By The London Historian
I sat down to write my article for January and drew a blank. The excesses of the Christmas season had caused a major case of writer’s block. I wandered around the turkey-flambéed recesses of my brain trying to find a proverbial hook on which to hang the month’s musings. All I could think of was resolution; resolve…resolution and the start of a new year. We all know someone who will be striving for sobriety going in to 2015, or a diet that you’ll be reminded of after every bite of their Ryvita. In a moment of desperation I tip-toed into researching London-past’s periods of tobacco manufacturing in East London and how it was Sir John Hawkins, or possibly Richard Grenville, who brought the plant to these shores and not Sir Francis Drake or Sir Walter Raleigh. Or how London has survived, nay flourished and come close to destruction on beer, gin, and other intoxicating ways to escape the pressures of city life. There forth was the line drawn under that article narrative. Leave the detoxing and diets to ‘that guy’ or gal. True Londoners don’t need the first of January to be forced into the gym and out of the pub. True Londoners need another resolution – a resolution that honors this great city we live in. The resolution I put to you in 2015 is to make the time, now, to ‘discover something new about something old’. This is a call to arms to explore, seek answers, look up, look down and choose your target from the 2,000 years of civilisation before us.
What better place to start than at 111 Cannon Street. Here you will find an ugly office block with a branch of WHSmith currently occupying the ground floor. However, in the centre of the shop front there is an innocuous looking iron grill containing a block of Clipsham limestone about 21 inches (53cm) wide, 17 inches (43cm) high and 12 inches (30cm) front to back. Bear with me! This is the resting place of The London Stone, one of the city’s greatest mysteries and the oldest part of the city still visible outside of a museum.
The name “London Stone” was first mentioned in around 1100AD but actually dates back to Roman Londinium. The ancient relic was originally situated on the south side of medieval Candlewick Street (since widened to create modern Cannon Street) opposite the west end of St Swithin’s Church. The Stone was badly charred by the Great Fire and by 1742 it was considered an obstruction to traffic and moved to the outer wall of Wren’s newly designed St. Swithins Church. Swithin, the patron saint of Winchester Cathedral, will be known to those who pay attention to the weather on his feast day (15 July), as tradition says that it will continue for forty days. The Stone, having survived the Great Fire and town planning improvements, remained in the burnt out shell of St. Swithins following the Blitz of the 1940s. The remains of the then 220 year old building were pulled down in 1962, when the stone was moved to its current position.
After surviving all that it’s no wonder that the London Stone has held a special place in the hearts of Londoners over the ages. In fact, in my opinion the London Stone is going through its longest period of insignificance in 900 years. The reason for the Stone’s rise to infamy in the Middle Ages is unclear, but this has not lessened the speculation over the centuries and attracted legend to take its hold and inspired a plethora of notions. One of the earliest mentions of the London Stone was in a book of unknown title from the early 16th century. In it’s description of London the author writes, “Along the Thames is this wall at first ranged, and with two gates opened, the one Doure-gate, now Dowgate, and the other Billingsgate, a receptacle for ships. In the midst of this wall was set a mile-marke (as the like was in Rome), from whence were measured their stations, for carriage or otherwise, the same as yet standeth, and hath beene long knowne by the name of London Stone”.
The theory of a mile-mark remains the most feasible theory but this has not satisfied everyone in their quest for solving the Stone’s mystery. It is unclear why, when after abandoning nearby Lundenwic (Covent Garden area) and retreating to the old Romans walls, the Saxons paid particular reverence to this piece of stone amongst the ruins. The bane of historians throughout the ages is that the information relating to this time in London’s history remains scant at best.
Even as recently as 2008 The London Encyclopedia printed, “more likely it is merely the rounded top of a stone from the nearby Roman Building”. The reason being that archeologists had discovered what they thought was the Governors Palace under Cannon Street Station, It in fact turned out to be an administrative building with no evidence to suggest it was ever the governor’s residence. Another theory was that the stone was named after the house of Henry Fitz-Ailwin de Londonestone (c. 1135 – 1212) the first Mayor of London. Later research indicates that Henry’s father had in fact adopted the surname FROM the Stone and not the other way around. Before the Norman Conquest of Britain, people did not have hereditary surnames: they were known just by a personal name or nickname. As the population increased, it gradually became necessary to identify people further – leading to names such as John the butcher, William the short, Henry from Sutton, Mary of the wood, Roger son of Richard etc.
London Stone was such a well-known landmark in medieval London that when in 1450 Jack Cade, led a rebellion against Henry VI he entered the city and struck his sword on London Stone and claimed to be “Lord of this city”. This was dramatised by William Shakespeare in his play, Henry VI Part 2, at a time when the London Stone was not only detailed on maps as a landmark but was a tourist attraction in it’s own right. The rumours and stories were plenty with some saying that it pre dated the Romans and inspired this charming poem from 1866 “In passing on to London Bridge, the right hand going down. ‘Tis there you’ll see a pitching block and underneath a stone.
That was, they say, before King Lud, or Trinovantes (one of the Celtictribes of pre-Roman Britain) known: And is so old, they’ve christened it The Cockney’s London Stone.”
An 1868 article, echoing my own thoughts, writes “It seems very surprising that so great a piece of antiquity has been constantly preserved with such care; and yet so little has been said of it that that cause of its erection, and the use for which it was intended, are entirely unknown”. Some said that the Stone was “set [up] for the tendering and making of payment by debtors”. A story assisted in 1671 by The Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers who recorded that “…English spectacles, all very badd both in the glasse and frames not fitt to be put on sale… were seized and taken away” and “by judgment of the Court condemned to be broken, defaced and spoyled both glasse and frame” “on the remayning parte of London Stone where the same were with a hammer broken all in pieces”. The punishment of flogging crappy eyewear to London was conducted on the very stone that carries the city’s name.
There are some rather more elaborate (half-baked) suggestions regarding the London Stone; that it was an object of Druid worship, or London’s “Palladium” protecting the city and it’s well being. The saying went that “So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long shall London flourish”. This was a wholly embellished story put forward by someone to further his own gains. As dubious as those who claim the relic to be London’s “fetish stone” (an object believed to have supernatural powers), a “mark-stone” on several ley lines passing through central London, or the stone from which King Arthur pulled the sword to reveal that he was rightful king.
In my mind, the fact that we don’t know the purpose of the Stone is the very reason why it should be celebrated. The London Stone is an ancient reminder of the power of folklore and legend. Man may not have placed the stone with a higher purpose, but its reverence has been adhered to by Londoners over the centuries and that makes the origins pale in significance compared to the quasi-reality built up around it. Traffic bollard, milestone, ancient building block, ritual pillar… it doesn’t matter. This is The London Stone, the stone of the people and the stone of the greatest city in the world (biased? Yes!). Even if you take it at base level, this is the oldest item on London’s streets and has survived conflagration, war, pollution, removal and disregard.
Next time your friend is in town, take them to see our Stone. Or, if the Stone is not your thing then you can always take a trip to Totteridge church where you can find ‘London’s oldest tree’ – an ancient Yew tree, dated as 2,000 years old by specialists. Or visit St Bartholomew the Great in West Smithfield (London’s oldest Church in use since 1143),Bevis Marks (the capital’s longest-serving synagogue since 1702) or the Fazl Mosque in Southfields (inaugurated in 1926). London’s oldest continuous residence is at 41-42 Cloth Fair in West Smithfield and having survived the Great Fire, German bombs and developers’ bulldozers alike has had some famous visitors including the Queen Mother, Winston Churchill and the poet John Betjeman who have etched their signatures into a second floor window.
Whatever you choose to explore, make 2015 the year to discover something new about something old. Use the hashtag #MaybeHistoryResolution to share your finds on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.