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Stuart London

By Margaret Johnson

The accession of King James VI of Scotland to the English throne, as James I in 1603, led to a major influx of Scots into London, which was to continue in succeeding centuries. In James' time and later in that of Charles I , Inigo Jones introduced town planning to the capital. He built the Queen's House at Greenwich Palace and the Banqeting House at Whitehall. However, the experimental developments at Covent Garden and Lincoln's Inn Fields were still in their infancy when Civil War broke out. Perhaps the most significant civic achievement of James I's reign was the provision of a clean water supply for the capital under the New River Scheme, overseen originally by the City Corporation and later by Hugh Myddelton with help from the King. James was not always a popular monarch however and his harsh anti-catholic laws led to an attempt to assassinate him at the opening of Parliament at the Royal Palace of Westminster in 1605. Fortunately, this 'Gunpowder Plot' was uncovered and the perpetrators rounded up.

Charles I's reign is largely marked by financial and constitutional struggles with the King, whose demands and trade restrictions alienated the City.

On January 4th 1642, when the King tried to arrest five members of the House Commons for treason, they all fled to the City. He looked around Parliament in Westminster and commented, "The birds have flown". The following day, he personally demanded their surrender, at Guildhall, but to no avail; and he heard cries of 'Privileges of Parliament!" as he left. London naturally became an anti-royalist stronghold. The greatest threat to its dominant position came in November 1642 when the King's men, following the Battle of Edgehill, moved south to Brentford, nine miles from London. They were quickly put to flight by Lord Essex's men,, supported by a large group of Londoners, and were forced to fall back to Reading and Oxford. The next time Charles came to the capital would be in January 1649 for his trial in Westminster Hall and execution outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace.

The Cromwellian period is notable for the return of a Jewish community to the City. Following their banishment by Edward I in 1292, there is little evidence of their having any presence at all in London. A small settlement of Jews from Spain and Portugal, fleeing the Inquisition, had reached London via Amsterdam during Charles I's reign. Cromwell was to employ them in his secret service and, eventually, he made Abraham Israel Carvajal, their official leader, the first English Jew. However, it was not until 1655, at a conference led by Rabbi Menasseh Bell Israel that it was finally agreed that English Law did not forbid the settlement of Jews. In 1657 a synagogue was openly built at Creechurch Lane in the City and a cemetery was allocated at Mile End.

Restoration of the Monarchy
The restoration of Charles II to the throne was to be followed by two great disasters: the first was the Great Plague of 1665, followed a year later by the Great Fire. Plague had been a constant threat in London since Medieval times. The outbreak of 1665 began in St. Giles-in-the-Fields and spread to devastate the over-crowded, impoverished areas of Stepney, Shoreditch, Clerkenwell, Cripplegate, St. Giles's and Westminster. Within the City itself, it was relatively controlled.

In June, the King and his courtiers left London, not to return until February of the following year. A parliamentary session of only a few days was held at Oxford. The Duke of Albermarle was the only one of the King's ministers to remain in London. He was aided by magistrates, whom the King had ordered to stay, and he personally took responsibility for the areas beyond the city walls. The Lord Mayor, Sir John Lawrence, was responsible for the City. A fascinating insight into these appalling times can be gained from reading Daniel Defoe's 'Journal of the Plague Year,' as a description, though not strictly a history. Of nearly 100,000 deaths recorded in London in 1665, over 68,000 were the result of plague.

The Great Fire
At the time of the great fire, plague was still present in London. Early in the morning of Sunday 2nd September 1666, a baker's shop in Pudding Lane, near London Bridge caught fire. The houses nearby were overcrowded and made of wood, and the fire quickly spread to the riverside where large quantities of highly combustible materials were kept. The early destruction of the water wheel at the bridge meant that the areas round about had no water supply with which to fight the fire. The fire spread rapidly into the heart of the City and was soon threatening the Royal Exchange, Lombard Street and Cornhill, a very wealthy area.

The fire was driven deeper and deeper into the capital by a wind which blew constantly for the first three days. By the end of the second day, the riverside had been devastated and the fire had engulfed Cornhill, the Poultry and was threatening Cheapside. We have a very vivid account from the diarist, Samuel Pepys, who described the fire at night as a vast "bow of flame". As the means of directing water onto the flames were hugely inadequate, the only real way to fight the fire was to pull down the burning houses, before it could spread further. People used poles, axes, ladders - anything to try to prevent its spread.

The Great Fire of London

Overall authority was passed to Prince James , Duke of York, replacing Sir Thomas Bludworth, the indecisive Lord Mayor. The army and dockworkers were drafted in to help. By Tuesday morning, nearly half the City within the walls was alight - including Guildhall. The Custom House and the Royal Exchange were burnt to the ground and the magnificent Cathedral of old St Paul's was virtually destroyed. The fire was to continue burning through Cheapside and the London walls at Cripplegate, Newgate and Ludgate. From there it moved along Fleet Street, nearly as far as the Temple Bar. On the fourth day, the wind dropped and the fire slowly came to a halt.

The results were devastating: only a fifth of the walled city remained, with 273 acres of it burnt. Outside the walls, 63 acres were ruined and in total 87 parish churches and 13,200 homes were lost. Such widespread devastation would not be seen again until the Second World War and the bombings of the 'Blitz'.

Rebuilding the City
The fire was to change the character of London forever. Sir Chistopher Wren and John Evelyn drew up plans to redesign the city but ultimately the existing street plan had to be followed, due to a lack of government funding. Four kinds of houses were specified by the Rebuilding Act of 1667, to be built only of brick and stone. The new city gradually grew up with wider streets and regular brick houses. Many Livery Companies' Halls had to be replaced, along with the Custom House and the Royal Exchange. Guildhall was restored but its completion was delayed until 1675. Among the great treasures of this time are the churches rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. He started work on ten of them, four years after the fire. The remainder, in total fifty-one, were still unfinished well into the next century. Even St. Paul's itself was not completed until 1712.

Following the fire, the City became a more marked commercial centre under the Lord Mayor. The gentry chose to make their homes to the West, in Covent Garden and Lincoln's Inn Fields and further out as time progressed. At the end of Charles II's reign, there were practically no fashionable addresses left within the City.

The fire also highlighted the need for public services. Until then, each householder had held responsibility for lighting, repairing and cleaning the street in front of his house and policing his area as part of 'the watch'. The Sewers Act of 1671 created the Commissioners of Sewers, a body responsible for the upkeep, drainage and cleanliness of London's streets. To finance this they were given the right to charge rates.

Charles II was the last monarch to dare to limit the long-established liberties of the City of London, removing several aldermen and officers in 1683, under the writ Quo Warranto. He was to replace these men and their mayor with his own people for some years. However, these actions were always legally suspect and it later appeared that the King had even had to remove two King's Bench Judges in order to gain approval. On Charles II's death on 6th February 1685, King James II came to the throne and during his short, turbulent reign the City regained its full autonomy.

On James II 's flight in December 1688, Guildhall was chosen as a stronghold from where the men of power could prepare the Declaration of Allegiance to the Prince of Orange. Prince William was welcomed by the City and, indeed, the Lord Mayor, aldermen and 50 representatives of the common council were all invited to the authoritative assembly which was called upon his arrival. With his wife, Queen Mary , he favoured Hampton Court as his chief Royal Residence. It was much rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren but, luckily, lack of money meant that much of his grandiose scheme was abandoned and the older Tudor buildings survived. The couple also bought Nottingham House from their Secretary of State and turned it into Kensington Palace. Thes palaces were also favourites of Queen Anne.

Next: Georgian London

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