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A prehistoric stone surviving in the heart of a modern city

  •   5 min reads
A prehistoric stone surviving in the heart of a modern city

In the centre of London, underneath a glass crypt on Canon Street, lies one of the city’s least known mysteries. An ancient stone placed in the heart of a major metropolis, possibly three thousand years ago, with no clues as to how it got there.

First appearance

The first appearance known of the “London Stone” goes back to a list of tenants from the Canterbury Cathedral properties in 1108. A retired curator from the Museum of London and author of many papers on the London Stone, John Clark says “The London Stone, clearly an important landmark, is also identified on the earliest detailed map of London, the so-called ‘Copperplate’ map of the late 1550s.”

Copperplate Map, late 1550s. Source: The Museum of London

The stone was also referred to as “that curious relic of old London” by William Blake, Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare. In fact, Shakespeare even described the 15th century peasants’ rebellion leader, Jack Cade, as striking the London Stone, in an act symbolising taking control over the city. “Now is Mortimer lord of this city. And 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 words of Shakespeare’s play “Henry VI”, Part 2, Act 4, Scene 6.

But according to John Clark, “proof of the pre-existence of a ‘tradition’ that possession of London Stone ensured control of London is a circular argument. This is great theatre. It is also fiction”.

By the 16th century, the London Stone was already incorporated into titles, names, and an important tourist attraction. One thing only is certain about the stone’s history: ever since the 16th century, it has been treated as a symbol of authority, a recognised place for meetings, taking oaths and used for announcements of official proclamations. Today, the symbolic heart of London is only a small 17 square inch fragment of an original piece of limestone, hidden in the streets of London.

A roman milestone?

The most widely accepted story of the stone’s arrival suggests that it was first brought to the city by the Romans in 43 AD, and used as the point from which they would measure distances to and from Londinium – the name given to London under Roman rule. As such, the stone would have been used as a central milestone or ‘miliarium’ in Latin, whilst the city was first under development.

The beginnings of London as a city is believed to date more or less from 43 AD and the invasion by the Romans. Prior to this Roman invasion, there were no permanent settlements of significance on the land London stands on today. Milestones were a Roman favourite and an important part of any Roman road or development network. Originally in the form of stone obelisks, they were made from granite, marble, or whatever local stone was available.

The London Stone is made of oolite limestone, a popular and accessible stone from outer London that had been heavily transported to the city in both Roman and medieval times – reinforcing this theory. The nearest source for its origin would have been in Kent, over 60 miles away.

John Clark claims “The London Stone is admittedly a mystery. The use of limestone not local to the London area suggests it had its origin no earlier than the Roman period, when such stone was first carried to London for construction purposes; its name certainly hints at a special significance for those who first named it.”

However, the area between Cannon Street and the River Thames in London was a site of important Roman buildings – indicating that the stone could also have been quite simply from one of these banal buildings.

Although there is no indisputable or even direct proof that the Romans were the ones who brought the stone to London, the circumstantial evidence that it is indeed ancient seems undeniable and quite probable.

The London Stone photographed from above. Credit: The Museum of London

A druid stone?

And, of course, there are other theories. Some of them claim the stone is in fact a Druid stone, from 3000 years ago, a remnant of a circle of stones that once stood at Ludgate on the current site of St Paul’s Cathedral. The land was indeed first used as a burial site for King Lud, during the first century before Christ and is certainly one of the oldest settled parts of London, pre-dating the Romans.

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, author of the legendary History of the Kings of Britain and other medieval texts, King Lud was a Celtic King in pre-Roman times, and he founded London, named it after himself, before being buried at Ludgate. In his time, the stone is believed to have been part of a religious standing stone circle. Cannon Street, where the stone is found today, flanks St Paul’s Cathedral and pre-Roman walls were excavated in the 19th century right by Cannon Street – giving some support to the theory. However, limestone seems a very improbable and previously unknown choice of material from which to build a stone circle.

A sacrificial altar?

Yet another legend claims that the stone is the Stone of Brutus – founder and first king of Britain – and was a part of an altar on which ancient Druids sacrificed their victims. According to this legend, the city of London was first founded around 1070 BC by Brutus of Troy. William Blake was a significant supporter of the sacrificial altar theory, going as far as writing: “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”, from The Poetical Works of William Blake: Jerusalem.

The stone was believed to have been first placed on the hill where St Paul’s now stands in a temple dedicated to Diana. “Although the ‘Stone of Brutus’ saying is indeed now ‘traditional’ and popularised in the media, the saying has apparently only existed since 1862,” says John Clark.

“It is typical of the myths that have gathered around London Stone. The undoubted mystery of the Stone’s origin has encouraged further mystification by mischievous as well as well-meaning interpreters, and the practice continues today.”

Protecting the stone

Though relating to the myth that the stone was part of an altar built by Brutus the Trojan, a widespread old proverb states: “So long as the stone of Brutus is safe, so long shall London flourish.” As far as we know, the proverb might be true and protecting the stone might not be such a bad idea.

“Modern accounts of London Stone usually refer to a traditional belief that the stone was associated in some way with the well-being of the city” says John Clark.

Indeed, there is a legend that has it that the fortune of the city is closely tied to the survival of the stone, acting as the beating heart of London. Other theories claim that the stone possesses magical powers or that it is none other than the stone from which the legendary King Arthur withdrew his equally famous sword: Excalibur.

Curiously, the stone was nearly lost a few years ago, around 2006, when the building it was attached to was pulled down and the site redeveloped – but the stone was rescued and recently re-housed in a new casing.

John Clark believes “The mythologising of London Stone continues, and at the turn of the twenty-first century it is regarded by some as an essential element in London's indefinable sacred geometry.”

Maybe it was an altar, a milestone, a druid stone or something completely different but its biggest achievement is surely to have survived it all through the test of time, and one thing is certain: something so ancient and mysterious as the stone should be protected and its story spread widely.

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