The London Stone
Mounted behind an iron grill in the wall of 111 Cannon Street (originally known as Candlewick Street) can be found what could be described as one of London’s most ancient monuments, The London Stone (also known as The Brutus stone). It has been moved to various locations around Cannon Street over the centuries and though the exact origin of the stone is probably open for debate, there is little doubt that it has inspired and or become entwined with local folklore and legends.
The painter and poet William Blake (born 28 November 1757– died 12 August 1827) portrayed the London Stone as an altar on which ancient Druids sacrificed their victims. “They groan’d aloud on London Stone, They groan’d aloud on Tyburn’s Brook, Albion gave his deadly groan, And all the Atlantic mountains shook.” One suggestion for the origins of the stone is that it was once part of a stone circle. I am not sure how many stone circles were made of sandstone though.
Some suggest the stone is 3000 years old, possibly because of the legend surrounding the stone being part of an altar or foundation dating from the time of Brutus of Troy, the (quite probably fictional) consul of Rome who (according Geoffrey of Monmouth (born circa 1100 – died circa 1155) in his pseudohistorical Historia Regum Britanniae) founded Britain in 1100BC (with the help of the Goddess Diana) and named it after himself.
It is thought that Sir Chistopher Wren* (born 20 October 1632 – died 25 February 1723) saw the stones foundations being excavated and thought that it formed part of a large Roman structure. It has been widely thought the London Stone was a Roman marker from which they measured all distances from London. This suggestion has been around for centuries and William Camden (born 2 May 1551 – died 9 November 1623) wrote in Britannia “The stone called London Stone, from its situation in the centre of the longest diameter of the City, I take to have been a miliary, like that in the Forum at Rome, from whence all the distances were measured.”
*Sir Christopher Wren designed the new St Swithin’s Church (final resting place of Catrin Glyndwr, daughter of Owain Glyndwr. She was captured at Harlech Castle in 1409 and incarcerated in the Tower of London.), which was rebuilt in 1678 following it’s destruction in the Great Fire of London. In 1798, the London Stone was relocated within the walls of St Swithins.
By the fifteenth century it I said the stone was treated as a symbol of authority and was a recognised place for meetings, the taking of oaths and the announcement of official proclamations. The Lord Mayor of London would strike the stone with a staff on Mayor’s Day as a proclamation of authority. This tradition may date back to 1188 and Eylwin de Londenstane whose son, Henry Fitz-Ailwin Londenstane became first Lord Mayor of London. (They may have originally adopted the surname by living in the vicinity of the stone). The leader of the 1450 Kent Rebellion known as Jack Cade (or John Mortimer) gathered 5000 rebels at Blackheath and before marching on the Tower of London to make his demands of King Henry VI (who was in Warwickshire at the time) he stopped the London Stone and symbolically struck it with his sword, proclaiming himself Lord Mayor of London. This event was recounted by William Shakespeare in his play Henry VI. ‘Here, sitting upon London-stone, I charge and command that, of the city’s cost, the pissing-conduit run nothing but claret wine this first year of our reign. And now henceforward it shall be treason for any that calls me other than Lord Mortimer.’
The historian and antiquarian John Stow (born 1525 – died 6 April 1605) described the London Stone in the 16th Century. “On the south side of this high street (Candlewick or Cannon Street), near unto the channel, is pitched upright a great stone, called London Stone, fixed in the ground very deep, fastened with bars of iron, and otherwise so strongly set, that if carts do run against it through negligence, the wheels be broken and the stone itself unshaken. The cause why this stone was set there, the time when, or other memory is none.” The Elizabethan occultist, Dr John Dee was said to believe the London Stone held magical powers.
According to the historian John Strype (born 1 November 1643 – died 11 December 1737) “This stone, before the Fire of London, was much worn away, and, as it were, but a stump remaining. But it is now, for the preservation of it, cased over with a new stone, handsomely wrought, cut hollow underneath, so as the old stone may be seen, the new one being over it, to shelter and defend the old venerable one.”
John Dryden (born 9 August 1631 – died 1 May 1700) mentioned the London Stone in his poem ‘The Cock and the Fox’ (which is too long to show here in its entirety).
The geese fly o’er the barn; the bees in arms
Drive headlong from their waxen cells in swarms.
Jack Straw at London-stone, with all his rout,
Struck not the city with so loud a shout;
Not when, with English hate, they did pursue
A Frenchman, or an unbelieving Jew:
Not when the welkin rung with ‘one and all;’
And echoes bounded back from Fox’s hall:
Earth seem’d to sink beneath, and heaven above to fall.
With might and main they chased the murderous fox,
With brazen trumpets, and inflated box,
To kindle Mars with military sounds,
Nor wanted horns to inspire sagacious hounds.
According to Old and New London (Voulme 1) by Walter Thornbury (1878), the London Stone was moved from its position on the South side Cannon Street to the north on 13 December 1742. He goes on to say that ‘In 1798 it was again removed, as an obstruction, and, but for the praiseworthy interposition of a local antiquary, Mr. Thomas Malden, a printer in Sherborne Lane, it would have been destroyed’. In 1798 the London Stone was set in a stone case in the southern wall of St Swithin’s Church, where it remained for over 150 years, throughout the whole 19th Century.
The Anglican Church of St Swithin by London Stone was bombed by a German air raid during World War II and thought the church severely damaged, the London Stone was unscathed, which is just as well, as there is tradition surrounding the stone similar to that of the ravens at the Tower of London, “So long as the stone of Brutus is safe, so long shall London flourish”.
In 1962 St Swithins by london Stone was finally demolished and the London Stone was set in a building opposite Cannon Street Station.
On 5 June 1972 the London Stone and its grilled box became a Grade II listed structure.
With the building in which it was set being targeted for demolition, the London Stone will no doubt find itself being moved once more….something it should be used to by now.