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The founding of the City of London - Londinium

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Londinium - The Roman beginnings of the Square Mile

It began to Claudiustake shape over two thousand years ago when the Emperor Claudius sent his army to conquer Britain and turn a patch of grassy marshland dominated by two hills into a fortified city on the banks of the River Thames. A few centuries later it would be a thriving commercial settlement surrounded by great stone walls and ditches with large city gates being the only access. This roman city covered an area of approximately one square mile. The City itself is still referred to today as "The Square Mile" even though the rest of the capital has spread out many miles beyond.
Because this section of London’s history is so far behind us it is easy to forget the influence that the Romans had on the City and indeed we may wonder if there would ever have been a London at all if it had not been for them. They occupied us for more than four hundred years, around a fifth of our total history to date! If they were leaving now (20018), it would mean that the invasion would have taken place just after Elizabeth I ended the reign of the Tudors. That will give an idea of the time scale involved here.

The early days

Claudius not Julius

Using a rough timeline of Britain starting at the Stone Age around 10,000 BC we find the English Channel was formed around the year 5,000 BC. Farming began with the Neolithic period 1,000 years later in 4,000 BC and around 2,500 BC the Bronze Age begun. The last giant step takes us to the Iron Age of around 750 BC and the Celts.Julius Caesar came along for a short stay 700 years later and the invasion proper not until almost a century after that. The Roman army would have known what to expect from the detailed descriptions in the notes of Julius Caesar. There would have been Iron Age settlements along the river and trading going on between these and the continent. The present site of the City would have been pasture and farmland with extensive Oak forests across some of the surrounding areas. There over a dozen tribes in England and some would have been very powerful. The invaders would have negotiated with as many as possible.

ThModel of early Londiniumere was little stone available so the first Roman builders would have made use of the forests and built their rectangular buildings from wood. In fact, it would have resembled a small cowboy town in the old wild west of America.
Contrary to popular belief, it was not Julius Caesar who led the Roman troops to conquer Britain. He did visit our shores in 55 B.C. and again in 54 BC. He had a few skirmishes but it was not his intention to conquer. In fact he did not want Britain. He was already too much involved with taking France.

Contrary to popular belief, it was not Julius Caesar who led the Roman troops to conquer Britain. He did visit our shores in 55 B.C. and again in 54 BC. He had a few skirmishes but it was not his intention to conquer. In fact he did not want Britain. He was already too much involved with taking France. The trip to Britain was to cut off supplies. It was almost a century later in 43 A.D. that the conquering force was to arrive.

Claudius had become Emperor. A cripple with a stutter. He needed to prove to his people that he was worthy of the role. He needed a triumph and Britain seemed the ideal solution.
There has been much debate about where the name Londinium came from. The majority opinion now, is that the Romans gave the name, as there is no actual evidence that a permanent settlement existed here before they came. One piece of evidence (or lack of) are Julius Caesar's notes. There are none!
Caesar was meticulous about recording his exploits but made no mention of any settlement here after visiting twice. Surely any organized community would have been deemed important enough to mention. This adds weight to the theory that Londinium was the name given by the Romans.

There are theories that go against this. One that I read some time ago by Richard Coates suggests name came from the pre-Celtic European word 'Plowonida', meaning ‘from two roots’, plew and nejd, meaning something like "the flowing river" or "the wide flowing river". Londinium therefore means "the settlement on the wide river". He suggests that the river was called the Thames upriver where it was narrower, and Plowonida down river where it was too wide to ford. Other suggestions have been made in the past. For example, the name derives from the mythical King Lud. Personally, I'll stay with the Roman theory.

Pursued from Kent to Colchester

The Roman army under the leadership of Aulus Plautius landed away from London, in Kent. They successfully battled the Britons by the banks of the Medway and began chasing them as they retreated towards the Thames. The local inhabitants had the advantage here, as they knew the sand banks and fords of the, then wider and shallower, river. They were able to cross to the north side on foot and horseback. This gained them some time as they headed towards Essex. The Invaders had to use German prisoners, now mercenaries of the Roman army, to swim the Thames while the rest built a pontoon bridge.

Claudius himself then arrived with reinforcements including a herd of Elephants. They pursued the Britons to the then capital, Colchester (Catuvellauni). From there the Roman victors planned their takeover of the rest of Britain. One thing that the Romans were unrivalled at was the construction of roads, and the one between Londinium and Colchester was an important addition.

Where to build a city?

The first city destroyed

They looked at the three main rivers - The Thames, the Severn, and the Trent when deciding where to build the main city in England. The Thames was chosen because of its tidal habits as well as it’s relative closeness to Europe. Both trade and threat of invasion were major factors in the making of the final decision. The fresh water supplies were also taken into consideration and in those days there were fresh clear rivers, streams and springs all over the city site. The layout of the land consisted of two hills set in lush green marshland, with a then wide shallow river with sand banks at low tide.

Bear in mind that the river was much wider and shallower than it is today. So once the site had been decided upon they picked the lowest possible crossing point of the river at the time. That is why London now stands in its present position. They needed it narrow enough to cross, but at the same time be as close to the estuary as possible.

At the point where the present London Bridge stands the width then, was five times as wide. Well over half a mile. Man has extended the banks farther out as time passed by . Approximately 100 metres on the City side of the river has been reclaimed. It is believed that the first fording of the river could have been at Westminster or Vauxhall.

The site consisted of two large hills with the Walbrook river and it’s tributaries between them and the Fleet to the West. There were woodlands and marshes around the hills. These were to become today’s Pool of London, and the hills are now known as Ludgate and Cornhill. The Roman city would have been around twenty feet below the level of today’s City streets.The first trading settlement had been established on the East side of the Walbrook around 50 AD. but this was to last only a decade. In 60 A.D. Boudica and the Iceni tribe were in revolt.

The Romans had behaved badly towards her when her husband, a king, had died. They reneged on an agreement about his lands and raped her daughters. Boudica and her followers went on the rampage, attacking the all the Roman settlements around. The bulk of the army was away in Anglesey  putting down a Druid revolt when the Iceni were heading for London but the Governor, Suetonius Paulinus managed to return with a small force in time to evacuate those who wanted to leave. The people who chose to stay were massacred by Boudica, and the settlement completely burned . The fire was so severe that it left a thick layer of burnt clay that was found during excavation work around Lombard and Gracechurch Streets and underneath No. 1 Poultry.

Rebuilding Londinium

After the revolt was put down and Boudica killed (near the midlands many believe) Julius Alpinus Classicianus was made the procurator, or civil governor. He kept the peace by not taking revenge on the local population and did his best to keep the peace by integration. His tombstone incidentally would be used almost 400 years later as part of one of the hastily built bastions along the wall near the Tower of London, and was discovered in 1852.

The settlement started to take shape again and the first Basilica and Forum was built in around 70 AD. The second, the largest of any north of the Alps replaced it in around 100 AD. The Romans liked their baths, and the bath houses found in Lower Thames Street (at Huggin Hill) and Cheapside are thought to have been built between 70 and 90 AD.The Governor’s Palace lies under Cannon Street Station and covered approximately 3 acres. It dates from about 80 to 100 AD. Early in the second century the fort was started followed by the walls nearly a century later.
The Roman fort and City walls >>