An improved setting for the newly restored London Stone, based on historical precedent has required significant commitment from all concerned.
Curator Emeritus John Clark (formerly curator of the Museum of London’s medieval collections) examines the myths and the colourful cast of characters who created them.The full article may be read at https://www.seumoflondon.org.uk/discover/ london-stone-seven-strange-myths
It’s been claimed to be a Druidic altar, a Roman milestone, and the magical ‘heart of London’. It’s one of London’s most ancient landmarks, but most people have never heard of it – or if they have, they’ve heard one of the strange legends that have sprouted up around it.
Myth 1: It has stood in London since prehistoric times
The stone is oolitic limestone, of a type first brought to London for building and sculptural purposes in the Roman period. It originally stood on the medieval Candlewick Street (now Cannon Street) opposite St Swithin’s church.This would have placed it in front of the great Roman building, often identified as the provincial governor’s palace. It has been suggested that the Stone was originally some sort of monument erected in the palace forecourt. Some have described it – without evidence – as being a Roman ‘milliarium’, the central milestone from which distances in the Roman province of Britain were measured.
It also stands at the centre of the grid of new streets laid out after King Alfred re-established London in 886, afterViking attacks had destroyed the original Saxon town.And it must be at this period that it received its singular name – ‘Lundene Stane’ in Old English.
Myth 2: It was an ancient altar used forDruidic sacrifices
John Strype, in his 1720 updated edition of John Stow’s Survey of London, seems to have been the first to offer the proposal that London Stone was ‘an Object, or Monument, of Heathen Worship’ erected by the Druids.Thus, later, London
Stone was to play an important in the works of William Blake, prominent among them being its identification as an altar stone upon which Druids carried out bloody sacrifices.
Myth 3: Medieval kings and queens would visit the Stone to ceremonially take control of London
London Stone entered national history briefly in the summer of 1450, when John or Jack Cade, leader of the Kentish rebellion against the corrupt government of Henry VI, entered London and, striking London Stone with his sword, claimed to be ‘lord of this city’.We know the story best from Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 2 – this is great theatre but it is also fiction.
Myth 4: London Stone has never been moved from its resting place
The Stone has been surprisingly migratory. It originally stood in Candlewick Street (Cannon Street) facing the door of St Swithin’s church. It seems to have been damaged by the Great Fire of 1666 and by 1720 what was left of the stone was protected by a small stone cupola. In 1742 it was moved within its protective cupola, against the door of the new Wren church of St Swithin.Two further moves, in 1798 and in the 1820s, placed it eventually where it was to remain for more than 100 years, into the church’s south wall.
The Wren church was gutted by bombing in the Second World War, but the walls were left standing and London Stone remained in place until 1960, when it was moved to the then Guildhall Museum.After the demolition of the ruins and the completion of the then new building on the site, in October 1962, the Stone was placed in the specially constructed grilled and glazed alcove in the wall.While the current 111 Cannon Street was under construction London Stone was moved to the care of the Museum of London, restored before being returned to its new enclosure.
Myth 5: If the Stone is moved or destroyed, London will fall
By the end of the 18th century romantic writers were beginning to suggest a relationship between the survival of London Stone and the well-being of London itself.This concept received a great boost from the apparent discovery of an ‘ancient saying’ – ‘So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long will London flourish’.
This notion is rooted in a much older legend that London was first founded by Brutus, leader of a group of Trojan colonists, as Troia Nova.This story derived ultimately from the 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, a pseudo-historian and arch-inventor of legends. The author of the Notes and Queries article claims that Brutus had brought the base of the original statue of Pallas Athena from Troy and erected it as an altar in a temple of Diana in ‘New Troy’, and that the ancient kings of Britain had sworn their oaths upon it.
Myth 6: The Stone has been protected by a long line of guardians
A modern myth has arisen that the Lord Mayor of London serves as a ‘guardian of the Stone’. It is an obvious concept, though this does not seem ever to have existed in historical times, nor does the Corporation of the City of London list it as one of the Lord Mayor’s official duties. In fact, until 1972, when London Stone was officially Listed (Grade II*) as a structure of special historic interest, neither the Corporation nor the Lord Mayor seems to have taken any responsibility for the Stone.
Myth 7: London Stone is the magical heart of London
In the late 19th century the folklorist George Laurence Gomme put forward his opinion that London Stone was London’s ‘fetish stone’:‘In early Aryan days, when a village was first established, a stone was set up.To this stone the head man of the village made an offering once a year.’The Lord Mayor was therefore the lineal descendant of the first ‘village head man’ of London.
What can we learn from these myths?
An admission that we don’t know the origin of London Stone (and probably never will) satisfies nobody – hence the apparent desire for a mythology that lends it great antiquity and an even greater symbolic role.
The significance of London Stone, and the importance of taking measures for its preservation, depend not only on its actual age and origins,
but on the reputation it has acquired over the years since.
London Stone is a myth. Go visit!