The street pattern of Medieval London owed much to the network of streets laid out within the old Roman walls during Saxon and Norman times. Many Medieval street and area names, which have survived to this day, commemorate trades and activities (eg Hosier Lane and Ironmonger Row).
Medieval London: City of Priests and Merchants
Medieval London consisted of 24 wards; from 1322, each acquired the right to appoint two officials, an alderman and beadle, to collectively formulate city ordnances. From 1384, this body became a city council; the mayor, however, was a member of the powerful merchant guilds and was appointed by them. London Bridge was converted from wood to stone in 1192, and Henry III both rebuilt Westminster Abbey (1245–69) and completed St Paul’s Cathedral (1280). The city was crammed with religious institutions, with over 100 parish churches and 13 friaries and priories, some of which had graveyards attached. Most of the big religious houses in London were founded between c. 1100 and 1250, and City wealth contributed to their upkeep. The population of London reached 80,000 by 1300, but was halved by the Black Death (1348–50). Enforcement of rudimentary hygiene was attempted; animal butchery was banned within the city walls (1369), but the noxiously odorous tanneries persisted. During the Peasant’s Revolt (1381), the city was invaded and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Chancellor and Lord Treasurer were killed by the mob.
In Tudor times the commercial and industrial heart of London was still on the site of the old Medieval city, which was densely populated and prosperous. The West End, an exclusive suburb, had developed along the Strand toward Westminster, and was populated by lawyers, government servants and the landed elite, who sought easy access to the palaces of St James and Whitehall and to the parliament at Westminster. Suburbs were also beginning to spread into Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames, and to the north and east. These areas were populated by an ever-growing army of craftsmen and skilled workers, who helped to triple London’s population over the course of the 16th century.
The Great Fire of 1666
17th-century London was built for a bonfire. Crowded, thatched wooden houses were crammed alongside tarpaper shanties. Many citizens stored gunpowder, and chandlers piled barrels of it along the waterfront. When fire broke out in a bakery on Pudding Lane, heat, high winds, and a long drought quickly combined to create a conflagration. The panicked Lord Mayor resisted both his firemen’s advice to create firebreaks through demolitions and the Duke of York’s offer of troops to fight the fire. The next day, the diarist Samuel Pepys records, the city was crowned by an ‘entire arch of flame… a horrid noise the flames made… the cracking of houses at their ruines’. The writer John Evelyn observed ‘the stones of Paules flew like granados’. After four days of destruction firemen and, belatedly, troops managed to stem the fire with massive firebreaks. Few deaths are recorded, but the teeming homeless camped in Moorfields, and angry mobs lynched ‘foreigners’ suspected of starting the fire.
Christopher Wren’s design for a new St Paul’s Cathedral was approved on 27 August 1666, one week before the Great Fire destroyed the original. The rebuild still proved a tortuous process, with many opinionated and influential stakeholders. Work eventually began in 1675 and, to mounting disquiet, was not completed until 1710 (by the end Wren’s salary was withheld to persuade him to speed up). There were many who saw London as a chaotic and insanitary city and believed that the destruction wrought by the Great Fire created an opportunity to build a radically new town. But Wren’s original ambitious plans for a classically elegant rebuild of the whole city were rejected: too much costly compensation for landowners was involved. Nevertheless, he obtained the spiritual monopoly, re-building in all 53 churches (87 existed before the fire, but some parishes were merged). His favoured style was Roman classical, but he adapted pragmatically to the often irregular plots: there are ‘Gothic Wrens’ like St Mary Aldermanry, for instance. Others reflect the vision of gifted deputies, like Hawksmoor’s St Mary Woolnoth.
Rebuilding the City
By the beginning of the 18th century, London was a sprawling metropolis of around 600,000, extending far beyond its original walled boundaries. The Great Fire of 1666 destroyed around 60 per cent of the pre-existing, mainly wooden, housing stock. In the rebuilding, a city ordinance specified the use of stone or brick, and the centre of gravity made a decisive shift westward with the designation of St James’s Palace as the principal royal residence and administrative centre in 1698. The aristocracy moved west to congregate round the royal establishments and the Strand became a meeting venue of coffeehouses and taverns. The post-fire building boom extended to the creation of new planned estates of aristocratic boltholes in Mayfair and St James, and large estates of middle-class homes in suburbs such as Marylebone.
Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral was completed in 1711. Gresham College became the meeting place of the new Royal Society. Hyde Park and St James’s Park were opened to the public in the 17th century, but there was only one bridge crossing the River Thames until 1750. Until this point Lambeth was marshland, and development south of the river only began to gain momentum with the opening of Westminster Bridge (1750) and Blackfriars Bridge (1769). By the mid-18th century the population of London exceeded half a million, and accounted for 10 per cent of the British population.