Simply put, this is the name London was given during Roman times (and perhaps derives from an earlier Celtic word – although this remains the matter of much speculation).
There’s no substantial evidence of a settlement where London now stands until after the arrival of the Romans in 43 AD. The location was selected for the ease with which the Thames could be bridged and two hills which stand in what is now the city of London – Ludgate Hill on which St Paul’s cathedral stands and Cornhill – which could be fortified as a military stronghold.
The fledging settlement was destroyed during the revolt of Queen Boudicca of the Iceni in 60 AD but rebuilt centred on Cornhill and the Walbrook stream. By the 70s AD, the main public buildings of the forum and basilica were placed on high ground east of the Walbrook and by the end of of the first century AD further grand buildings – the governor’s palace, amphitheatre and baths – had been added. Waterfront infrastructure for shipping – including quays and warehouses – stretched along the northern side of the river.
A fort was added and public buildings renovated before the visit of the Emperor Hadrian in 122 AD. Another fire destroyed much of the city but it was again rebuilt and late in the 2nd century walls were built around it, partially encircling a site of some 330 acres. Buildings subsequently constructed in the 3rd century included the Temple of Mithras and a monumental arch.
There were known to have been “suburbs” including at both Southwark and to the west around Trafalgar Square and cemeteries were built outside the walls.
The city’s population had already contracted somewhat by the time the legions were recalled to Rome in 410 AD. While the walls still offered the inhabitants some protection 50 years after the withdrawal of the legions, there’s scant evidence for how much longer it remained inhabited with the Anglo-Saxons known to have viewed the ruins of the Roman buildings with some trepidation.
The Thames-side property known as the Steelyard – the phrase comes from the Dutch-German word Stahlhof and relates either to a steel beam used for weighing goods or a courtyard where the goods were sold – was the main trading base of the Hanseatic League in London from the 13th century onward.
Located near where Walbrook flows out of the Thames on the north bank (the site is now at least partly covered by Cannon Street Station), the walled compound – which at some point housed as many as 400 people – was in some senses a mini city within a city complete with a hall, warehouses, a weighing house and counting houses as well as residences and a chapel.
While the community – which represented an alliance of towns and cities in northern Europe – was mentioned as far back as the late 1200s, it wasn’t until 1303 that King Edward I formerly confirmed the tax and customs concessions of the merchants (at some point, in return for privileges they were given, the group was charged with keeping up the maintenance of Bishopsgate).
The power of the trading post had grown substantially by the 15th century and the concessions the group had been granted meant there was inevitably considerable friction with English merchants. There was also some official friction and one example of it was when the Steelyard was closed temporarily in the 15th century when the Hanse cities were at war with England.
In 1598 Queen Elizabeth I took away the Steelyard’s trading privileges (after which the compound was apparently looted). It was subsequently allowed to reopen by King James I but never regained the prominence it had previously had.
Much of the compound was destroyed in the Great Fire of London but nonetheless, the Steelyard was rebuilt and continued to provide links between German cities and the English until the mid 1800s when the land was sold off and, in 1866, Cannon Street Station built on the site.
A couple of surviving objects from the Steelyard include a series of at least eight portraits of Hanse merchants painted by Hans Holbein the Younger and a stone model of the Hanseatic Arms which were placed over the gate into the compound can be seen at the Museum of London.
In its ultimate grandiose form, Londinium’s basilica, the city’s first civic centre, was the largest building of its day, and in fact was the largest building of its type west of the Alps.
Located where Gracechurch Street now stands, the first basilica, which served as a town hall and law courts, was first erected in 70AD on high ground to the east of the now hidden Walbrook stream. It stood at one end of the forum or marketplace, enclosed on its other sides by shops and offices.
Twenty years after the first complex containing the basilica had been constructed, work began on a second, far larger basilica and forum on the same site. This took 30 years to complete and involved the removal of surrounding houses and other nearby structures.
The new basilica, which consisted of a large hall with a nave, was three stories high and apparently could be seen from all over the city. At the eastern end of the building’s nave was a raised platform, known as a tribune, where judges would have sat. The new forum’s central rectangular courtyard measured 100 metres by 85 metres in size.
The buildings were variously repaired over the years before being largely destroyed at the start of the 4th century. Speculation is that the destruction was carried out as punishment for London’s support of Carausius, who had declared himself emperor of Britain and northern Gaul in the late 200s. It is believed the eastern end of the basilica was perhaps retained and used as a temple or perhaps even an early church.
Sections of the walls of the basilica and forum apparently still survive in basements around Gracechurch Street today (including apparently in the basement of hairdressers Nicholson and Griffin at 90 Gracechurch Street). The eastern end of the complex now lies under the Leadenhall Market.