London is the capital of the United Kingdom (UK), and its largest city. It is also the city with the highest population in the UK. The population is just under 9 million. The city is the largest in western Europe by population and area.
On the Thames, London has been a central city since it was founded by the Romans two millennia ago as Londinium. The Romans bridged the river Thames and built a road network to connect Londinium with the rest of the country.
London’s original city centre, the City of London is England’s smallest city. In 2011 it had 7,375 inhabitants on an area of 1.12 square miles. The term “London” is used for the urban region which developed around this city centre. This area forms the region of London, the Greater London administrative unit led by the Mayor of London and the London Assembly.
London is one of the world’s most important political, economic and cultural centres. London was the capital of the British Empire and so for almost three centuries the centre of power for large parts of the world.
The city has about 9.1 million inhabitants (2018). If one counts the entire metropolitan area of London (London Metropolitan Area), it has about 15 million people. The climate is moderate.
The Romans built the city of Londinium along the River Thames in AD 43. The name Londinium (and later ‘London’) came from the Celtic language of the Ancient Britons. In AD 61, the city was attacked and destroyed. Then the Romans rebuilt the city, and London became an important trading hub.
5th century: end of Roman rule to 12th century
After the decline of the Roman Empire, few people remained in London. The Anglo-Saxon people of sub-Roman Britain were mainly agricultural. Once the Romans had gone, trade with Continental Europe dwindled. In the 9th century, more people started living in London again. It became the largest city in England. However, it did not become the capital city of England again until the 12th century. For a long time after the Romans, England was not unified, and so had no capital.
Trade grew and the East India Company was founded as a monopoly trader. Trade expanded to the New World. London became the main North Sea port, and migrants went from England and abroad. The population rose from about 50,000 in 1530 to about 225,000 in 1605.
The 17th century saw Londoners suffer from the plague and the fire of London. The century starts with the famous Gunpowder Plot.
In the 17th century the Stuart kings ruled: James I and Charles I. Charles Stuart was defeated by Cromwell, so the century was remarkable in that respect. Cromwell marks the beginning of the modern system whereby Parliament is more important than the monarch. The war between Cromwell and Charles was bitterly fought. London was the key city, and Oxford was also important.
The century also had two great disasters: the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. The control of London by Cromwell and Parliament was one of the decisive factors in the civil war. Cromwell’s victory was followed by his death in 1658, and the country for a time moved back to royal rule under Charles II.
The plague virus, carried by fleas on rats, came to Britain from Europe.
The Great Fire of London broke out at the beginning of September 1666. Unfortunately there were warehouses full of timber, pitch, tallow, wine and tar. These caught fire and, in the end, all the riverfront buildings were destroyed. The fire eventually destroyed about 60% of the city, (mainly the City of London, rather than the large city we have today). Old St Paul’s Cathedral was destroyed. Some fires burnt more widely, up to present-day Southwark and even Highgate (which are not in the city, but are in London).
Another famous old part of Greater London is Westminster, which was a different city from the City of London. In Westminster is Westminster Abbey (a cathedral), the Palace of Westminster (the Houses of Parliament, and 10 Downing Street (where the Prime Minister lives).
After the railways were built, London grew much larger. Greater London has 33 boroughs (neighbourhoods) and a mayor. The old City of London is only a square mile in size but has its own Lord Mayor.
Expansion of London
In stages, London has several times increased in size by statute in Parliament. The main motive for this has been taxation, and the increase in houses in what was once countryside. Since taxation was paid to the counties surrounding London, there was a motive for absorbing the countryside into London. This happened in several stages.
Outside London, local taxes are paid to the County Councils; inside London they are paid to the Greater London Council. One county has been lost entirely (Middlesex) and all the others have lost land and revenue. The London Boroughs and the GLA (Greater London Authority) both raise taxes, and the representatives are elected. There is a London Plan which sets out the priorities. The number of local authorities which raise local taxes and spend it is 33: 32 London boroughs and the City of London.
One aspect of its geology had big consequences. North of the Thames London is on chalk, which is easy (with modern equipment) to tunnel through. South of the Thames London is on clay, which was, and still is, much more difficult to dig out. So most of the subterranean engineering is north of the Thames. The road system south of the Thames is also inadequate by modern standards. This difference is reflected in the prices for property, the road transport, the Underground railway and the definition of “London” as a taxable area. The growth of London has been more vigorous North of the Thames, and has included the complete absorption of Middlesex, once a separate county.