Situated on the River Thames in South-East England, Greater London has an official population of a little over 8 million. However, London's urban area stretched to 9,787,426 in 2011, while the figure of 14 million for the city's wider metropolitan area more accurately reflects its size and importance. Considered one of the world's leading "global cities", London remains an international capital of culture, music, education, fashion, politics, finance and trade.
London has existed in various incarnations for two millennia. The city has been the principal seat of British royal dynasties and of English (later British) governments throughout its history and has survived through fire, invasion and plague.
Evidence has been unearthed of Bronze and Iron Age settlement on the present day site of London, though it is unlikely a city existed here before the Roman conquest of Britannia in 43 AD. Londinium, the precursor to the modern city of London, was established in 50 AD. Ten years later it was conquered and destroyed by the Celtic Iceni tribe, led by their queen, Boudica. Soon rebuilt, by the 2nd century AD Londinium was the capital of Roman Britain and its largest city. Around 200 AD, the London Wall was erected to defend the city. The wall stretched for two miles around the ancient City, from Tower Hill in the East to Blackfriars Station in the West. Isolated Roman period remains and traces of the wall are still to be seen within the City of London (now known as the Square Mile).
After the end of Roman rule in 410, London experienced a gradual revival under the Anglo-Saxons. A coalition of Angles, Saxons and Jutes from Northern Europe, the Anglo-Saxons ruled in Britain for 500 years until the Norman invasion of 1066. The early Anglo-Saxon trading settlement of Lundenwic was established a mile away from Londinium. London’s British Museum houses the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon artifacts in the world.
From the late 8th century, Viking raids were common in Britain. In 871 London was seized by the Danish Norsemen, until it was reclaimed for Britain by King Alfred the Great of Wessex in 886. In 1016 the Danish king Cnut gained control of London and all of England. Westminster Abbey was completed in 1065 during the reign of his stepson Edward the Confessor. Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the paramount political status of London was confirmed when William the Conqueror was crowned King of England in Westminster. The Normans built fortifications throughout Britain and the Tower of London in particular confirmed their dominance over the existing population.
After the Norman Conquest London emerged as a great trading city and with the rise of England to first European then global prominence, London became a great centre of culture, government and industry. During the 12th and 13th centuries it gradually replaced Winchester as the royal capital of England.
There have been several plagues in London, notably The Black Death (1348 – 1350) and the Great Plague (1664 – 1666). The plague was followed by the Great Fire of London in 1666 after which the city was largely rebuilt. Georgian London (1714 – 1830) saw the erection of fine Georgian architecture, particularly housing (for example, 10 Downing Street) as the population greatly increased.
London's long association with the theatre flourished during the English Renaissance (late 15th to early 17th C). From 1576 indoor and outdoor theatres began to appear in London. The Rose Theatre was built in 1587 in the reign of Elizabeth 1st and was the first purpose-built theatre to stage the plays of Shakespeare. The most famous outdoor theatre was the Globe, built in 1599 by The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. William Shakespeare was their resident playwright. Admission prices ranged from a penny standing charge to sixpence for the most desirable seats. There are currently over forty London theatres in the West End, in an area known as ‘Theatreland’. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum houses a permanent exhibition of the history of British theatre.
Hampton Court Palace was built from 1515 to 1530 under the reign of Henry VIII with traditional Renaissance lines. English royal dynasties spanning a millennium have all added to the cultural richness of present day London, from medieval buildings like Westminster Abbey to royal London palaces like the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace and Kew Palace. The Victorian Houses of Parliament (1840 – 1870) were constructed on the site of the old Palace of Westminster, built in the 11th century.
Britain became a supreme maritime power in the 18th and 19th centuries and London was at the epicentre of the global trade and commerce of the British Empire. The World Heritage site of Greenwich in London houses the Royal Museums, which include the Royal Observatory, home to Greenwich Mean Time, The National Maritime Museum and the last surviving tea clipper, the Cutty Sark. By the latter half of the 19th century in the Victorian era, London had become the largest city in the world.
During two world wars in the 20th century, London suffered aerial bombardment by firstly German zeppelins in World War I (1914 – 1918) and by the German Luftwaffe during the Blitz of World War II (1939 – 1945). London dominates the economic, political and social life of the nation. It is the largest city in the United Kingdom with a population of 8.5 million, over seven times more than England’s ‘second city’ of Birmingham.
The capital is full of excellent bars, galleries, museums, parks and theatres. It is also the most culturally and ethnically diverse part of the country. In 1777, noted diarist Samuel Johnson famously said "When a man is tired of London he is tired of life." Whether you are interested in ancient history, modern art, opera or underground raves, London is a global centre of history, learning and culture.