The London Stone
Created | Updated Aug 18, 2011
A walk around the pavements in the City of London1 will pass many sights which hint at its ancient history. This area, once a busy place to live, is now the financial centre. As a result it is mostly deserted at the weekend, which makes this a good time for exploration. The Tower of London, St Paul's Cathedral and the Monument are well known to tourists. Even so, a visitor could pass by one of London's oldest, but today perhaps least recognised, landmarks without knowing it.
It is possibly more than 3,000 years old, or maybe Druidic in origin, but is more commonly believed to be Roman. Located along what some believe to be a ley line connecting significant places, it might well be the mystical centre point of London or even Britain. Once so well recognised that the area and the church were named after it, considered to be the guardian of the City, a place for worship or legal proclamations, a point where all distances from London were measured, mentioned by Shakespeare and Dickens, moved slightly from its original location but currently partially hidden behind an iron grille in the wall of the offices for the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation in Cannon Street. Ascribed either mystical, religious, legal or civic significance, it is the London Stone2.
Where to Find the London Stone
Come out of Cannon Street Station, cross the road, turn right and walk eastwards a little. If walking, it is about ten minutes from St Paul's Cathedral and the 'Ray of Light' Millennium footbridge3, which leads to the Tate Modern. The Bank is number 111, two buildings away from the London Stone Pub and next to St Swithins Lane (where the road dip indicates the route of the old Walbrook river).
The Stone is set low down into the wall and protected by glass and an iron grille, which is lighted up and reveals a small, blackened, damaged and seemingly insignificant piece of a type of limestone called oolite. This is known to be only a fragment of the original Stone. Most of it is black with city grime although some exposed clean sections indicate damage to the original surface. There are no markings on the Stone but there are two grooves on the top.
'So long as the stone of Brutus is safe, so long shall London flourish'
- ancient proverb
One of many legends is that Brutus the Trojan, or Brutus of Troy, founded London, around 1070 BC, about 1,000 years before the Roman invasion. Following the destruction of the city of Troy, the inhabitants set off to find new lands. Brutus, a Trojan prince, is said to have been guided to the triangular white island of Albion by the goddess Diana. After sailing up the Thames he first had to fight a race of giants, led by Gog and Magog. The city he established was called 'Troia Newydd' (New Troy) which later became 'Trinovantum'. The people who came with him were 'Britons'. Brutus put his palace on the site where the Guildhall is today and a temple in honour of Diana, the goddess who had guided him, on the hill site where St Paul's is. It has been claimed that the London Stone is the altar piece from this temple. Brutus is supposed to have been buried at the other sacred hill site, now known as Tower Hill and there are statues of Gog and Magog at the Guildhall.
A short digression - Totnes in Devon claims to be the place where Diana actually guided Brutus and thus, the source of Britain's origins. It even has its own Brutus Stone. One story has it that after the fall of Troy he rescued the pedestal from the Palladium, placing it down to stand on when he arrived at Totnes. This could, of course, be a different Brutus from the one of London legends. Stories were handed down verbally and details changed dramatically before they were ever written. The Totnes Brutus Stone is granite and much smaller than it used to be, mainly due to souvenir-seekers chipping away at it over the centuries. It is now set flush into the pavement in Fore Street and was used for mayoral proclamations for many years.
It has been suggested that the London Stone is all that remains of an ancient stone circle that once stood at the top of Ludgate Hill on the same site now occupied by St Paul's Cathedral. King Lud lived in the city around 73 BC and expanded it. It became known as 'Caer-Ludd' (Lud's Town). When he died he was buried at what was believed to be the highest point, now known as Ludgate. Despite the 1668 inscription on a stone next to St Paul's Tube station, Ludgate is not the highest point in London. 'When ye have sought the City round, yet still this is the highest ground' ignores the fact that Cornhill is about 30cm higher.
Some people think the Stone can be traced back to Druid times, perhaps as a Pagan Ritual Altar or a sacrificial stone. This was certainly the belief of the poet William Blake who, in 'To the Jews', imagined the groaning of the execution victims. There's even a legend that claims it to be the same stone from which King Arthur pulled the sword which made him King (although there are several places in Britain that make the same claim). Certainly it seems that this particular area of London has long been significant. In 1840, excavations to build sewers at Bush Lane, next to Cannon Street Station, uncovered ancient remains of large walls belonging to a pre-Roman building, which was perhaps some kind of palace.
The most generally accepted theory is that the London Stone was placed sometime during the Roman creation of the walled city. This area was established at the highest point where the Thames could be crossed, around the year 50 AD. Of course there was an existing population in the city, and they were soon able to benefit from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, fresh water system, and public health that the Romans could provide. A large amphitheatre was built where the Guildhall now stands (the remains can be seen in the Guildhall Art Gallery) and there was further building on the Ludgate site.
Perhaps, once established, London, as with all other chief Roman towns, needed a central mark point. A Roman mile consisted of 1,000 paces of five feet each, making it a little less than a mile today. Road builders would place an inscribed milestone or milliarium to work out distances, provide a reference point and give some useful information for travellers. There are written records of the existence of these stones along routes such as the one from Italy to Spain and some have been preserved. However, in order for this system to work properly a single reference point was needed. Augustus ordered a central stone set up in 20 BC and placed it in the Forum in Rome. It was 2.5 metres tall, covered in gilt bronze, and known as the Milliarium Aureum or Golden Milestone. It marked the starting point for measurement of the Roman highways. Constantine set another up in Byzantium. The indication is therefore that a chief city in each province of the Roman Empire needed a golden milestone and perhaps the London Stone is the remains of one.
However Christopher Wren, rebuilder of the City after the Great Fire, argued that its foundation was too large. This is now presumably buried under Cannon Street and more is known about milliaria than in Wren's day. The milestone explanation remains the most common reason given for the existence of the London Stone although one fact seems to contradict this. Despite a huge amount of evidence, including a Roman boundary stone now embedded in the ground of St Margaret's churchyard in Westminster, there are no written Roman references to the London Stone, this presumably important landmark.
History of the London Stone
The first known reference to the Stone is in a book belonging to Athelstan, (Ethelstone) King of the West Saxons in the early 10th Century. In the list of lands and rents, some places are described as being 'near unto London stone'. It was already a landmark in 1198 when it was referred to on maps as Lonenstane or Londenstane. As was common at that time, people who lived nearby were named de Londenstane. In fact the first mayor of London was Henry Fitz-Ailwin de Londonestone (meaning 'Henry, son of Ailwin of London Stone') who was appointed some time between 1189 and 1193.
Over the years the London Stone became the traditional place to pass laws, make proclamations, reclaim debts and swear oaths, sometimes with ceremony, perhaps accompanied by drums and trumpets or in front of a crowd. Petitioners could strike the Stone with their papers in order to make their position known to the authorities. One famous event took place in 1450...
Jack Cade's Rebellion
Henry VI was an unpopular king, who imposed crippling taxes resulting in poverty for the people, while he was accused of extravagant living and corruption in his court. John Mortimer, an Irishman living in Kent and calling himself Jack Cade, led a rebellion to protest about laws, taxes and extortion of food and goods which affected everyone, including wealthy landowners and prominent clergy. The rebels wanted justice and claimed that the King was not keeping to the solemn oaths he had sworn to abide by. One demand was that Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York, (whom Cade claimed as a Mortimer cousin) should be recalled from exile in Ireland and made King instead.
Unusually, Cade's followers were not only peasants but also landowners and gentry. Accounts vary as to the number of rebels, but Cade assembled between 20,000 and 46,000 on Blackheath (Cade Road is near the Heath and there is a sealed up cave called Jack Cade's Cavern on the edge where it has been suggested he carried out Pagan rituals before continuing onwards). Cade eventually led the Kentish rebels across Deptford Bridge and into London. They stopped at the London Stone, which Cade struck with his sword and declared himself Lord Mayor in the traditional manner (thereby also symbolically reclaiming the country for his Mortimer kin). He led them on to the Guildhall and then to the Tower to make the demands in full. Shakespeare included this event in his play, Henry VI, Part 2.
London. Cannon Street
Enter Cade and the rest, and strikes his staff on London-stone
Cade - Now is Mortimer lord of this city. And here, sitting upon London-stone, I charge and command that, of the city's cost, the pissing-conduit run nothing but claret wine this first year of our reign. And now henceforward it shall be treason for any that calls me other than Lord Mortimer.
- Henry VI, part 2, Act IV, Scene vi
The rebellion failed but the King appeared to offer the leaders a pardon and they left London. However many, including Cade, were suspiciously killed in the following weeks, away from the city. The King ordered Cade's body to be returned to London, where it was drawn and quartered and his head displayed with many others on a pole at London Bridge. So many of the rebels were killed and displayed that it became known as the 'Harvest of the Heads'.
Other Royal Connections
Dr John Dee (1527 - 1608), or 'Queen Elizabeth's Merlin' as he was sometimes called, was a famous figure, a very clever man, known for his understanding of the occult and his huge library of books on the subject. Despite not always being popular, he was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth who consulted him often. Dee was fascinated by the supposed powers of the London Stone and lived close to it for a while.
The Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers received their Royal Charter in 1629 and had a duty to ensure high standards from its members. Officers from the company could enter a maker's shop and check the quality of spectacles. Any found to be below the standard demanded by the Charter would be charged and the case heard before the Lord Mayor's Court. If the Court found that the spectacles were poor quality they would be ceremoniously broken on the London Stone. Records of 1671 document one such example:
Two and twenty dozen of English spectacles, all very badd both in the glasse and frames not fitt to be put on sale were found badd and deceitful and by judgement of the Court condemned to be broken, defaced and spoyled both glasse and frame the which judgement was executed accordingly in Canning Street on the remayning parte of London Stone where the same were with a hammer broken in all pieces.
This tradition of quality control continued until the age of mass production.
The Stone as a Landmark
The London Stone therefore was a well-known landmark for many hundreds of years. It stood for all that time in the middle of Cannon Street. This location had it directly on what some claim is the powerful ley line from the ancient sites now occupied by St Paul's and the Tower. However, by the mid 18th Century it was decided to widen the road so that it could cope with the increasing traffic passing through. The London Stone was already obstructing movement of the carriages and carts so in 1742 the decision was made to move it to the north side of the street and place it on the pavement against the wall of the Wren church named after it, St Swithin, London-Stone. This church stood on the site of an earlier one which had been destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.
In 1798 the parish officers of St Swithin church removed the London Stone 'because it was a nuisance'. Thomas Maiden, a printer, lived in a house nearby. He was an avid campaigner and protested against the church's decision, claiming it needed to be preserved due to its importance. He won the argument and the stone was put back, 35 feet from its original position in the middle of the road, embedded into the south wall of the church, rather than up against it, presumably where it would be less of a nuisance.
In 1869 the churchwardens decided to 'better secure' the Stone and put up iron railings 'for more careful protection and transmission to future ages'. A plaque was put on it to record their action, in English and Latin.
Charles Dickens, writing a newspaper series about various London Landmarks in 1879, called the Stone 'that curious relic of old London'.
Unlike many other major capital cities, London has no single central point where all distances are taken from. Some measurements use Trafalgar Square, others use Westminster Bridge, Hyde Park Corner, Marble Arch or Whitechapel. 19th-Century Londoners certainly thought this a problem and there were suggestions to set up an inscribed obelisk showing distances, that could be placed outside the Post Office near St Paul's which could become known as the London Stone.
Moving the Stone
The London Stone remained in the wall of St Swithin until the church was bombed in 1940/41. Remarkably, the Stone itself was undamaged but it was temporarily rehoused in the Guildhall Museum for safekeeping. The church was finally demolished completely in 1960. Excavations of the site before rebuilding revealed a burnt layer dating from the time of the Celtic Queen Boudicea, indicating perhaps the site's importance even before the church was built. She was known to have led an army determined to destroy several Roman towns, including London, sometime after 60 AD.
The London Stone was eventually relocated to the wall of the building constructed on the site of the demolished church. This is the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation. Hundreds of people walk past the Stone today, but few know of its significance.
The London Stone has not been completely forgotten. The 'Reclaim the Stones' walkers of 3 May, 2002, set out to repossess the ancient and sacred places in the City and also protest at the Jubilee. Starting at the Monument (which marks not only the site of the Great Fire but also signifies the imposition by Charles II of building regulations on the population) they walked to St Paul's (constructed on the site of the ancient and holy stone circle at Ludgate Hill) pausing to greet the London Stone before demanding that St Paul's be demolished and replaced with another stone circle.
How Big was the Stone?
The size of the Stone has changed over hundreds of years. If it was a milliarium, it could have been as big as 2.5m high. Certainly it was described as being 'very tall' in 1598 yet by 1671 the 'remayning parte' was being used by the Guild to smash shoddy spectacles with a hammer, which perhaps indicates something more like a table in height. Today it shows clear evidence of damage and is about the size of a television. So, what happened to the rest of the London Stone?
Was it taken by Dr Dee who lived by the site in the 16th Century, during this time gap? Some believe he stole it for a while and he is certainly known to have removed a small sample from Glastonbury to use in alchemy experiments. Was it damaged in 1742 when moved from the centre of Cannon Street to the church, leaving some still buried under the road, just awaiting excavation? Since it was moved because it was obstructing traffic, had the carriages and cabs broken pieces off it? If the reason given for wanting to remove it from the street completely in 1798 was because 'it was a nuisance', did this mean that it had been knocked into? The explanation for further work on it in 1869 was 'for more careful protection'. Does this indicate damage? Have souvenir hunters chipped pieces off it over the years? Has it just deteriorated due to the fact that it is made from limestone, which is affected by weather and pollution? It certainly wasn't really protected from the elements until 1962.
Or is it a combination of all of these factors?
On the Move Again
There are plans to move the London Stone once more. On 10 May, 2002, the Planning Department of the Corporation of London received an application to relocate the Stone to the retail frontage of a proposed new building on the same site. This application was approved on 23 July, 2002.
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