London… Once a Breath Away from Extinction

This article regards the surprising trajectory of London–one of the world’s great cities, and an international treasure that once suffered a calamitous decline, and spent many decades as an abandoned ruin.

With apologies for being offline for so long, this is the first of four articles that all grew out of what I expected to be a single, quick article about our visit to the “Crown and Treaty” in the outer London town of Uxbridge. Built in the 1500’s as an elaborate private home, this fascinating building still stands, and was the home of the 1645 Uxbridge Treaty Negotiations. In what has become the usual fashion for me, more thoughtful reading of accounts about the negotiations and Sir Richard Lane’s role brought me to details that struck me as unexpected and intriguing–off-topic “threads” hanging from the edges of the story. Such are the entrances of “rabbit holes” from which I have dragged more surprising insights than I’d ever have thought possible. This particular one is about the surprising trajectory of London–one of the world’s great cities, and an international treasure that once suffered a calamitous decline, and spent many decades as an abandoned ruin.

Modern London can reasonably be described in terms of the huge, roughly circular “M25 motorway” that defines the outskirts of the city. Deep at the center of this giant, 700-square-mile wheel lies its tiny hub: the single “square mile” of the original ancient city of “Londinium”. Hewn from raw earth by the Romans from 43-200 CE, this walled fortresss city stood as the regional capitol for another 200 years. But in the year 409 CE, as the Western Roman Empire began collapsing in upon itself, the Romans were forced to withdraw from the Britannia they had built. But it wasn’t only their great walled capital of Londonium (London) they were forced to abandon. The ancient Romans were builders. Over the 350 years of their rule, they had created a network of similarly well-founded cities connected by roughly 2,000 miles of engineered and paved trunk roads and bridges all across southern England. From such a strong founding (at the beginning of the modern calendar), I had assumed London had continued along a generally upward trajectory over the next two millennia on its way to its current state. I couldn’t have been more wrong…

As descendants of the Industrial Age, we’ve never known a world that didn’t expand and progress at a “headlong” pace. We’re used to it. It’s been this way for so long it’s simply part of our expectations about the future. In fact, we have the historically incomprehensible luxury of questioning how much growth and progress we want. But as I began my research into the evolution of London I was about to get a surprising lesson on just how recent this phenomenon is.

The Evolution of London

When I stumbled into this particular “rabbit hole”, I was simply seeking to get a feel for the size of cities, distances between them and the norms of travel in the 1600’s. London today is a sprawling city of nearly 9 million people–about the same size as New York City. Going backwards, I knew to expect a significant period of steep growth starting around the industrial revolution of the middle 1700’s. But what was the state of the city one hundred years before? Offhand, I’d expected to find ups and downs along a trend of modest general growth leading from the city’s founding to a 16oo’s population at least 10-15 times larger than in the heyday of it’s Roman origins.

I began looking for insightful maps of the city from around this period–and was fortunate to have found a good one. Created in 1572, this map offered an overhead perspective, and seemed to have gotten the basic geography right (quite an accomplishment without any high vantage point or any technology for overhead imagery–see the image below). I sat down to study it. Right away I was confused–and it took me a bit to accept what I was seeing. Notice how (except for a growing strip of development along the banks of the Thames river that connects to a nascent Westminster on the center left) the landscape turns to countryside and farmland almost immediately outside the original Roman walls of the city. Using Google Maps, I’ve determined the widest dimension of the enclosed city (along the river) is barely one mile in width.

A map of 1572 London (in the middle of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I), with annotations added highlighting the roman city walls and gates to the city. Also highlighted is the location of “The Temple” (home of the inns of law).

How could that be? In the span of nearly a millennium and a half since its founding, the footprint of London had barely changed!

Intrigued (and frankly, a bit skeptical), I wanted to see a comprehensive history of London’s population. When I couldn’t find one, I decided to piece one together from from various sources of data. What I found was eye opening, to put it mildly! Consider the chart I’ve created below, which depicts this data against a backdrop of the major historical eras of southern England’s governorship from today, and going all they way back to year zero.

Despite a strong early start under Roman rule, post-Roman London experienced a plummeting decline, dwindling to a fraction of its former size over the next 400 years. So complete was its degeneration that by sometime in the middle 800’s, the “ancient city” was uninhabited, and all that remained of London were its walls and its name.

London’s Rebirth

London was a breath away from being a footnote in history when it was recaptured by King Alfred in 886 CE. Arguably the first “English” king, “Alfred the Great” subsequently restored and resettled the city (as described in the plaque pictured below).

London was finally recovering, but it still shocks me to realize that after the withdrawal of the Romans, another 1,000 years would pass before London would achieve its early (modest) population levels again. In fact, it wasn’t until after the “Norman Conquest” of 1086 CE that the total population of England finally began to sustain the pattern of thriving growth I had originally expected to see.

With that observation, I finally gained an insight into the cultural alignment with which modern English generally seem to regard the Norman Conquest. To me, the Normans (their name derived from “North-men”–the Vikings who invaded France and settled in the lands that would become known as “Normandy”) seemed simply the latest in a long line of conquerors. What made them special?

I’ve come to see a parallel in American history. Although the colonies had existed for more than a century and a half beforehand, it was the American Revolutionary War that marked the ascension of an stable American self-government, an expanding pattern of growth and the emergence of our modern national identity. It was the “moment of origin” of our nation.

The Norman Conquest was a historic consolidation of power in which the previous, large and rivalrous Anglo-Saxon nobility was eliminated and replaced by a much smaller Norman nobility. This consolidation of control was reinforced by William the Conqueror’s castle-building program and establishment of a strong feudal system. And from that arrangement emerged the first truly enduring rule of England. It marked the emergence of a pattern of sustained and increasing growth. It can be argued that it marked the origins of the identity and values generally recognized as “English”. And all of these constituted the effective founding of what would become “Britain”.

That thought brought me to a chuckle…did I just nominate “Alfred the Great” and “William the Conqueror” as America’s founding “grandfathers”? I think I did! For bonus points, spend a minute considering the landing of the combined armies of our two descendant nations to liberate the land of our French/Viking forebears–on the beaches of Normandy in 1944…

London in the 1600’s

In the year Richard Lane was born (1584) London had more than tripled its peak population under the Romans. By the end of his life (in 1650), the population of London would nearly double again to nearly 400,000 people. Given its long history, the people of his time must have wondered: When will this stop? Surely it had to stop sometime… But it didn’t. Over the next hundred years, London nearly doubled in size again before exploding well into the millions after the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 1700’s.

I don’t have a solid understanding of the reasons why the population of London stayed contained within those walls for so long. But it does explain the characteristically narrow, packed-in, and comically high houses that are the signature of early London’s urban architecture (see the picture gallery below). With a large and steadily growing population, and either an inability or an unwillingness to build outside the city walls, there was simply no place else to go…but up.

The reckoning for this ad-hoc building pattern would come during the Great Fire of London in 1666. This massive conflagration gutted the bulk of the city within the Roman walls, and spread beyond the walls to the west. It destroyed the “Inner Temple” area before it was heroically stopped on the very threshold of consuming Middle Temple.

The Emergence of the “Changing Times”

I want to take a moment for a digression, but one that I believe provides a powerful insight into the lives of the those who lived in London in the years leading up to the English Civil War of the middle 1600’s. It wasn’t just the population that was changing at a pace that must have seemed astonishing to London’s inhabitants during the 1600’s. With the emergence of the publishing industry, the unprecedented age of ideas was only just starting to gather its feet.

For perspective, think about this: everyone you have ever met (and in fact, every person who was ever met by anyone appearing in even the oldest photograph you’ve ever seen) all grew up in the same world of nearly exponential growth shown on the far right side of the chart presented earlier. Modern society has come to accept the dizzying “new normal” of the technology age. But, we are never quite comfortable with a cadence in which new technologies flash into existence and just as quickly fade into obsolescence, replaced by the “next great thing.” And we grapple with the emergence of new social/moral quandaries (privacy rights and the morals of generic engineering, for example) that result when these new technologies carry our society in directions we are unprepared for.

I contend that ours are not the first generations to feel the conflicting pangs of exhilaration and trepidation caused by navigating rapidly accelerating social and moral dilemmas. It is an experience we share with those (like Richard Lane) who lived during that first age of rapid changes ignited by the emergence of widespread literacy, increasingly unrestricted publication of ideas and the discovery of the new world.

Born in 1584, Richard Lane was a member of the first generations to grapple with a world marked by ever-accelerating change. Its easy to imagine jittery 1600’s alehouse declarations that, “It just can’t go on like this forever–something’s got to give!” Its a sentiment that echoes from the walls of any modern pub in conversations about population, the stock market and even climate change…

Will the world end? Probably not anytime soon. But as sure as history is our lessonmaster, life “as we know it” certainly will.

2 thoughts on “London… Once a Breath Away from Extinction”

  1. Hi Greg Glad you have emerged from your ‘rabbit hole’!

    Yes – then, as now, population is the key… In a way it was similar here, the town remaining on its medieval triangular foot-print, bound by the streams running to the shore, and marshes in the hinterland.

    Life in mid-17th c was not much different from previous centuries, with superstition and religious zealots! The improvement in ship-building and exploration helped to improve communication… The scattered agricultural pattern centred on the country parishes and lack of transport meant that the Islanders largely stayed put. The big difference came with the growth of maritime trade and a large garrison from 18th c.

    London was much the same. Today’s London is made up of all the surrounding villages and towns. There were Roman roads, but it was still easier to set sail around the coast.

    Waiting to hear more about Uxbridge – or have I missed something? Just read a couple of pages on-line, but hope to hear more of Sir R Lane’s role.

    Another researcher is looking for one of the de C family – probably a cousin of Sir George), yet another Philippe de Carteret who went to Ireland as one of Cromwell’s representatives… but nothing is known of him that we can yet find out!

    all good wishes, Sue



  2. Greg; outstanding post! I am a huge fan of all things London and England and know much history about the area…but I never realized that after the Romans left, London was virtually deserted. I am currently watching the Vikings series on the History channel, and we see Alfred the Great as a young boy. London is not even mentioned…it was insignificant as there were several separate kingdoms at that time. I highly recommend the book “London: The Novel ” by Edward Rutherford. He writes about the history of the world’s most famous cities with fictional characters but interweaves many historical figures and events.


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