City of London

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The City of London is a small area within Greater London, England. It is the historic core of London around which the modern conurbation grew and has held city status since time immemorial. The City’s boundaries have remained almost unchanged since the Middle Ages, and it is now only a tiny part of the metropolis of London, though it remains a notable part of central London. It is often referred to as the City (This usage is documented as far back as the 16th century) or the Square Mile, as it is just over one square mile (1.12 sq mi/2.90 km2) in area. These terms are also often used as metonyms for the United Kingdom’s financial services industry, which continues a notable history of being based in the City.

The Tower of London World Heritage Site is on the boundary of the City.

In the medieval period, the City was the full extent of London. The term London now refers to a much larger conurbation roughly corresponding to Greater London, a local government area which includes 32 London boroughs including the City of Westminster as well as the City of London. The local authority for the City, the City of London Corporation, is unique in the United Kingdom, and has some unusual responsibilities for a local authority in Britain, such as being the police authority for the City. It also has responsibilities and ownerships beyond the City’s boundaries. The Corporation is headed by the Lord Mayor of the City of London, an office separate from (and much older than) the Mayor of London.

The City is today a major business and financial centre, ranking above New York City as the leading centre of global finance; throughout the 19th century, the City served as the world’s primary business centre, and continues to be a major meeting point for businesses to this day. London came top in the Worldwide Centres of Commerce Index, published in 2008. The other major financial district in London is Canary Wharf, 2.5 miles (4.0 km) to the east.

The City has a resident population of a little over 11,000, but around 330,000 people work there, mainly in the financial services sector. The legal profession forms a major component of the western side of the City, especially in the Temple and Chancery Lane areas; these are where the Inns of Court are located, of which two — Inner Temple and Middle Temple — fall within the City of London boundary.

It is believed that Roman London was established as a trading port by merchants on the tidal Thames around 47 AD. The new settlement and port was centred where the shallow valley of the Walbrook meets the Thames. However in AD 60 or 61, little more than ten years after Londinium was founded, it was sacked by the Iceni, led by their queen Boudica. Londinium was rebuilt as a planned settlement (a civitas) soon after and the new town was prosperous and grew to become the largest settlement in Roman Britain by the end of the 1st century. By the beginning of the 2nd century, Londinium had replaced Colchester as the capital of Roman Britain (“Britannia“).

At its height, the Roman city had a population of approximately 45,000–60,000 inhabitants. The Romans built the London Wall some time between 190 and 225. The boundaries of the Roman city were similar to those of the City of London today, though Londinium did not extend further west than Ludgate/the River Fleet and the Thames was considerably wider than it is today, thus the shoreline of the city was north of its present position. The Romans built a bridge across the river, as early as 50 AD, near to where London Bridge stands.

A number of Roman sites and artefacts can be seen in the City of London today, including the Temple of Mithras, sections of the London Wall (at the Barbican and near the Tower of London), the London Stone and remains of the amphitheatre beneath the Guildhall. The Museum of London, located in the City, holds many of the Roman finds and has permanent Roman exhibitions, as well as being a source of information on Roman London generally.

By the time of the construction of the London Wall, the city’s fortunes were in decline, with problems of plague and fire. The Roman Empire entered a long period of instability and decline, including for example the Carausian Revolt in Britain. In the 3rd and 4th centuries, the city was under attack from Picts, Scots and Saxon raiders. The decline continued, both for Londinium and the Empire, and in 410 AD the Romans withdrew entirely from Britain. Many of the Roman public buildings in Londinium by this time had fallen into decay and disuse, and gradually after the formal withdrawal the city became almost (if not, at times, entirely) uninhabited. The centre of trade and population moved away from the walled Londinium to Lundenwic (“London market”), a settlement to the west, roughly in the modern day Strand/Aldwych/Covent Garden area.

During the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy, the London area came under the Kingdoms of Mercia and then later Wessex, though was frequently under the control or threat of the Vikings and Danes.

Alfred the Great, King of Wessex and arguably the first king of the ‘English’, occupied and began the resettlement of the old Roman walled area, in 886, and appointed his son-in-law Earl Æthelred of Mercia over it as part of their reconquest of the Viking occupied parts of England. The refortified Anglo-Saxon settlement was known as Lundenburh (“London Fort”, a borough). The historian Asser stated that “Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons, restored the city of London splendidly … and made it habitable once more.” Alfred’s “restoration” entailed reoccupying and refurbishing the nearly deserted Roman walled city, building quays along the Thames, and laying a new city street plan.

Alfred’s taking of London and the rebuilding of the old Roman city was a marking point in history, not only as the permanent establishment of the City of London, but also as part of a unifying moment in early English history, with Wessex becoming the dominant English kingdom and the repealing (to some degree) of the Viking occupation and raids. Whilst London, and indeed England, afterwards would continue to come under further periods of Viking and Dane raids and occupation, the establishment of the City of London and the Kingdom of England prevailed.

In the 10th century, Athelstan permitted eight mints to be established, compared with six in his capital, Winchester, indicating the wealth of the city. London Bridge, which had fallen into ruin following the Roman evacuation and abandonment of Londinium, was rebuilt by the Saxons, but was periodically destroyed by Viking raids and storms.

As the focus of trade and population was moved back to within the old Roman walls, the older Saxon settlement of Lundenwic was largely abandoned and gained the name of Ealdwic (the “old settlement”). The name survives today as Aldwych (the “old market-place”), now a name given to a street and an area which lies in the City of Westminster between Westminster and the City of London.

Following the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror marched on London, to Southwark and failed to get across London Bridge or to defeat the Londoners. He eventually crossed the River Thames at Wallingford, pillaging the land as he went. Rather than continuing the war, Edgar Ætheling, Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria surrendered at Berkhamsted. William rewarded London in granting the citizens a charter in 1075; the City of London was one of the few institutions where the English retained some authority. The City was not covered by the Domesday Book.

William ensured against attack by building three castles nearby, to keep the Londoners subdued:

  • Tower of London (now a World Heritage Site)
  • Baynard’s Castle
  • Montfichet’s Castle

In 1132, Henry I recognised full County status for the City, and by 1141 the whole body of the citizenry was considered to constitute a single community. This ‘commune’ was the origin of the City of London Corporation and the citizens gained the right to appoint, with the king’s consent, a Mayor in 1189 and to directly elect the Mayor from 1215.

The City continues to be composed of 25 ancient wards, each headed by an Alderman, who chair the Wardmotes. There was a Folkmoot for the whole of the city held at the outdoor cross of St Paul’s Cathedral. Many of the medieval positions and traditions continue to the present day, demonstrating the unique institution which the City, and its Corporation, is.

The City was burned severely on a number of occasions, the worst being in 1123 and then again (and more famously) in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Both of these fires were referred to as the Great Fire. After the fire of 1666, a number of plans were drawn up to remodel the City and its street pattern into a renaissance-style city with planned urban blocks, squares and boulevards. These plans were almost entirely not taken up, and the medieval street pattern re-emerged almost intact.

By the late 16th century, London increasingly became a major centre for banking and international trade and commerce. The Royal Exchange was founded in 1565 by Sir Thomas Gresham to act as a centre of commerce for London’s merchants and gained Royal patronage in 1571. Although no longer used for its original purpose, its location at the corner of Cornhill and Threadneedle Street continues to be the geographical centre for the City’s core of banking and financial services, with the Bank of England moving to its present site in 1734, opposite the Royal Exchange on Threadneedle Street.

The 18th century was a period of rapid growth for London, reflecting an increasing national population, the early stirrings of the Industrial Revolution, and London’s role at the centre of the evolving British Empire. The urban area expanded beyond the borders of the City of London, most notably during this period towards the West End and Westminster.

In 1708 Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral, was completed on his birthday. However, the first service had been held on 2 December 1697; more than 10 years earlier. This Cathedral replaced the original St. Paul’s which had been completely destroyed in the Great Fire of London and is considered to be one of the finest in Britain and a fine example of Baroque architecture.

Expansion continued and became more rapid by the beginning of the 19th century, with London growing in all directions. To the East the Port of London grew rapidly during the century, with the construction of many docks, needed as the Thames at the City could not cope with the volume of trade. The arrival of the railways and the Tube meant that London could expand over a much greater area. By the mid-19th century, with London still rapidly expanding in population and area, the City had already become only a small part of the wider metropolis.

An attempt was made in 1894 to amalgamate the City and the surrounding County of London, but it did not succeed. The City of London therefore survived, and does so to this day, despite its situation within the London conurbation and numerous local government reforms. Regarding representation to Parliament, the City elected four members to the unreformed House of Commons, which it retained after the Reform Act 1832 and into the 20th century. Today it is included wholly in the Cities of London and Westminster constituency, and statute requires that it not be divided between two neighbouring areas.

The City’s population fell rapidly in the 19th century and through most of the 20th century as people moved outwards to London’s vast suburbs and many houses were demolished to make way for modern office blocks. The largest residential section of the City today is the Barbican Estate, constructed between 1965 and 1976. Here a major proportion of the City’s population now live. The Museum of London is located here, as are a number of other services provided by the Corporation.

The City, like many areas of London and other British cities, fell victim to large scale and highly destructive aerial bombing during World War II, in what is known as The Blitz. Whilst St Paul’s Cathedral survived the onslaught, large swathes of the City did not and the particularly heavy raids of late December 1940 led to a firestorm called the Second Great Fire of London. A major rebuilding programme therefore occurred in the decades following the war, in some parts (such as at the Barbican) dramatically altering the City’s urban landscape. The destruction of the City’s older historic fabric however allowed, and continues to allow, the construction of modern and larger-scale developments in parts of the City, whereas in those parts not so badly affected by bomb damage, the City retains its older character of smaller buildings. The street pattern, which is still largely medieval, was altered slightly in certain places, although there is a more recent trend of reversing some of the post-war modernist changes made, such as at Paternoster Square.

The 1970s saw the construction of tall office buildings including the 600-foot, 47-storey Natwest Tower, which became the first skyscraper in the UK. Office space development has intensified especially in the central, northern and eastern parts of the City, with further skyscrapers being built including 30 St Mary Axe, Broadgate Tower and the Heron Tower, the tallest in the City. A fifth, the Bishopsgate Tower is set to begin rising in late 2010, and will overtake the Heron Tower to become the tallest building in the City of London, and the second tallest in Britain after the under-construction Shard of Glass at London Bridge Station.

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