London has had more than fair share of myths and legends, however the story of the London Stone is one of the most remarkable because of its historical significance and the way that it has been ignored for centuries.
Now in a display at the Museum of London, visitors can see the stone, up close and find out more about its strange history.
The stone is made up of oolitic limestone which is a type first brought to London for building and other purposes in the Roman period, it has been suggested that the stone was placed in front of a Great Roman building or was a central milestone from which distances in the Roman province of Britain were measured. However it was first mentioned in Saxon times as ‘Lundene Stane’ in Old English. Since medieval times, the stone stood towards the southern edge of the medieval Candlewick Street (now Cannon Street) opposite St Swithin’s church.
It is possible the stone was damaged by the Great Fire of 1666, which destroyed all the surrounding buildings. By 1720 the stone was covered by a small stone cupola built over it, and was moved on the north side of the street against the door of the new Wren church of St Swithin. In the 1820s, it was built into the middle of the church’s south wall.
Remarkably, although the Wren church was gutted by bombing in the Second World War, the London Stone survived and remained in place until 1960, when it was moved to the then Guildhall Museum until the church was demolished and a new building (The Bank of China) constructed. In 1962 the Stone was placed in the specially constructed grilled alcove in the wall where it has remained until recently. Now that building is being demolished and it has moved to the Museum of London for safe keeping.
Over the centuries, a number of myths and legends have surrounded the stone, in 1720, John Strype, in his 1720 edition of John Stow’s Survey of London, suggests that the London Stone was ‘an Object, or Monument, of Heathen Worship’ erected by the Druids. This idea was taken up by the poet William Blake.
Where Albion slept beneath the Fatal Tree,
And the Druids’ golden Knife
Rioted in human gore, In Offerings of Human Life…
They groan’d aloud on London Stone,
They groan’d aloud on Tyburn’s Brook…
The London Stone played an important role in 1450, when Jack Cade, leader of the Kentish rebellion against Henry VI, entered London and, striking the London Stone with his sword, claimed to be ‘lord of this city’. Shakespeare recreated the scene in Henry VI Part 2.
By the end of the 18th century, writers began to suggest that the survival of London Stone was crucial to the well-being of London itself. The discovery of an ‘ancient saying’ which suggests ‘So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long will London flourish’ seemed to support this theory. This saying was first mentioned in an article for the periodical Notes and Queries in 1862. The article was written by the Revd Richard Williams Morgan who was a Anglican priest who seems to have invented the saying to put forward his own rather bizarre conspiracy theory that he and many others where descendants of Brutus. In more recent times, the stone has attracted the attention of those who believe in leylines and who suggest that its removal will have dire consequences. The stone has also been featured in a number of urban fantasy novels.
One remarkable aspect of the story of the London Stone is considering its history and legend, it has virtually ignored by everyone, it was only in 1972 that the London Stone was officially Listed (Grade II) as a structure of special historic interest.
If you make the trip to the Museum of London, you will not be impressed by the stone itself but you will be fascinated by the surrounding mythology and how over the centuries it taken on a number of symbolic roles. Interestingly, although no one will say they believe the myths, when the new building is completed in Cannon Street, the stone will be returned and placed in a prominent position.