Things to see and do - London
Leaving for Great Britain
Unmissable tourist sites
London Leisure tips
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The strategic importance of the site of London as a bridgehead and trading port was recognised by the Romans almost two millenia ago.
Celts and Vikings
When the Romans invaded Britain, a Celtic fishing village had already existed since the 5C BC on the north bank of the Thames. The Romans built on the twin hills above the river crossing and Londinium grew into a major town defended by walls, with a permanent stone bridge over the Thames. The decline of the Roman Empire left the city open to Saxon and Viking invasions.
43 – Roman Londinium founded.
60 – Revolt against the Romans by Queen Boudicca.
2C – Roman wall constructed.
5C – Londinium evacuated by the Romans.
8C-10C – Viking raids and Barbarian invasions.
Saxons and Normans
Trade continued throughout the Dark Ages, despite the siege and fire of Germanic and Danish invasions. In the 8C London was recognised as the “mart of many nations by land and sea”. Under Alfred for a brief period the kingdom was united and London was constituted a major city but an attempt to establish the metropolitan see in London was unsuccessful. Slowly the City developed into an ordered and rich community. In the 11C, when King Canute exacted tribute, the citizens contributed £10 500, an eighth of the total paid by the whole of England. The last Saxon king, Edward the Confessor , on being elected King by the people of the City of London, went upstream to Westminster ; here he rebuilt the abbey and constructed a royal palace; since then the monarch and parliament have been separate from the business community in the City.
Two months after the Battle of Hastings (1066), the citizens of London submitted to William the Conqueror , Duke of Normandy, who was crowned as William I and soon built the Tower of London, Baynard’s Castle and Mountfichet Castle on the river east and west of the City, less to defend it against future invaders than to deter the citizens from reconsidering their submission.
1016 – Edmund Ironside elected King by the assembly (gemut) of London; died the same year; succeeded by Canute .
1042-66 – Reign of Edward the Confessor .
1065 – Westminster Abbey founded.
1066 – Norman invasion. Coronation of William I. First royal charter granted to the City, whereby government, laws and dues devolved directly upon the citizens themselves.
1066-87 – Reign of William I ( William the Conqueror ).
1067-97 – Construction of the Tower of London.
1087-1100 – Reign of William II (Rufus).
1087 – Construction of Westminster Hall.
1100-35 – Reign of Henry I; Royal Charter granted to the City.
1135-54 – Reign of Stephen.
1136 – St Paul’s Cathedral and many wooden houses destroyed by fire.
The Roman wall, which had fallen into decay was rebuilt in the Middle Ages largely on the original foundations with an extension to the west; ruined sections are visible at London Wall and by the Tower.
In 1215, under King John, Londoners were empowered to elect annually their own mayor (elsewhere a royal appointee) who had only to submit himself formally at Westminster for royal approval; this was the origin of the Lord Mayor’s Show.
By the 13C the City of London had become a rich port and the capital of the kingdom.The wealthy City merchants loaned or gave money to Edward III and Henry V for wars on the Continent and, apart from the risings of Wat Tyler and Jack Cade, kept clear of strife, even during the Wars of the Roses. Indeed, the City never encroached on Westminster; with a few notable exceptions, citizens held no office under the Crown or Parliament. Many of the merchants, insurance brokers and bankers were related to landed families; younger sons, such as Richard Whittington (d. 1423), and the Hanseatics, who had arrived by 1157, were sent to seek their fortune in the City: they traded in everything and anything, particularly wool and cloth, building great timber-framed and gabled mansions and buying country estates in the West End and the outskirts of London.
Many monasteries and magnificent churches were erected in the City of London by the religious orders. The Dominicans, who arrived in England in 1221 constructed Blackfriars in 1276; the Franciscans (1224) began Greyfriars Church in Newgate in 1306; the Carmelites (1241) had a house off Fleet Street; the Austin friars (1253) settled near Moorgate; St John’s Priory, the London Charterhouse and Rahere’s priory with St Bartholomew’s medical school were established on the north side of the City. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1539) Henry VIII seized their riches, destroyed the buildings and nominated himself as refounder of the hospitals – St Bartholomew’s and Bedlam; this did not spoil his relations with the City, which became the home of the royal wardrobe. Under Edward VI St Paul’s Cathedral, one of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe, was stripped of its holy statues and remaining riches.
1154-89 – Reign of Henry II.
1157 – Arrival of Hanseatic merchants in the City of London.
1189-99 – Reign of Richard I (Richard the Lionheart).
1192 – Election of Henry Fitzailwin as first Mayor of the City.
1199-1216 – Reign of John (Lackland).
1209 – Construction of the first stone bridge (London Bridge) replacing the Roman bridge.
1215 – Magna Carta signed by King John at Runnymede, under pressure from his rebellious barons.
1216-72 – Reign of Henry III.
1224 – Law courts established at Westminster.
1290 – Jews banished from the City of London.
1272-1377 – Reigns of Edward I (1272–1307), Edward II (1307–27) and Edward III (1327–77).
1349 – Black Death: population of London reduced by half to 30 000.
1337-1453 – The Hundred Years‘ War between England and France began during the reign of Edward III and ended during the reign of Henry VI.
1377-99 – Reign of Richard II.
1381 – The Peasants’ Revolt led by Wat Tyler.
1399-1461 – Reigns of Henry IV (1399–1413), Henry V (1413–22).
1450 – Rebellion of the men of Kent headed by Jack Cade; they occupied London for three days.
1453 – Wars of the Roses between Lancaster and York; Henry VI imprisoned in the Tower of London.
1461-83 – Reign of Edward IV.
1476 – First English printing press set up at Westminster by William Caxton.
1483 – Edward IV’s sons assassinated (The Little Princes in the Tower).
1483-85 – Reigns of Edward V (1483) and Richard III (1483–85).
1485 – The battle of Bosworth marked the end of the Wars of the Roses and the beginning of the reign of Henry VII, the first Tudor King.
The reign of Elizabeth I dominated the second half of the 16C and marked the capital’s golden age: demographic, urban and economic expansion, as well as cultural revival, particularly in literature.
Queen Elizabeth I, in whose reign the population doubled, passed the first of many Acts prohibiting the erection of any new houses within 3mi/5km of the City Gates. The reason for the royal alarm was twofold; it was feared that the newcomers, poor country people, might easily be led into rebellion and that water supplies, sewerage and burial grounds were inadequate. These and later decrees were, however, largely ignored or circumvented.
The Queen tried vainly to curb the growth of suburbs outside the walls. James I, however, subsidised the New River scheme which brought fresh water to the street standards.
In the age of exploration the City raised loans and fitted out and financed merchant venturers. The Elizabethan navigators were knighted by the Queen but the funds for the voyages of Drake, Frobisher, Hawkins and Raleigh were raised by the City. The aim of the adventurers was to make their fortune, of the City to establish trading posts. The result was a worldwide empire.
In 1600, under a charter of incorporation, Queen Elizabeth I granted a monopoly of trade between England and India to a new undertaking, the East India Company .
1509-1547 – Reign of Henry VIII.
1530 – Construction of St James’s Palace.
1536 – Beheading of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII.
1536-39 – Reformation : Papal authority rejected by the English Church; suppression of the monasteries.
1547-58 – Reigns of Edward VI (1547–53) and Mary I (1553–58).
1555 – Restoration of Catholicism during the reign of Mary I (Bloody Mary). Execution at Smithfield of 300 Protestants. Founding of the Muscovy Company.
1558 – Population 100 000.
1558-1603 – Reign of Elizabeth I (Good Queen Bess, the Virgin Queen).
1567 – First Exchange established in the City.
1581 – Founding of the Turkey (later Levant) Company.
1599 – Inauguration of the original Globe Theatre in Southwark.
1600 – Charter of incorporation granted to the East India Company .
The Civil War and the Restoration
Conflict between the King and parliament led to civil war. The City merchants sided with Oliver Cromwell and his supporters against Charles I, who was always forcing loans, applying restrictions to trade and requiring gifts, ship money and tonnage.
The Jews, who had been banished in the late 13C, returned in strength during the Commonwealth (1649–60), a republic established by Cromwell after the execution of the King.
During the second half of the 17C, London was devastated first by the Great Plague , which killed almost one-fifth of the population, and, a year later, by the worst fire in the history of the capital.
The Great Fire (1666), which burned for four days, destroyed four-fifths of the buildings within the City walls. The Act for Rebuilding the City of London of 1667 stipulated that all future structures, houses included, should be of brick, thus reducing the risk of fire.
Christopher Wren was the main architect in charge of rebuilding the City. His great achievement was undoubtedly St Paul’s Cathedral , but he also rebuilt many of the City’s churches with money granted under acts of parliament, which increased the dues on coal entering the Port of London.
1605 – The Gunpowder Plot .
1616 – Queen’s House at Greenwich, the first Classical building in England, was designed by Inigo Jones.
1635 – Completion of the Covent Garden district.
1642 – The beginning of the Civil War: Charles I opposed by Parliament; Royalists confront Roundheads at Turnham Green.
1649 – Execution of Charles I on Tuesday 30 January 1649 outside the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall.
1649-60 – Commonwealth .
1653 – Cromwell named Lord Protector of the Commonwealth.
1660 – Restoration .
1660-85 – Reign of Charles II (the Merry Monarch, the Black Boy).
1660 – Royal warrants permitting theatre performances in Covent Garden.
1661 – Design of Bloomsbury Square, the first London square.
1665 – Great Plague : records give the total mortality as 75 000 out of a population of 460 000, rapidly spreading through London from St Giles-in-the-Fields and causing the most deaths in the poorest, most over-crowded districts on the outskirts of the City (Stepney, Shoreditch, Clerkenwell, Cripplegate and Westminster). In June 1665 the king and the Court left London, only to return the following February; Parliament met briefly in Oxford. A vivid account of these events is given by Daniel Defoe in his Journal of the Plague Year (1722).
1666 – Publication of the first London newspaper.
1666 – The Great Fire of London (2–5 September) destroyed four-fifths of the City: St Paul’s Cathedral, 87 parish churches, most of the civic buildings and over 13 000 houses.
1666-1723 – Reconstruction of St Paul’s Cathedral and the City churches by Sir Christopher Wren.
1670 – The founding of the Hudson Bay Company , with a monopoly that lasted until 1859 in the fur trade with the North American Indians, led to British rule in Canada.
1682 – The Royal Hospital in Chelsea is founded for veteran soldiers.
1685 – Arrival of Huguenot refugees from France following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.
1688 – Glorious Revolution: flight into exile of James II; crown offered to William of Orange.
1689-1702 – Reigns of William III and Mary II until her death in 1694 and then of William alone.
1694 – Founding of the Bank of England.
1700 – Population 670 000.
1702 – Publication of the Daily Courant newspaper.
As the London merchants established trading posts abroad, great changes were simultaneously evolving at home as a result of the Industrial Revolution. By the mid-18C people hitherto employed in agriculture were moving into London to work in the new factories and settling east of the City in dockland, which came to be known as the East End . By contrast, fashionable society migrated westwards resulting in the development of the West End with its life of elegance and leisure.
Improved methods of transport were developed. All roads and railways, both literally and metaphorically, converged on London. Easier travel led to the development of the London Season , as men coming to London on business brought their wives and particularly their grown-up daughters in search of husbands.
In the 18C, during the Age of Enlightenment , the city began to develop from a community of merchants, bankers and craftsmen into a forum for men of letters and the arts.
1714-1830 – Reigns of George I (1714–27), George II (1727–60), George III (1760–1820) and George IV (1820–30).
1750 – Construction of Westminster Bridge.
1753 – British Museum established.
1756-63 – Seven Years‘ War.
1775-83 – American War of Independence.
1780 – Gordon Riots against Roman Catholics.
1801 – First census: population 1 100 000.
1811-20 – Reign of the future George IV as Prince Regent.
1812 – Regent Street created by John Nash .
1824 – Opening of the National Gallery.
1828 – Founding of University College.
1831 – Founding of King’s College.
1836 – University of London incorporated by charter as an examining body.
In the 19C as more bridges were built and traffic increased, new wide streets were created to relieve congestion: King William Street as a direct route from the Bank of England to the new London Bridge; Queen Victoria Street, the first street to be lit by electricity.
One of the problems brought on by overpopulation was the Great Stink which caused engineer Joseph Bazalgette to design London’s sewer system, with over 1 000 miles of tunnels and drains.
Public transport was developed through the introduction of omnibuses and the first underground railway.
Several prestigious museums were built and London hosted the first World Fair.
1837-1901 – Reign of Queen Victoria.
1835-60 – Reconstruction of the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament).
1851 – First World Fair in Hyde Park. Population 2.7 million.
1852 – Founding of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
1856-1909 – Building of the South Kensington museums.
1860 – Horse-drawn trams introduced.
1863 – First underground railway excavated.
1888 – Jack the Ripper stalks the East End, murdering five prostitutes.
1894 – Opening of Tower Bridge.
1897 – First omnibuses (buses) introduced.
20th Century to today
The first half of the 20C was marked by a spectacular increase in the population of London, which reached almost nine million on the eve of World War II. At the same time a large proportion of Londoners settled in the suburbs . The 1930s saw economic depression and social unrest with an unprecedented rate of unemployment.
In 1940–41, at the beginning of World War II, German air raids concentrated on London left the City and the East End in ruins for over a decade. In the 1950s the importance of the Port of London faded: her smog-inducing industries were relocated and the demands for warehousing and docking dwindled. Instead efforts were concentrated on the service industries: company administration, banking, commerce, insurance.
Post-war London offered a contrast of moods: the late fifties, marred by race riots, were followed by the carefree Swinging Sixties , which in turn gave way to the aggressive punk rock culture of the seventies against a background of IRA bombings.
In the past decades, the City has changed beyond recognition as a result of the “Big Bang” reforms of the 1980s (computerised share dealing, monitoring of transactions and investment business by government-appointed regulators, removal of restrictions on foreign ownership); the rise and fall of Lloyd’s of London; Black Monday (the collapse of the London Stock Exchange in 1987) and other financial crises; the collapse of venerable banking institutions; foreign takeovers; Bank of England independence; and the growth of the European Union. In view of these developments there is a determination to reassert the City’s pre-eminence by forging new alliances in Europe. London remains, for now, one of the greatest financial and business centres in the world.
The City is governed by the Corporation of London , which acts through the Court of Common Council. The latter, numbering 25 Aldermen and 159 Councilmen, who represent the different wards, is presided over by the Lord Mayor and meets in Guildhall. It has its own police force. Territorial boundaries are marked by the winged dragon of St George and street signs bear the City coat of arms.
At the dawn of the 21C London is still evolving . The double centre remains the City of London for business and Westminster for politics.
To the outward eye the villages may have coalesced into a great urban sprawl but they are claimed with local pride by their residents. During World War II, the City and the East End suffered greatly from bombing but, as in previous periods, new amenities in tune with the age have risen from the ruins. The docks, which stimulated the growth of the city have mostly been replaced by modern industries driven by the latest technology and by the financial sector expanding east from the City and massive areas of dormitory accommodation in converted riverfront warehouses.
The East End will also be the area to benefit most from London’s successful bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games , with the games and a Channel Tunnel rail link based at Stratford. Development is booming, although Londoners struggle under a mountain of debt thanks to some of the world’s highest property prices, increasingly high transport and living costs.
It is, of course, the inhabitants of London who make “London town”: Londoners born and bred, adopted Londoners from the provinces, refugees from political persecution abroad (14C–17C Flemish and French Huguenots, political theorists such as Marx and Engels, post-war ex-monarchs, 20C Chileans and Ugandan Asians) or economic immigrants attracted by a higher standard of living (from the Commonwealth), men and women who achieve international recognition as artists and actors, writers and statesmen, high-flying business men and women, and the nameless millions who ply their daily trade with wit and humour.
1901-10 – Reign of Edward VII.
1901 – Population 6.6 million.
1909 – Establishment of the Port of London Authority to manage the docks.
1910-36 – Reign of George V.
1914-18 – Zeppelin raids on London.
1918 – After years of campaigning by the Suffragette movement, led by the Pankhurst family, women over 30 get the vote for the first time.
1919 – American-born Nancy Astor becomes Britain’s first woman MP.
1933 – Establishment of London Transport to coordinate public transport: underground, bus and railway.
1936 – Accession and abdication of Edward VIII.
1936-52 – Reign of George VI.
1938 – Establishment of the Green Belt to protect land from development.
1939 – Population 8.61 million.
1940-41 – London Blitz (aerial bombardment of London) began in 1940 after the British retreat from Dunkerque (Dunkirk) and the Battle of Britain. The first heavy raids on London by the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) began on 7 September; for 57 consecutive nights hundreds of bombers flew over London dropping heavy explosive or incendiary bombs. Only adverse weather conditions brought respite.
1951 – The Festival of Britain , an echo of the Great Exhibition of 1851, was promoted as a “tonic to the nation” to bring colour, light and fun to the postwar scene.
1952 – Elizabeth II is crowned Queen.
1958 – First women peers introduced to the House of Lords. Gatwick Airport opened.
1966 – Founding of the City University.
1971 – 15 February: introduction of decimal coinage.
1975 – Population 7 million.
1976 – National Theatre opens.
1979 – Margaret Thatcher elected the first woman Prime Minister.
1981 – London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) set up to regenerate the redundant London Docks. First London Marathon run. Violent confrontations in London betweeen Punks and National Front. Marriage of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer at St Paul’s Cathedral.
1982 – Barbican Centre opened in the City of London; Thames Barrier raised.
1986 – Deregulation of trading on the Stock Exchange. Abolition of the Greater London Council.
1988 – Jets begin landing at City Airport.
1995 – Opening of the Channel Tunnel, linking Britain with continental Europe for the first time.
1995 – National Lottery launched.
1996 – After 700 years the Stone of Scone returns to Scotland.
1997 – Inauguration of the British Library, St Pancras. Opening of the Globe Theatre.
1–6 September: London mourns Diana, Princess of Wales.
1999-2000 – London gains new landmarks to mark the third Millennium: Dome (Greenwich), Jubilee Line extension, Millennium Bridge and Tate Modern (Bankside), London Eye (South Bank).
2000 – Ken Livingstone becomes the first elected Mayor of London, with an elected Greater London Assembly.
2005 – London wins the bid for the 2012 Olympic Games leading to massive redevelopment of east London. 7 July: 7/7 Bombings.
Prince Charles marries Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. Population 7 600 000.
2006 – Queen celebrates her 80th birthday.
Population 7.56 million
2007 - Tony Blair stands down as Prime Minister. Gordon Brown is appointed in his place through an internal Labour party election, before the general election is held. International Eurostar rail services move to St Pancras.
2008 – Conservative MP Boris Johnson defeats Labour MP Ken Livingstone in the Mayoral election.
2009 – Iconic music venue, The Astoria, closes after 33 years.