London's Story

London and the Tudors and Stuarts

London grew yet again under the reigns of the Tudor Kings and Queens from 1485 to 1615. Great voyages of discovery around the world were made by English sailors, such as Francis Drake. New trade routes to the continent of Africa and the Far East were established, and trade with these countries enabled London to become one of Europe’s largest and most prosperous cities. After a period of instability during what is known as “The Wars of the Roses”, when many claimants to the throne were busily engaged in killing each other off, the Tudor kings established an era of peace and prosperity, and the period became one in which building, art and literature flourished. Henry VII established a merchant navy and built the glorious Chapel at Westminster Abbey, and his grand-daughter Elizabeth I created the Royal Exchange – Britain’s first trading centre. The merchants funded expeditions themselves, and founded joint stock companies, such as the Levant (Middle East) Company and the Russia Company.

The Golden Hinde - in dry dock near to Southwark Cathedral  - photo courtesy S W

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Trade grew, and so did the population of London – over 200,000 people lived in and around the City walls by AD 1600. They enjoyed life and all its many pleasures – this was the time when William Shakespeare and his friends were writing and producing plays for the delight of the people of the City. The Corporation of the City of London thought that the theatres, like the Globe and the Rose, were dens of iniquity, little better than brothel houses, and in 1575 they banned theatres for live performances within the City walls. The theatres promptly opened on the south side of the Thames in the district called Bankside, and next to the brothel houses, the bear baiting pits and taverns. The citizens of London took water taxis to cross the Thames to enjoy an evening’s entertainment.

Not all the citizens of London under the Tudors and Stuarts liked life under these kings and queens. The laws of England were heavily weighted against Catholics, and they were persecuted for their beliefs. Some of them bonded together in the Gunpowder Plot, by which they sought to kill King James I and all his lords at the opening session of Parliament in Westminster in 1605. Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes and the rest of the plotters who placed barrels of gunpowder under the Houses of Parliament were discovered, and put to death. Later, in 1649, another dissident, Oliver Cromwell succeeded in arresting King Charles I and forcing him to be tried for treason, after which he was beheaded outside Whitehall Palace.

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The Banqueting Hall Whitehall Palace

Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans ruled London with an iron fist and closed all the theatres and any places of amusement and fun. This was resented by the citizens of London, and they greeted the restoration of the next Stuart King, Charles II, with great rejoicing in 1660.

In 1665 another tragedy hit London. Another outbreak of bubonic plague (the same plague as the one which had caused the Black Death) devastated London’s population and over 100,000 people died. Then -  just as Londoners were breathing sighs of relief -  they had to face yet another tragedy. On 2 September 1666 an oven in a baker’s shop on Pudding Lane in the City was not put out properly, and the heat from the over caused the shop to burst into a blazing fire, which then raged across London for 3 days. It burned everything in its path and over four-fifths of the city’s buildings, including 87 churches, 44 livery company halls and 13,000 houses. The Great Fire had two main consequences. Many of the City merchants decided at this point to leave their destroyed homes within the City walls and to move to new houses and manors further away in the West End of London.  More importantly an architect called Sir Christopher Wren was called upon to design and rebuild many of the churches which had been destroyed, and to design the new St. Paul’s Cathedral. This magnificent building rose “like a phoenix from the ashes” high above the streets of London, with its amazing Dome and golden orb and cross, and has become an iconic symbol of London all over the world.  

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St. Paul’s Cathedral  - photo  courtesy S W

Also at this time the merchants of the City used to meet in the many coffee-houses that sprang up in the streets of the City (such as the Jamaica Coffee House) to exchange news about ships and cargoes, and to venture capital against future cargoes.  Edward Lloyd started to publish the lists of ships due into the port of London, and these lists circualted around the coffee houses. In this setting the great insurance institution of Lloyds of London was born, and London became the centre of finance for Europe. King William III founded the Bank of England in 1694 to finance his wars against France. 

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The Bank of England Photo by SW

The Bank of England was backed by the state and became an institution that London merchants had long been seeking.

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Corner of the Bank of England building

By 1700 London was the largest city in Europe with over 600,000 inhabitants. About this time London became the home for protestant refugees from France – the Huguenots – who settled in the Spitalfields area of the city, after the Edict of Nantes in 1688, and carried on their crafts of silk weaving and manufacture of luxury goods such as watches and clocks and silverware. This started a continuous history of settlement in London by foreign workers, which led to the expansion of the city in areas to the east and south, like Whitechapel and Bermondsey. At the same time the better-off merchants (who made up the middle classes) and the very wealthy  (the landed gentry, lords and ladies) began to move to more salubrious areas of London to the north and west of the Thames, to escape the smells, dirt, disease and crime of life in the inner city areas. This demographic distribution of population and social divisions continued in the same trend right up until the late 20th century.


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