A History of Britain in 12 Londoners

Londoners and their city play an outsized role in the history of Britain.

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When Boudicca sought revenge on the Romans for their annexation of her husband’s kingdom and their vile treatment of her daughters, it was London that she burned to the ground. A thousand years later, it was the location where Edward the Confessor ordered the building of Westminster Abbey, one of the grandest churches in Europe. Not longer after, it was where the newly triumphant William the Conqueror built the first of his awe-inspiring stone castles, the Tower of London. It has been the UK’s largest city ever since; for nearly a hundred years from around 1830, it was also the largest city in the world.
In this article, we take a look at twelve Londoners over ten centuries. We’re using the modern city boundaries to define London here, but we’re excluding people like Shakespeare, who may have worked most of his life in London but was born, grew up, had his family and died in Stratford-upon-Avon. We explore how each of these Londoners shaped the city and the country around them, and how their lives fitted into the different eras of London life in which they found themselves.

1. Thomas Becket (1118-1170)

Beckett’s casket at London’s V&A Museum

Thomas Becket is best known for being martyred at Canterbury Cathedral for his resistance to the policies of Henry II that would have restricted the privileges of the Church. Canterbury Cathedral has been a site of pilgrimage ever since. He was born in London, in Cheapside, the son of a none-too-notable family whose finances provided him with a basic education, but not much more. From these beginnings he came into the employment of Theobald of Bec, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1139 to 1161. He rose rapidly first in Theobald’s household, then in royal service, and following Theobald’s death, succeeded him as Archbishop of Canterbury.
Thomas Becket’s life demonstrates that even though many people think of conflict between the Crown and the Church as erupting during the reign of Henry VIII, the tension between the powers of the two was a large part of the background noise of politics for hundreds of years beforehand, with frequent flare-ups long before Henry VIII sought to break with Rome.

2. Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)

Another name more usually associated with Canterbury, Chaucer was a Londoner through and through

Arguably the greatest poet in medieval England, Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London to a family of wealthy wine merchants. Through his family’s connections, Chaucer became a page, then entered the royal court, making a good marriage with one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, Philippa de Roet. He had a good career in a variety of posts in royal service, but of course what he has been remembered for is his poetry, especially the Canterbury Tales.
The Canterbury Tales is a series of connected stories, framed around a pilgrimage to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket. It wasn’t Chaucer’s best-known work in his lifetime, but its vivid characters and insight into medieval life makes it particularly enjoyable for modern readers. What makes it noteworthy is that it’s written in English at a time when most poetry would have been in French or Latin, which were seen as more elevated languages. Chaucer’s popularity helped encourage a return to literature in English.


3. Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540)

Cromwell, painted c.1532

Born in relative obscurity, Thomas Cromwell rose to prominence through his own abilities – a rare thing in the strictly hierarchical society of Tudor England. From working in the household of Cardinal Wolsey, following Wolsey’s downfall he came into the service of Henry VIII. It was Cromwell who was then a key figure in enabling Henry to break with Rome, secure the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. When the king lost interest in Anne Boleyn, Cromwell helped bring about her execution and Henry’s subsequent marriage to Jane Seymour.
But when Cromwell engineered a match with Anne of Cleves that Henry disliked, he lost Henry’s favour and was condemned and executed as a traitor. Cromwell’s life demonstrates the rapid political changes in religion and alliances that continued through Henry VIII’s lifetime, and their long-reaching consequences even centuries after his death.

4. Elizabeth I (1533-1603)

Elizabeth I, depicted in coronation robes.

Born to a mother who was executed by her father when Elizabeth was less than three years old, and declared illegitimate, it might have seemed hard to imagine that the young Princess Elizabeth’s future could have been bright. But she had been given the benefit of an excellent education – much more so than the vast majority of women in her time – and the failure of her brother and older sister to produce heirs meant that she came to the throne in 1558, well-prepared for the challenges of rule.
She’s now recognised as one of England’s most successful monarchs, navigating the difficulties she inherited from her father, brother and sister with skill, despite the additional obstacle of being only the third female monarch that England had had since the Norman invasion. Though her popularity faded towards the end of her reign, the stark comparison posed by the unpopular James I saw her reputation revive not long after her death.

5. Samuel Pepys (1633-1703)

Pepys’s humanity has made him an endearing character.

No list of Londoners could be complete without Samuel Pepys, yet his life was in some ways unremarkable. He was an administrator in the English navy and though he achieved important reforms, his work was not particularly noteworthy. The reason that Pepys demands inclusion on a list like this is because of the daily diary he kept for 10 years from 1660 to 1669, when he was aged 27 to 36.
That’s a period that covers two of the most famous events in the history of London – the coming of the plague in 1665 to 1666, and the Great Fire of London in 1666. From Pepys’ diary, we get an extensive firsthand account of how this all felt to people at the time, along with a fascinating insight into Pepys’ own life. Pepys’ diary is endearingly filled with very human flaws and observations about the world, which makes it a delight to read even beyond its immediate historical interest.

6. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

Portrait of Wollstonecraft, now in London’s Tate gallery.

A writer, philosopher and women’s rights activist, Mary Wollstonecraft was known for some time more by her unconventional personal life (including having a child outside of marriage) than for her work. Her rediscovery by the feminist movement in the 20th century changed all that, and thank goodness, because her life went far beyond whom she chose to have relationships with.
In particular, Wollstonecraft represents the later part of the Age of Enlightenment, believing that people should seek out education, exercise their own reason over listening to others, and grow intellectually. She held that these principles should be extended to women as well as men; that it was hardly surprising that the women of her period did not show great intellectual capacity, as they so seldom had the opportunity to learn. Her writing called for women to be given these opportunities, helping to pave the way for a time when women would be educated on equal terms with men.

7. John Keats (1795-1821)

Keats’s house, in London’s Hamstead Heath.

While Enlightenment thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft held that reason should guide humanity in all things, the next generation of Romantic thinkers disagreed (including, to a certain extent, Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Shelley). One such writer was the poet John Keats. He was born in Moorgate, in London, to a family of relatively humble means who nonetheless managed to send him to school. A shortage of money was a constant in Keats’ life.
Keats’ poetry is deeply sensual, and focuses on the celebration of beauty in the natural world. The images he conjures are full and heady. He was prolific, but only for a short period before his untimely death of tuberculosis. In his life, his writing was appreciated mostly by his own circle, but he gained critical acclaim not long after his death, and his style appealed to the Victorian critics who followed.

8. Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

Disraeli, photographed in 1878.

Alternating with William Gladstone, Benjamin Disraeli was Prime Minister twice during the reign of Queen Victoria, and helped to mould the modern Conservative Party from its Tory roots. Unusually for someone in a position of power at the time, he was from a Jewish background, though he converted to Anglicanism at the age of 12.
A key policy of Disraeli’s was passionate support for the British Empire, which had previously been championed more by the Liberal Party. He encouraged Britain to take a leading role on the world stage, and famously gave Queen Victoria the title of ‘Empress of India’, against opposition in the House of Commons. Disraeli’s career epitomises much of the Victorian Age, as he juggled the desire to preserve tradition with the need for modernisation, such as in finding a role in public life for Queen Victoria that was both fitting for the monarch and acceptable to Parliament.

9. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917)

The dispensary at the New Hospital for Women, London.

As the 19th century wore on, the labour market became open to a growing variety of people. One of them was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman in Britain to qualify as a physician and surgeon. Up to the age of 10, she was taught by her mother, then had a governess, and then was sent to a private girls’ school, where she was taught languages and literature, but no mathematics or science.
By her mid-twenties, Garrett Anderson had taught herself much of what her education had lacked, and decided to become a doctor, with the reluctant support of her father. She used a series of loopholes to gain her qualifications and, as no hospital would employ her, opened her own successful practice. In 1874, she co-founded the London School of Medicine for Women, so that others might follow in her footsteps.

10. Beatrix Potter (1866-1943)

Potter’s characters have continued worldwide appeal.

Beatrix Potter is best known as the writer of children’s stories, set in the countryside and featuring animals, so it’s surprising to learn that she spent all of her childhood and much of her adult life in London. She became famous for her stories of characters such as the loveable rascal Peter Rabbit and his friends, which were illustrated by her own watercolours and demonstrated her love of rural life.
But it’s arguably not as a writer that Beatrix Potter had the greatest impact. She moved to the countryside that she loved at the age of 39, bought a farm, and developed an interest in sheep-breeding and land preservation. She was concerned for the future of the countryside that she loved, so used her wealth to buy more farms and farmland. On her death, she donated this land to the National Trust so that it might be preserved for future generations, establishing much of what later became the conservation area of the Lake District. Perhaps it took a Londoner to see that such beauty was not to be taken for granted.

11. Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

It is only recently that Franklin’s significant work has received any kind of recognition.

One of the beneficiaries of the educational opportunities for women partly enabled by pioneers like Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was Rosalind Franklin. Born in London, she studied at Newnham College, Cambridge and earned her PhD in 1945. As a postdoctoral researcher, she gained expertise in X-ray crystallography in Paris, and from there became a research associate at King’s College London, in 1951.
It was there that her most remarkable work was achieved: contributing significantly to the work that uncovered the double-helix structure of DNA. But her early death in 1958 meant that she could not share in the Nobel Prize won by her colleagues James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins in 1962. Her work at Birkbeck College, where she worked after leaving King’s, on the molecular structure of viruses, was also continued by her colleague Aaron Klug and won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982.

12. David Bowie (1947-2016)

Bowie performing in 2002.

Of all the many celebrity deaths in 2016, David Bowie was among the most mourned. The singer-songwriter was born in Brixton, and formed his first band at the age of 15. His career had a slow start until, in 1969, he had a top-five entry on the UK singles chart with ‘Space Oddity’. But while some musicians settle on the style that brought them success, Bowie repeatedly reinvented himself in different styles and musical genres, so his career was long, varied and prolific.
In Brixton, there is a mural of Bowie as his alter ego Ziggy Stardust, which when his death was announced became the location of a spontaneous street party in celebration of his life. It’s since been announced that the mural will be listed to ensure its preservation.
Image credits: london bus; houses of parliament; casket; chaucer; cromwell; elizabeth; pepys; wollstonecraft; keats house; disraeli; hospital; mouse; dna; bowie.