Proclaimed as the “heart of London,” a Druid altar, and a Roman milestone, the origins of the London Stone have baffled historians for centuries.
On a normal pre-pandemic weekday, Cannon Street is bustling with suit-clad commuters heading to and from the City, London’s financial district. Nicknamed “the Square Mile,” soaring glass skyscrapers tower above medieval alleyways and the spires and domes of the capital’s most historic buildings. However, there’s another historical artifact that few have ever heard of, housed within a glass display case in an unassuming stone enclosure at 111 Cannon Street—the London Stone.
The block of limestone has been at its current residence since 2018, following a period at the Museum of London for safekeeping whilst a dilapidated 1960s building at its site was torn down. This has given the Stone more prominence than it had in the years prior when it stood behind a rusting iron grille, unbeknownst to most. Now, the London Stone, which is thought to date back to the time of the Roman Empire, is accompanied by a plaque detailing its storied history to pique the interest of passersby. Intriguingly, per the plaque, “its original purpose is unknown.”
The Stone’s appearance has changed over the years, which is unsurprising considering it withstood hundreds of years of history. What is left is the top foot-and-a-half of what must have been quite an impressive monument, according to Curator Emeritus at the Museum of London, John Clark. It’s also not the first time it has been moved. It remained in a central location in Candlewick Street (now Cannon Street) for centuries, facing St Swithin’s Church, where it survived the Great Fire in 1666, which destroyed all nearby buildings. When it became a traffic hazard it was moved, first in 1742—against the door of the new Wren church of St Swithin—and then again in 1798 and in the 1820s, when it was placed in an alcove in the south wall of the church, where it remained for more than 150 years. When the church was all but destroyed in the Blitz, it moved temporarily to the Guildhall Museum, before being relocated permanently to 111 Cannon Street in 1962 (where it was placed behind a protective iron grille).
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It was first mentioned in medieval records around the year 1100, when it is referred to as a landmark: “the Londenstane” or “London Stone.” In 1188, it was again mentioned in reference to Henry, son of Eylwin de Lundenstane, who became Lord Mayor of London. You can also ascertain that it must have been of enough importance to be included on the earliest printed map of London from around 1559, alongside a limited selection of house and road names.
Theories about its purpose include that it was a Roman milestone, supported by William Camden, author of Britannia, who, in 1586, hypothesized that it was a Roman milliarium—the central milestone from which distances in Britain were measured. Legend also has it that it existed for a more ceremonial nature, particularly when Jack Cade, leader of a rebellion against Henry VI in 1450, led rebels from Kent to London and struck the stone with his sword, claiming to be “Lord of this City.”
The incident is immortalized in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part Two, where the author writes: “Here, sitting upon London-stone, I charge and command that … henceforward it shall be treason for any that calls me other than Lord Mortimer.” As Clark writes in an article for the Museum of London, “This is great theatre; it is also fiction—but it has led to the belief that London Stone was traditionally used for such purposes [naming a Mayor of London]. Shakespeare’s inventive genius has a lot to answer for.”
Another myth surfaced in 1720 in John Strype’s updated edition of John Stow’s Survey of London, who seems to have been the first to hypothesize that the London Stone was “an object or monument of heathen worship” erected by the Druids. It’s something that visionary poet and painter William Blake used for his 1810 work Jerusalem, where the London Stone is depicted as an altar where bloody sacrifices took place.
“So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long will London flourish.”
However, it is perhaps most associated with an old rhyme: “So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long will London flourish.” This refers to the legend of Brutus of Troy, the supposed first king of Britain.
“It isn’t an ancient rhyme,” Clark says. “It was actually invented by an eccentric Welsh clergyman in about 1862, but it seemed to have caught on and ever since then people have believed that it actually was a medieval proverb.” Even to this day, the Stone sits as near as possible to its original location in the middle of Cannon Street to ensure the future of London isn’t jeopardized. Just to be on the safe side.
Whatever its true origins, it’s clear that the matter will never be settled and where facts have failed; myth, legend, and imagination have taken over.
“It’s a lump of stone with a myth attached, and in some ways, that’s more important than the stone,” Clark says. It has withstood fire, bombs, renovations, and obscurity and yet it still stands at the very heart of London. That in itself is surely a remarkable feat.