The Mysterious London Stone

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Embedded in the wall of 111 Cannon Street, in the City of London, just above the sidewalk, is a small grilled window that appears like a decorative skylight for an underground basement. Behind it, in a glass enclosure and dimly lit from inside, is an irregular chunk of oolitic limestone, believed to be one of London’s most ancient and important relic. But nobody remembers what it was used for.

Ignored by the thousands of Londoners who walk past the grilled window every day, the London Stone has stood in or around the same spot on present-day Cannon Street for at least a thousand years, and possibly even two. The stone’s mysterious origin has fascinated people for centuries and even appeared in the works of Shakespeare, William Blake and Dickens.

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Photo credit: www.thehistoryblog.com

The name "London Stone" first appeared in written record around the year 1100, and was a well-known landmark in medieval London. In 1450, when Jack Cade, the leader of a peasant uprising, entered the city, he struck his sword on London Stone and declared himself the "Lord of this city", an incident immortalized by Shakespeare in "Henry VI, Part II,". By the time of Queen Elizabeth I London Stone was not merely a landmark, but a visitor attraction in its own right. Tourists flocking in to see the stone might have been told various stories regarding its origin, that it was set up by the order of King Lud, legendary rebuilder of London, as the center of the city or that it served as a place for tendering and making of payment by debtors.

As the centuries rolled by, the legends and stories became more elaborate. By the early 19th century, many writers began to believe that the stone was part of an altar or foundation dating from the time of Brutus of Troy, the legendary but probably fictional descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas, known in medieval British legend as the founder and first king of Britain. Others suggested that it was used by the Druids as a place of worship.

The most popular explanation of the stone, that it was set up by the Romans and used as a central stone from which all distances in Roman Britain were measured, came from the 16th century London historian William Camden, even though there is no archaeological evidence to support it.

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Photo credit: Andrea Vail/Flickr

It’s believed that the London Stone was originally larger, and was damaged and reduced in size sometime in the 17th century, possibly in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The remaining part of the stone was later covered with a small stone cupola to protect it. But when the stone started to hinder traffic movement, it was moved, twice, once in 1742 and again in 1798. The second time it was relocated, it was set in a stone case in the southern wall of St Swithin’s Church, where it remained for over 150 years, throughout the whole 19th Century.

In 1962, St Swithin’s Church was demolished and the London Stone was set in its current location in a building opposite Cannon Street Station. Ten years later, the London Stone and its grilled box became a Grade II listed structure.

The bronze plaque on top of the casing, installed in 1962, reads:

LONDON STONE

This is a fragment of the original piece of limestone once securely fixed in the ground now fronting Cannon Street Station.

Removed in 1742 to the north side of the street, in 1798 it was built into the south wall of the Church of St. Swithun London Stone which stood here until demolished in 1962.

Its origin and purpose are unknown but in 1188 there was a reference to Henry, son of Eylwin de Lundenstane, subsequently Lord Mayor of London.

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Jack Cade on London Stone. Photo credit: www.thehistoryblog.com

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Church of St Swithin, London Stone, in Cannon Street, London, with the casing of London Stone prominent in the middle of the front wall; engraving after Thomas H. Shepherd, 1831. Photo credit: T. H. Shepherd/Wikimedia

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The stone's former casing. Photo credit: Walter Thornbury/British Library/Wikimedia

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The building where the London Stone is located, behind the grilled window, is occupied at various times by various businesses. This image is from a time when there was a sporting goods store. Photo credit: www.thehistoryblog.com

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Photo credit: MANHATTAN RESEARCH INC/Flickr

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Photo credit: John O'London/Wikimedia

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Photo credit: tpholland/Flickr

Sources: Wikipedia / Mysterious Britain / LA Times

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