Monday, 25 June 2012

London Stone

A Tale of Two Cities III

London Stone has been described as an outlier to a stone circle that once stood on Ludgate Hill, a sacred place from ancient times. Tradition claims a pagan temple on the site was destroyed around 597 AD to make way for the first Christian church to be built there in 604 AD, the precursor to St Paul's Cathedral. Is it possible that a prehistoric standing stone has survived in the heart of the modern city?

Book the Third: The London Stone
London Stone, a Grade II listed ancient monument, once a much larger block of limestone but now about eighteen inches square, is today imprisoned behind a iron grating within a wall on the north side of Cannon Street opposite the railway station. The Stone has gained near mythical status over the years, it certainly seems to have had an active history and has been repeatedly moved from its original position, wherever that was. And now it seems to be on the move again.

The property company Minerva plan to demolish entire seven-storey office block where London Stone is now housed and propose to relocate it to an office block further down the road at the Walbrook Building, one of the City's newer office blocks. A move considered as preservation by some and desecration by others, the plan includes alterations to the front of the Walbrook Building where a special display case will be built to contain the legendary London Stone.
London Stone - Cannon Street
Only traces of the Stone's early legend has survived and nothing is known of its early history for certain; the Stone is first mentioned in the 10th century were it is recorded as a landmark belonging to Christ's Church in Canterbury. The composition of the stone is Oolitic limestone, a non-local stone, which must have been transported in to London for construction purposes, possibly by the Romans for use as the Milliarium Aureum (Golden Milestone), the suggestion no doubt enhanced by the Stone's close proximity to the Roman road Ermine Street running from the Roman fort at Cripplegate (Londinium) to Eburacum (York) and onto Hadrian's Wall in the north. And yet some claim its origin is even earlier and that Cannon Street is on the line of an ancient, pre-Roman trackway into London, marking an alignment to Tower Hill with London Stone as the omphalos or sacred centre where all roads met.

In the 16th century we find our first descriptions of the Stone. William Camden, author of Britannia, was probably the first to describe the Stone as a Roman ‘milliarium’, the central milestone from which all distances to Londinium were measured in the land Itineraries. Camden’s trusted reputation amongst later antiquarians has guaranteed the survival of this tradition and it certainly remains popular today. However, there is no evidence to support this view and certainly no trace of Roman numerals has ever been found on the stone.

Evidently at some time the Stone has lost much of it's bulk as it was once much larger and stood on the opposite side of the road. However, the reason for the reduction in size seems to have eluded history. A 16th century copperplate map of the City of London shows the Stone as a large rectangular block in the roadway opposite the main door of St Swithin's Church.

The previous size of the Stone is made clear by the Elizabethan historian John Stow who describes it as, ‘a great stone called London Stone, fixed in the ground very deep, fastened with bars of iron’ (Survey of London,1598). John Dee, alchemist of Queen Elizabeth I, is said to have taken pieces of the Stone for occult  experiments, perhaps this was common practice and the Stone was chipped away by relic hunters.

Stow had refused to speculate on the origin of the Stone, but in the 18th century John Strype, in his updated edition of Stow’s Survey of London, seems to have been the first to offer the alternative proposal that it was ‘an Object, or Monument, of Heathen Worship’ erected by the Druids. The English poet, artist and celebrated mystic William Blake perpetuated the myth by including the mysterious relic in his Jerusalem, portraying it as a sacrificial altar of the Druids: "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."

During the 18th century the Stone was considered an obstruction to traffic and was moved to the north side of the street. Some fifty years later, in 1798, it was moved again after being considered a further obstruction and relocated against the south wall of the church. The Stone was then moved into an alcove in the wall of St. Swithun's churchyard during the construction of the station in the 19th century. The church was ruined during the blitz of the Second World War and finally demolished in 1961. London Stone apparently survived the war intact and since 1962 has been kept at the same spot within the wall of number 111 Cannon Street. Today most people walk past the stone without so much as even a cursory glance, seemingly oblivious to its mystical significance or confused origin.

Sacred Waters
The Roman fort at Cripplegate pre-dates the Roman City Wall of London by at least a century and is thought to have housed the thousand-strong bodyguard of the provincial governor. The fort lies on the edge of the upper Walbrook valley toward the north-eastern shoulder of the high ground that peaks at Ludgate Hill. Once an important freshwater source in Roman Londinium today the Walbrook flows some 30ft below the City's streets as the London Bridge sewer before discharging into the Thames. Evidence suggests that in ancient times, many years before the Romans, the waters of the Walbrook were considered sacred.

Numerous objects have been fished out of the Walbrook, the small stream that flowed through the centre of the Roman city. Vast amounts of metalwork have been recovered from sites along the valley of the Walbrook, with great numbers of human skulls found in the upper channels, at one time thought to have been the result of the Boudican sacking of Londinium in 60 AD. This theory seems unlikely as many of these skulls were predominantly from young males aged between 25 – 35 and found without jawbones indicative that they were defleshed before deposition, together with an absence of other human bones. Furthermore, when considered in the context of the human skulls found in London's wells, such as the nearby Queen's Street, together with London's long association with the cult of the head it would appear that the skulls were intentionally deposited in the sacred waters of the Walbrook. Metalwork and human skulls are often found deposited in wet places, yet it is rare to find them both together from the same period. Dating evidence suggests this ritual had been taking place at this location from the Bronze Age.

About 150ft (45m) to the west of the street named after the Walbrook was a small valley upon the banks of which the Romans built a mithraeum, an underground temple to the God Mithras. Mithraism was a mystery religion popular amongst Roman soldiers throughout the Empire which iconography indicates was associated with a bull cult. The temple, excavated by W. F. Grimes in 1954,  has been relocated to Temple Court, off Queen Victoria Street, but the intention remains to restore the  mithraeum to its original location on the bank of the ancient Walbrook river as part of the Walbrook Square Project.

The large amount of material found in the Walbrook led to the suggestion that it was no more than a rubbish dump containing discarded metalwork and human remains that had washed down from local cemeteries but archaeologists and historians have long suspected that the upper valley of the Walbrook was a sacred region and these objects are correctly recognised as votive deposits and the Walbrook phenomenon is now acknowledged as possessing ritual significance.

Rising in Moorfields, the Walbrook entered the City through the Wall just west of All Hallows-on-the-Wall running toward the site of the modern Bank of England, effectively bisecting the old Roman city, it's ancient course betrayed by a noticeable depression marking the place were the river crossed Cannon Street on its way to the Thames. The church at All Hallows-on-the-Wall encompasses part of the old Roman City Wall, possibly starting life as as ancient shrine there. The area enclosing Cannon Street station was once the site of an imposing Roman building complex, originally thought to have been the Governor's Palace. Those who deny the Stone a prehistoric provenance often speculate that it may have originated from this complex.

London Stone - early 19th century engraving 
London Stone is enigmatically connected with the destiny of England's capital city; London's fate is said to lie with the Stone. In 1450 when Jack Cade entered the City leading his rebellious band of Kentish peasants he is said to have rode up to the Stone and it struck with his sword and by that gesture claimed to be the rightful 'Lord of London'. From this it is not such a massive leap to see why it has been claimed that London Stone was the stone from which King Arthur drew the sword Excalibur and subsequently declared as the rightful king of Britain.

In more recent years London Stone has been linked to the Trojan story of London. The legend claims that because Brutus received such encouraging advice from the oracle at the temple of Diana he swore he would build a new temple in her honour. According to the tradition Brutus built his temple at Ludgate Hill and London Stone is claimed to be a remnant, perhaps an altar, from that temple and commemorated in the saying:

“So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe,
So long will London flourish”

But this can only be traced back as far as 1862 and the Celtic revival of the Victorian Age.

Much has been said about London Stone but in truth, no one knows the origin of this foreign stone in London. Yet its survival in a sacred area of the City has persisted through a remarkable length of time.

Copyright © 2012 Edward Watson

Next: In Search of London's Ancient Temples

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