England’s capital city has a rich and fascinating history – from its humble beginnings as the Roman settlement of Londinium to the sprawling metropolis we know it as today. Having stood the test of time through wars, fires and plagues, London has been host to many dramatic events that have shaped not just the city, but the whole of the UK. From King Henry VIII to Queen Elizabeth II, the monarchs of England have all had their own impact on the city, putting it at the centre of drastic cultural and economic upheaval, and turning it into one of the world’s most popular destinations.
We’ve compiled a short timeline of some of the key events in London’s history, so next time you go out and about in the city, you’ll know a little bit more about the events that made it what it is today.
AD 43 – Londinium is established by the Romans
In AD 43 the Romans successfully invade Britain, taking it from the Celts and establishing the settlement of Londinium. The strategic location allowed for ease of access to Europe and a water supply provided by the River Thames. The original city was very small- roughly the size of Hyde Park, and was burned down not long afterwards by Queen Boudica of the Iceni tribe. Once the Romans regained control, they set about rebuilding and fortifying Londinium, making it into a key base of the Roman Empire. This lasted until around the 5th century, when the Roman Empire declined and London was abandoned. It was taken over by the Anglo-Saxons until around the 11th century.
1066 – Construction of the Tower of London
The Normans invaded from France in 1066, and William I (William the Conqueror) took control of England from the Anglo-Saxons. He built the Tower of London, the first stone castle in England, to guard the city against hostile invaders. The Tower has a history all of its own, having been a prison, a zoo, a mint and an observatory in its time.
1215 - First Baron’s War
When King John refused to abide by the rules of the Magna Carta, the barons and the Church rebelled against him and offered the crown to Prince Louis of France. The French Prince overthrew the King and occupied London, bringing French culture and influence to the city. Upon King John’s death, Louis was ousted as support gathered for King John’s son, Henry III. Louis was forced to withdraw from England, and the country spent the next few centuries distancing itself from its ties to French culture.
1530s - Reformations of King Henry VIII
The reformations of King Henry VIII had a huge effect on the country, as he broke England away from the Catholic Church and removed the powers of the Pope. Many properties in London changed hands, as Henry turned various religious buildings into private property. One of the most significant was St James’s Leper Hospital, which was claimed by Henry and turned into St James’s Palace.
1605 - Gunpowder plot
Guy Fawkes’ failed attempt to destroy Parliament is remembered in the UK every 5 November, and celebrated with bonfires, toffee apples and fireworks. Protesting unfair laws against Catholics, Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators placed barrels of gunpowder in the basement of Parliament in London. Before they could be blown up, soldiers uncovered the plot, and took Guy Fawkes to the Tower of London to be tortured.
1665 - The Great Plague
Rats from trading ships brought the bubonic plague into London in 1665. At this point in time, people lived close together and hygiene standards around the city were low, so the plague spread very quickly. The houses of the infected were marked with a red cross and boarded up, with inhabitants then isolated for 40 days. The plague took hold of the city for around a year, killing more than 100,000 people.
1666 – The Great Fire of London
One of the most well-known events in London’s history, the fire was accidently started in a bakery on Pudding Lane. The small blaze quickly spread through the city, wiping out 80% of the buildings, and lasting four days. Many of London’s buildings were made of wood, helping the fire to spread quickly. They were rebuilt using stone and brick. The fire is often said to have helped stop the spread of the plague in the city.
1837 – London thrives under Queen Victoria
During the reign of Queen Victoria, London was transformed into the biggest city in the world, becoming largely unrivalled on the world stage. Despite the great progress made in this age, life was still difficult for the poor- their struggles were immortalised most famously in the works of Charles Dickens. Many of London’s most famous landmarks were created during this period, including Big Ben, The Royal Albert Hall, and Tower Bridge.
1863 - London Underground is created
London’s underground transport system (known by locals as ‘the tube’) was the first of its kind, and revolutionised the way people got around the city. With imitations popping up in Paris and New York not long afterwards, many large cities would now seem incomplete without an underground system.
1888 - Jack the Ripper stalks the East End
This infamous serial killer terrorised London with his brutal murders of five women in the East End. This still unsolved case is the one of London’s most famous tales, with museums, ‘Ripper Walks’ and tours still popping up all around the city.
1907 - Suffragettes storm Westminster
It may have been another 11 years until women were finally given the vote, but one of the defining moments of the suffrage movement took place in 1907. The Women’s Social and Political Union knew that the King’s speech would fail to mention giving women the vote, and so led around 400 to march on Parliament. Their efforts characterised London as a place of conflicting opinions and protest, which continues to this day.
1940 – 1941 - The Blitz
During the Second World War London was targeted by enemy aircrafts. Night after night, for nearly a year, German bombers attacked British cities, ports and industrial areas. One third of London was destroyed, and many people had to take shelter in underground railway stations.
1953 – Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey
Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne at the age of 25. She recently became the longest ever reigning British monarch, surpassing her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria. She has been a constant presence in the lives of people of the UK and the Commonwealth, seeing the country through times of enormous change. Her coronation took place at Westminster Abbey in London, and was the first to be televised.
2005 – London terrorist attacks
In July 2005, four suicide bombers attacked London’s transport systems, killing 52 people and injuring many more. This attack changed the public perception to safety in the city, and many rules were brought in to expand the powers of security forces in the UK. This event brought London into the high terrorist alert status it still holds today.
2012 – London hosts the Olympics
London was host to the biggest sporting event in the world in 2012. The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park was built for the purpose, and the legacy left in the wake of the Olympics has brought many benefits to the city, further cementing its place as one of the best cities in the world.
If you’re interested in British history, find out more about some of the UK’s most famous key figures in our previous post.