London history reads like the history of Western civilization. Londinium was a Roman settlement, reaching its height around the 2nd century. On the fall of the Roman Empire, the Saxons took over, calling it ‘Lundenwic’. Viking attacks eventually wore the city down and the Viking King Canute ruled in the 11th century, but on his death another Saxon, Edward the Confessor, took the throne, building Westminster Abbey. After the Battle of Hastings, the city went Norman, with William the Conqueror being crowned king. The plague vanquished one-third of London’s population in the 14th century, but it remained the seat of government, law and power.
London burgeoned during the reign of Elizabeth I, but was almost completely devastated by the Great Fire of 1666—the one silver lining to which was the subsequent erecting of Sir Christopher Wren’s churches. By the 17th century, London was Europe’s largest city: foreign workers flooded in to answer demand, and prosperous folk high-tailed it to north and west London, rather like today.
The industrial revolution and the British Empire saw the city boom—the London population almost tripled in the 50 years after 1851. The Underground train system moved into action; Harrods opened in 1905, the Ritz opened in 1906 and all was well until London’s architecture was once again destroyed in the 20th century, this time by German bombs.
After the war, the population surged again, to 7.5 million, and cheap developments created some horrendous eyesores. Quarters began to acquire new, exotic character, as Caribbean immigrants settled in Notting Hill, Hong Kong immigrants in Soho, Sikhs in Southall, and Cypriots in Finsbury.
The 1980s saw some new flashy buildings spring up around the city, most notably Richard Rogers’ Lloyds building in 1984, but the following decade’s recession put London beautification on hold, only to be kick-started again later as the city approached the millennium. Building projects, such as the once-wobbly millennium bridge, the development of the Tate Modern in the former Bankside power station, the ever-revolving landmark of the London Eye, and the development of the disused Docklands into the new business hub of Canary Wharf, have all made London into a much smarter and more reinvigorated place than it was in the latter days of the 20th century, whatever the country’s current economic woes.