1902 Encyclopedia > London > British and Roman Period (to 449 A.D.)

(Part 33)


London History - British and Roman Period (to 449 A.D.)

Bishop Stillingleet, writing of London, stated that after the fullest inquiry he was inclined "to believe it of a Roman foundation, and no older than the time of Claudius" (Origines Brit. 1685, p. 43); and several antiquaries and historians hold the same opinion. Although Geoffrey of Monmouth’s vision of a great British city of Troynovant, founded by Brut, a descendant of Aeneas, must be relegated to the limb of myths, we need to necessarily dispute the existence of a British London. There can be little doubt that the name of London has a Celtic origin, and therefore there is probably a grain of truth on Geoffrey’s fanciful description. The place was probably very small, but it must have been chosen for its commanding position on the banks of a fine river, and there may be some truth in the assertion that one Belinus formed a port or haven on the site of the present Billingsgate, although it does not follow that "he also made a gate of wonderful structure," or "over it built a prodigiously large tower" (Historia, lib iii. cap. X). What a British town was like we learn from Julius Caesar, who tell us that it "was nothing more than a thick wood, fortified with a ditch and rampart, to serve as a place of retreat against the incursions of their enemies" (De Bello Gallico, v. 21). We may therefore imagine a clearing out of the great forest of Middlesex, extending probably from the site of St Paul’s Cathedral to that of the Bank of England, with the dwellings of the Britons spread about the higher ground looking down upon the Thames. The late Mr Thomas Lewin believed that London had attained its prosperity before the Romans came, and held that it was probably the capital of Cassivellaunus, which was taken and sacked by Julius Caesar. Not satisfied with affirming the existence of a British London, he went further, and indicated its extent. On the hill situated between the river Flete on the west and the Wallbrook on the east was seated the British town. The western gate was Ludgate and the eastern Dowgate, and much of Mr Lewin’s argument rests upon the fact that these two names are of British origin (Archaologia, vol. cl p. 59). The origin of London will probably always remain a subject of dispute, for want of decisive facts. A negative fact is that few if any remains of an earlier date than the Roman occupation have been discovered; but, on the other hand, London could scarcely have come to be the important commercial center described by Tacitus if it had only been founded a few years previously, and after the conquest of Claudius. Now there can be no doubt that the Britons made considerable progress during the period between Julius and Claudius, and it seems upon the whole highly probable that London as a British settlement may have come into existence then. There is some reason to believe that there were two settlements, one on the north and the other on the south bank of the Thames. If so they would be within the territories of distinct and possibly hostile tribes. There might be a ferry, and even, as we shall mention presently, a bridge of some description towards the close of the period, but this point will come before us again.

The Roman occupation of Britain extended over a period equal to that which has elapsed since Henry VIII.’s reign. During these centuries (43-409 A.D.) there was ample time for cities to grow up from small beginnings, to overflow their borders, and to be more than once rebuilt. The earliest Roman London must have been a comparatively small place, but it probably contained a military fort intended to cover the passage of the river. The mouth of the Thames was then only a few miles off, large portions of what are now the counties of Kent and Essex being marshes overflowed with water. The original investigations of Sir Christopher Wren led him to take this view, and he expressed the opinion that "the whole country between Camberwell Hill and the hills of Essex might have been a great frith or sinus of the sea, and much wider near the mouth of the Thames, which made a large plain of sand at low water, through which the river found its way. This mighty broad sand (now good meadow) was restrained by large banks still remaining, and reducing the river into its channel; a great work, of which no history gives account; the Britons were too rude to attempt it, the Saxons too much busied with continual wars; he concluded therefore it was Roman work" (Wren’s Parentalia, p. 285). The opinion that these embankments are Roman work is the one generally held, but so greatly does opinion vary on all these points that some have supposed that they were not built until the reign of Henry VI. Neither Strato nor the elder Pliny alludes to London, although they wrote on Britain, and the name does not occur in literature until used by Tacitus. That author distinctly says that London had not in 61 A.D. been dignified with the name of a colony (annual, xiv. 33). The Roman general Paullinus Suethonius, after masrching rapidly from Wales to pout down a serious insurrection, found Londinium unfitted for a basis of operations, and therefore left the place to the mercy of Boadicea, who entirely destroyed it and killed the inhabitants in large numbers. When Tacitus wrote, Verulamium and Camulodunum possessed mints, but Londinium was not so distinguished. Subsequently, however, it became a place of mintage. When the British power was finally destroyed London again grew into importance, and we find it holding an important position in the Itinerary of Antoninus, Londinium being either starting-point or a terminus in nearly half the routes described in the portion devoted to Britain. Ptolemy mentions Londinium, but places it on the south side of the Thames; this may merely be a mistake on Ptolemy’s part, but it seems more probable that he referred more particularly to Southwark, which, as has been already pointed out, may have had a distinct origin from the Londinium of the north bank of the river. Londinium was plundered in the reign of Diocletian and Maximian by the army of the usurper Allectus, but before the Franks who chiefly formed this army could fly Constantius sailed up the Thames and disembarked under the walls of the city, thus taking them by surprise. Under Julian London was the headquarters of Lupicinus in his campaign against the Scots and Pietcs; and in the reign of Valentinian, Ammianus tells us, Theododius came to London from Boulogne to mature his plan for the restoration of the tranquility of the province. It is on this occasion that Ammianus speaks twice of Londinium as an ancient town, to which the title of Augusta had been accorded. By the anonymous chorographer of Ravernna it is called Londinium Augusta. As Theodosius is said to have left Britain in a s sound and secure condition, with its dilapidated places restored, it has been supposed that to him was due the wall of the later Londonium. According to old tradition, however, Constantine the Great walled the city at the request of his mother Helena, who was said to be a native of Britain. In spite of these various references we should know very little of Roman London if it had not been that a large number of excavations have been made in different parts of the city, which have disclosed a considerable amount of early history. These go to prove that the early city occupied a somewhat small area, for it has been discovered that the site of the Royal Exchange was originally a gravel-pit, and had then become a dirty pond outside the walls used as a receptacle for refuse. Cemeteries also once existed in Cheapside, on the site of St Paul’s, close to Newgate, and various other places knows to have been included in the later Roman London. As it was illegal in Roman times to bury within the walls, these places must at one time have been extra-mural. Among the large number of important sepulchral remains lately found by Mr Taylor in Newgate Street were several ossuaria, or leaden vessels for the reception of the calcined bones of the dead. Little attention had been paid to these object until Mr Roach Smith specially alluded to them in an article on "Roman Sepulchral Remains discovered near the Minories, London" (Collectanea Antique, iii 45-62). Subsequently M r Smith wrote a very eleaborate article on "Roman Leaden Coffins and Ossuaria" (Ibid., vii 170-201), in which he refers to the wealth of the British mines as one of the chief incentives to the conquest of the country by the Romans, ands points out that the large use of the costly metal, lead, :manufactured with such skill and so profusely as to supply not only the inhabitants of the towns, but those of villages and villas, with one of the daily requisities of advanced civilization," proves the prosperity and even luxury of the province. When Sir Christopher Wren was making excavations for his building of Bow Church he sunk about 18 feet deep through made ground, when he came upon "a Roman causeway of rough stone, close and well-rammed, with Roman brick and rubbish at the bottom for a foundation, and all firmly cemented." In consequence of this discovery the great architect came to the conclusion, which was corroborated by other reasons, that the causeway he had found continued for the whole length of the town, and formed the northern boundary - "the breadth then north and south was from the causeway now Cheapside to the river Thames, the extent east and west from Tower Hill to Ludgate, and the principal middle street or Praetorian Way was Watling Street" (Parentalia, p. 265)

Although it is generally agreed that this early Roman city was comparatively small, and in form an oblong square (a Londinium quadratum), its exact situation must be a matter of conjecture. The late Mr Arthur Taylor marked out a district which should be bounded on the west by the Walbrook, on the east by Billingsgate, and on the south by the elevation of the bank of the Thames,-the northern boundary to be a line drawn below Lombard Street and Cornhill. Cannon Street and East Cheap would pass straight through the center of this enclosure, with the other streets north and south (Archaeologia, xxxiii 101). In corroboration of his views, Mr Taylor lays stress on the fact that no funeral urns have been discovered in the district he has marked out. Mr Roach Smith agrees generally with Mr Taylor, but includes a rather larger area. He writes- "I should be inclined to place the northern wall somewhere along the course of Cornhill and Leadenhall Street; the eastern, in the direction of Billiter Street and Mark Lamne; the southern, in the line of Upper and Lower Thames Street; and the western, on the eastern side of Walbrook. This suggested plan will giver the form of an irregular square, in about the center of each side of which may be placed the four main gates corresponding with Bridge Gate, Ludgate, Bishopsgate, and Aldgate," (Llust of Roman London, p. 14). The late Mr. W. H. Black, like his predecessors, takes the Walbrook as a boundary, but, instead of making it the western limit, he makes it the eastern boundary, and places his western line at Ludgate. Newgate Street and Cheapside form the main thoroughfare of his city (Archaeologia xl 41). Although Mr Black argues his case with ability, his view is open to two principal objections –(1) it leaves the site of London Bridge outside the enclosure, and (2) cemeteries have been discovered within the proposed limits. As to the date when the limits of this early London were lost sight of in the larger area of the better known Roman city, we have hardly sufficient data even to hazard a conjecture. There is reason to believe, as already stated, that the site of the Royal Exchange was outside the city until the early part of the 3d century, because coins of Vespasian, Domitian, and Severus have been found among the refuse of the gravel-pit. Mr Roach Smith suggests, however, that as no coins of the period between Domitian and Severus were found it is just possible that the plated denerius of the latter emperor may not have been found in the pit itself, but in the vicinity of the houses which were built over the pit in subsequent years. On the other hand, Sir William Tite, in describing the tessellated, pavement found in 1854 on the site of the Excise Office (Bishopsgate Street), expresses the opinion that the finished character of the pavement points to a period of security and wealth, and fixes on the reign of Hadrian (117-138 A.D.), to which the silver coin found on the floor belongs, as the date of its foundation. Of course this is not conclusive, as the pavement might have belonged to a villa outside the walls, but Sir William Tite places it within them. When the line of the walls which continued until the great fire was first planned out it is impossible to say with any certainty. Some antiquaries hold the opinion that these walls were post-Roman; but this is not the view of Mr Roach Smith, one of our greatest authorities. Mr J E. Price, after describing " bastion of London wall" discovered I nCamomile Street, Bishopsgate, arrives at "the conclusion that these interesting relics are portions of a Roman sepulchral monument which, falling into decay, became, as years rolled on, a suitable quarry for mediaeval builders, providing from its position on the spot convenient materials for the erection of a structure requiring such solidity and strength as would a bastion to the city wall." In describing the outline of the Roman city it is impossible to make ourselves intelligible unless we use names adopted subsequently. The line of the wall runs straight from the Tower to Aldgate, where it bends round somewhat to Bishopsgate. It is bordered on the east by the Minoies and Houndsditch . One of the finest remaining portion of the old wall was hidden from view a few years ago when some large buildings were erected round it. The line from Bishopsgate ran eastard to St Giles’s churchyard, where it turned to the south, as far as Falcon Square, again westerly by Aldersgate under Christs’s Hospital towards Giltspur Street, then south by Ludgate, and then down to the Thames. Mr Roach Smith points out that this enclosure gives dimensions far greater than those of any other Roman town in Britain. In 1843 a portion of the old wall was exposed to view in Playhouse Yard. Blackfriars when a Roman monument erected to a "speculator" of the second legion, named Celsus, was discovered. On the same line further north Sir Christopher Wren, while building St Martin’s, Ludgate, found a similar sepulchral monument "in the vallum of the praetorian camp" to the memory of Vivianus Marcianus, a the praetorian camp" to the memory of Vivianus Marcianus, a soldier of the second legion (Parentalia p. 266). In the year 1276 the old wall south of Ludgate was pulled down and a new one built to enclose a lager circuit further west for the benefit of the Black Friars. There appear to be strong reasons for believing that a wall ran along the south, and that the Romans did not consider the river sufficient protection. William Fitzstephen, a monk of the 12th century, who wrote the earliest description of London, mentions the walls and tower in the south, and Sir Christopher Wren also alludes to the colony being walled next the Thames (Parentalia, p. 265). The line form Lower Thames Street to Temple Street has been retrieved from the river by embankments, and in certain parts of the live the embankment was formed by substantial walling, such being found at the foot of Fish street Hill, at the end of Queen Street, and from Broken Wharf to Lambeth Hill (Tite’s Catalogue of Antiquities found in the Excavation at the New Royal Exchange, 1848, p. xxiv). Mr Roach Smith writes – "It was from 8 to 10 feet thick, and about 8 deep, reckoning the top at 9 feet from the present street level, and composed of ragstone and flint, with alternate layers of red and yellow, plain and curve-edged tiles, cemented by mortar as firm and hard as the tiles, from which it could not be separated. For the foundation strong oaken piles were used, upon which was laid a stratum of chalk and stones, and then a course of hewn sandstones from 3 to 4 feet long, by 2 _ in width" (Archaeological Journal, i. 114). The names of the gates give us no clue as to which of them existed in Roman times, but we cannot doubt that the chief traffic was carried through the city from Ludgate to Aldgate, although some antiquaries have supposed that Newgate was the chief gate on the west side, leading it would to Holborn, where Roman remains have been discovered. Bishopsgate must have been the principal outlet to the north. Mr Roach Smith has suggested that outside Newgae there was an amphitheatre but into a hill on the rising ground near what was lately the Little Old Bailey. He had often noticed the precipitious descent from Green Arbour lane opposite Newgate into Seacoal Lane and the level space by Fleet prison, and he presumed it to have been an excavation in the side of the hill. Many a smaller town than Londinium possessed a theatre in Roman times (Middle sex Arch Trans., i. 33). The name Newgate is significant of its recent erection, and it has been remarked that it stands alone among the gates as not being attached to a ward bearing the same name. It is mentioned in an ordinance of Edward I., where it is connected with Ludgate.
A question arises to the arrangement of the area included within the walls, the course of which has already been traced. There is a strong preponderance of evidence against the belief that the present line of streets follows that of Roman London to any considerable extent. Sir William Tite gave reasons for believing that Bishopsgate Street was not a Roman thoroughfare (Archaeologia, xxxvi. 203), and in the late excavations in Leadenhall Mr Loftus Brock found remains of a building which he supposed to be a basilica, apparently crossing the present thoroughfare of Grace-church Street. Sir William Tite agreed with Dr Stukeley’s suggestion that on the site of the mansion House (formerly Stocks market) stood the Roman forum, and he states that a line drawn from that spot as a center would pass by the pavements found on the site of the Excise Office. Besides the forum, Dr Stukeley suggested the sites of seven other public buildings, - the Arx Palatina, guarding the south-eastern angle of the city, where the Tower now stands, the grove and temple of Diana on the site of St Paul’s, an Episcopal residence, &c. No traces of any of these buildings have been found, and they are therefore purely conjectural. As to the temple of Diana, Wren formed an opinion strongly adverse to the old tradition of its existence (Parentalia, p. 266). Although we know that the Christian church was established in Britain during the later period of Roman domination, there is little to be learnt respecting it, and the Bishop Restitutus who is said to have attended a council on the Continent is a somewhat mythical character.

After the walls the most important points for consideration in relation to Roman London are (1) the existence of abridge, and (2) the purpose of the London Stone.

1.Dion Cassius, who lived in the early part of the 3d century (Hist Rom., lib. lx. C. 20), states that there was a bridge over the Thames at the time of the4 invasion of Claudius (43 .A.D.), but he places it a little above the mouth of the river ("higher up"). The position is vague, but, as already stated, the mouth of the Thames in these early times may be considered as not far from where London Bridge now stands. Sir George Airy holds that this bridge was not far from the site of London Bridge (Proceedings of Institut. Civil Engineers, xiix. 210), but Dr Guest was not prepared to allow that the Britons were able to construct a bridge over a tidal river such as the Thames, some 300 yards wide, with a difference of level at high and low water of nearly 20 feet. He therefore suggested that the bridge was constructed over the marshy valley of the Lea, probably neat Straford. It needs some temerity of differ from so great an authority as the late Dr Gust, but it does strike one as rather surprising that, having accepted the fact of a bridge made by the Britons, he should deny that these Britons possessed a town or village in the place to which he supposes that Aulus Plautius retired. It may be considered certain that there was no bridge over the Thames in the time of Julius Caesar; for he would not have marched his troops all the way to Coway Stakes in search of a ford if he could have crossed by a bridge at London.

As the Welsh word for "bridge" is "pot," and this was taken directly from the Latin, the inference is almost conclusive that the Britons acquired their knowledge of bridges from the Romans. Looking at the stage of culture which the Britons had probably reached, it would further be a natural inference that there was no such thing as a bridge anywhere in Britain before the Roman occupation; but if Dion’s statement is correct, it may be suggested as a possible explanation that the increased intercourse with Gaul during the hundred years that elapsed between Julius Caesar’s raids and Claudius Caesar’s invasion may have led to the construction of a bridge of some kind across the Thames at this point, through the influence and under the guidance of Roman traders and engineers. If so, the word "pont" may have been borrowed by the Britons before the commencement of the Roman occupation. Much stronger are the reasons for believing that there was a bridge in Roman times. Remains of Roman villas are found in Southwark, which was evidently a portion of Londinium, and it therefore hardly seems likely that a bridge-building people such as the Romans would remain contented with a ferry. Mr Roach Smith is a strong advocate for the bridge, and remarks. "It would naturally be erected somewhere in the direct line of road into Kent, which I cannot but think pointed towards the site of Old London Bridge, both from its central situation, from the general absence of the foundations of buildings in the approaches on the northern side, and from discoveries recently made in the Thames on the line of the old bridge" (Archaeologia, xxix. 160). Mr Smith has, however, still stronger arguments, which he states as follows: - "Throughout the entire line of the old bridge, the bed of the river was found to contain ancient wooden piles; and, when these piles, subsequently to the erection of the new bridge, were pulled up to deepen the channel of the river, many thousands of Roman coins, with abundance of broken Roman tiles and pottery, were discovered, and immediately beneath some of the central piles brass medallions of Aurelius, Faustina, and Commondus. All these remains are indicative of a bridge. The enormous quantities of Roman coins may be accounted for by consideration of the well-known practice of the Romans to make these imperishable monuments subservient towards perpetuating the memory, not only of their conquests, but also of those public works which were the natural result of their successes in remote parts of the world. They may have been deposited either upon the building or repairs of the bridge, as well as upon the accession of a new emperor" (Archaeological Journal, i. 113).

2. The "London Stone" has very generally been supposed to be a "milliarium" or central point for measuring distances, but Sir Christopher Wren believed it was part of some more considerable monuments in the forum, and his reason for this belief was that "in the adjoining ground on the south side (upon digging for cellars after the great fire) were discovered some tessellated pavements and other extensive remains of Roman workmanship and buildings" (Parentalia, pp. 265,266). King, in his Munimenta Antiqua, writes – "London Stone, preserved with such reverential through so many ages, and now having its top encased within another stone in Cannon Street, was plainly deemed a record of the highest antiquity of some still more important kind; though we are present unacquainted with the original intent and purport for which it was placed. It is fixed at present close under the south wall of St Swithin’s Church, but was formerly a little nearer the channel facing the same place,- which seems to prove its having had some more ancient and peculiar designation than that of having been a Roman military, even if it were ever used for that purpose afterwards. It was fixed deep in the ground, and is mentioned so early as the time of Atheistan, king of the West Saxons, without any particular reference to its having been considered as a Roman milliary stone." Holinshed (who was followed by Shakespeare in 2 Henry VI., act 4 sc. 6) tells us that when Cade, in 1450, forced his way into London, he first of all proceeded to London Stone, and having struck his sword upon it, said in reference to himself and in explanation of his own action, "Now is Mortimer lord f this city." Mr H.C. Coote, in a paper published in the Trans. London and Middlesex Arch. Soc. For 1878, points out that this act meant something to the mob who followed the rebel chief, and was not a piece of foolish acting. Mr G.I. Gomme (Primitive Folk-Moots, pp. 155,156) takes up the matter at this point, and places the tradition implied by Cade’s significant action as belonging to times when the London Stone was, as other great stones were, the place where the suitors of an open-air assembly was accustomed to gather together and to legislate for the government of the city. Corroborative facts have been gathered from other parts of the country, and, although more evidence is required, such as we have is strongly in favor of the supposition that the London Stone is a prehistoric monument.

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