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Sun 8 December 2019
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Built by Romans, shunned by the Anglo Saxons, renewed by the Normans, Britain’s great capital has survived adversity through diversity.

John Cleese’s rather foolish tweet “that London was not really an English city anymore” has provoked much criticism, some seeing this comment as a way of stirring up emotions around the current debate on Brexit and the larger issue of immigration. But I’d say he’s missing the point: London was never exclusively an English city in the first place.

London is “a great emporium for many nations that come to it by land and sea.”

Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People written in 731 AD

I don’t simply mean that it was originally an imperial metropolis –the square mile of the old city and its bridge still mark out the boundaries set by the Romans nearly two thousand years ago. No, the relationship between London and the English has always been a complex one. As it has with every other tribe that have chosen to settle here.


Artist’s impression of Roman London. A fortified bridge leads across the River Thames to the walled city. The Anglo Saxons settled to the West, beyond the Fleet River. Westminster was later founded further upstream.

When the Anglo-Saxons first established themselves in the South-East their attitude to London was quite simple: they avoided it. The early English didn’t begin as city dwellers after all. But the port on the Thames continued to be a vital trading centre throughout the Dark Ages.

When the English did start to settle here they did it outside the square mile of the city walls.

The very first English account of London comes in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People written in 731 AD where it’s described as “a great emporium for many nations that come to it by land and sea.”

Note the crucial phrase: many nations. Bede is making a clear reference to the multicultural nature of the city, over 1,200 years ago. This is the continuity in history that is worth looking at when we start asserting what is ‘English’ or not.

And when the English did start to settle here they did it outside the square mile of the city walls. The Anglo-Saxons built Lundenwic in what is now Covent Garden and the Strand. Wic is Old English for town and so the Aldwych is a reference to the Saxon ‘old town.’

Alfred the Great re-founded the City of London proper as part of his defences against the Danes and this was known as Lundenburg, but for the next two centuries possession of it was contested by the Vikings and the English. By the turn of the first millennium, the political centre of England remained in Winchester.

In 1042 AD Edward the Confessor built the new power base of Westminster, in the neighbourhood but quite geographically distinct from the City. And it was here that Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England was crowned.  

In adversity, London thrived on diversity.

After 1066 it started to become a major urban centre once more, with great architectural projects like the Tower of London. Built by Normans. From France. It became our capital and home to a series of royal houses none of which were actually ‘English’ in the narrow sense of the term (it’s funny that we don’t seem to mind being ruled by foreigners, but the ones that come over here to do our dirty work get picked on).

In adversity, London thrived on diversity. Conditions were so bad by the eighteenth century that the death rate was greater than the birth rate and without immigration, the city would have shrunk rather than expanded.

So this ‘great emporium for many nations that come to it’ is as English as it is international. It belongs to everybody and everybody who lives here belongs: as Londoners.

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