many people live in houses built during Queen Victoria’s reign. The population of London exploded and the boundaries of the City spread outward.
London had the first ever underground railway (The Tube) which opened in 1862.
London continued to grow both in population and spread during the 20th Century. Between 1919 and 1939, built-up London doubled in size as the suburbs were extended.
Shopping had always been good in London, but big department stores were built in the early part of the Century (Harrods and Selfridges), these were the first of their kind!
There was a lot of damage to London during the Second World War, with some of the worst damage being done to the City, around (and including) St Paul’s Cathedral. You can often tell where a bomb landed by the fact that there is a modern building surrounded by older (usually Victorian) buildings. During the Blitz, many people took shelter in the underground railway stations.
Londoners marked the end of the century by building The Millennium Wheel, or “London Eye”, a huge Ferris wheel overhanging the river Thames which gives far-reaching views of London. It is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. A huge exhibition centre, the “Millennium Dome” was also built.
Another one of London’s most famous landmarks, the Tower of London is a remarkable fortress standing majestically on the North Bank of River Thames. A highly significant part of England’s history, Tower of London houses several exhibits including the magnificent crown jewels and the coveted Koh-I-Noor.
Also worth a watch is the Ceremony of the Keys, the locking up of the towers, which has been performed every night from the past 800 years. The ceremony is extremely popular among foreign tourists, as such; it is advised to book tickets well in advance.
Your trip to London is incomplete without a visit to the Queen’s London home. If you happen to be in London during the summers, you can tour the 19 State Rooms, magnificently decorated with some of the greatest treasures from the Royal collection. The Picture Gallery features works by Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Canaletto.
Be a part of the famous British ceremony of Changing the Guard that takes place outside the Buckingham Palace. It takes place daily from May to July and on alternate days from August to March at 11:30 am. Reach early so that you can catch this wonderful spectacle of the choreographed marching of the guards in their bright red uniforms and bearskin hats.
The lively Trafalgar Square is in many ways the centre of London, playing host to a variety of activities including celebrations like the Royal Wedding, Olympics One-year-to-go celebrations, St. Patrick’s Day and Chinese New Year; filming and photography; and rallies and marches.
At the centre is the 52 metre high Nelson’s Column, standing since 1843, and guarded by four gigantic lion statues at its base. Christmas in Trafalgar Square is an experience in itself with carolling and festive events centred around the majestic Christmas Tree, an annual gift from the people of Oslo, as a token of gratitude for British support during World War II.
Marble Arch, the elegant white marble monument that stands at the traffic junction of Oxford Street, Park Lane and Edgware Road was once the main entrance to the Buckingham Palace. The arch also gives its name to the area where it is situated and the design is based on the Arch of Constantine in Rome. A short walk from here is Hyde Park.
Big Ben is the nickname of the Great Bell of Westminster, and often extended to refer to the clock and the clock tower, officially known as Elizabeth Tower. It is one of the most recognizable sights of London and possibly the most famous clock face in the world. It is the name given to the enormous bell in the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster, which weighs more than 13 tons. Standing at a height of 96 metres, the iconic tower has 4 clocks that are 7 metres in diameter.
Here is a fun fact: the Big Ben has rarely stopped, and even after a bomb destroyed the Commons chamber during World War II, the clock tower survived and the Big Ben continued to function. You will also have the chance to visit the mechanism room and see how the clock functions.