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London: The City that Shaped the World

January 30, 2015

I. Rise of an Empire

Medieval City to World Capital


This is the first in a four part series looking at London's turbulent history up to 1945. The Then pictures are courtesy of Wikipedia, the Museum of London, and the National Maritime Museum, while I took the Now photos in January 2015.

London is a city steeped in history like few others. The leading city of the British Isles since Roman times, the history found in London's grand monuments, cobbled streets and narrow lanes is in some ways reflective of the experience of all Britons.

The United Kingdom was only a middling power on the European stage at the end of the Middle Ages. London bore witness to prolonged religious strife, bloody civil war, regicide, and was utterly destroyed by fire. Yet the city and the nation emerged from these centuries a striving and innovative maritime power, rising to global prominence through naval prowess. The empire created and controlled from London came about essentially by accident, and yet somehow came to be the largest and most successful the world has ever known. It brought undreamt of wealth and glory to a lucky few and by the end of the 19th Century Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace ruled over a bewildering array of peoples and lands. The government at Whitehall held in its hands more power than any in human history. For these reasons the story of London—and therefore Britain—in these centuries is one of the most fascinating and important in all history.

Then and Now Mouse

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Protestants about to be burnt at the stake in Smithfield Market. They would be faced towards the nearby portal of Saint Bartholomew's Priory, giving us the right spot for the Now photo. The Market was the scene of the martyring of both Protestant and Catholic heretics (depending on the predilections of the monarch at the time). William Wallace was hanged, drawn and quartered here and coin forgers were boiled alive at this spot as well. Today it is a quiet place to have lunch.

And so these three godly men, John Hallingdale, William Sparrow, and Master Gibson, being thus appointed to the slaughter, were, the twelfth day after their condemnation, burnt in Smithfield in London. And being brought thither to the stake, after their prayer made, they were bound thereunto with chains, and wood set unto them; and after wood, fire, in the which being compassed about, and the fiery flames consuming their flesh, at the last they yielded gloriously and joyfully their souls and lives into the holy hands of the Lord, to whose tuition and government I commend thee, good reader. Amen.

-John Foxe, The Book of Martyrs

The execution of King Charles I. He was led out the middle window of Whitehall's Banqueting House onto a scaffold that had been erected to allow a crowd to witness his beheading. The scaffolding today is used for a less gruesome purpose.

After a very short pause, his Majesty stretching forth his hands, the, executioner at one blow severed his head from his body; which, being held up and showed to the people, was with his body put into a coffin covered with black velvet and carried into his lodging.

His blood was taken up by divers persons for different ends: by some as trophies of their villainy; by others as relics of a martyr; and in some hath had the same effect, by the blessing of God, which was often found in his sacred touch when living.“

-Anonymous Witness

People flee towards Tower Wharf on the Thames to escape the Great Fire of London. On the right can be seen the Tower of London, and on the left London Bridge. The bottom of Tower Bridge, which was only built in the 19th Century, can be seen in my photo.

So I rode down to the waterside, . . . and there saw a lamentable fire. . . . Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the waterside to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies, till they some of them burned their wings and fell down.

-Samuel Pepys, Diaries

Pensioners outside the chapel at Greenwich hospital by Henry James Pidding. The Greenwich hospital for seamen was founded in 1692 to care for disabled or destitute Royal Navy sailors. Today this painting hangs in the National Maritime Museum. The chapel itself is a tourist attraction.

The Old Naval College in Greenwich seen from the Isle of Dogs. A steamship can be seen towing a sailing vessel out to sea, a motif of the time frequently used to symbolize the end of the age of sail. It is most famously depicted in Turner's The Fighting Temeraire.

The funeral cortege of the Duke of Wellington, victor at Waterloo, departs Trafalgar Square.

Bury the Great Duke
With an empire’s lamentation,
Let us bury the Great Duke
To the noise of the mourning of a mighty nation,
Mourning when their leaders fall,
Warriors carry the warrior’s pall,
And sorrow darkens hamlet and hall.
Where shall we lay the man whom we deplore?
Here, in streaming London’s central roar.
Let the sound of those he wrought for,
And the feet of those he fought for,
Echo round his bones for evermore.

-Lord Tennyson, "Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington"

Celebrating the Queen's Golden Jubilee, the 50th year of her reign, in Trafalgar Square in the shadow of Nelson's Column.

Buckingham Palace before the facade was redone in 1913. At the time this photo was taken Queen Victoria reigned over almost a quarter of the world's landmass and its people.


London: The City that Shaped the World

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