So, did you know: encased in a glass and metal grille case – like some magical talisman in a romantic epic – lies London Stone, an ancient, mysterious lump of limestone, said for hundreds of years to have magical properties focused on keeping the city of London safe and prosperous.
If you didn’t know, I could hardly blame you. I don’t think most Londoners do know about London Stone. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are Londoners who work in Cannon Street and walk straight past it every day without noticing it exists. The Stone is embedded into the front of the building opposite Cannon Street tube station – currently a rather unromantic and unepic branch of WHSmith. From the street you can duck to see the Stone through the glass and grille, but inside the shop the Stone is hidden behind a magazine rack and is not accessible; how ignominious for such a venerable relic!
It is an irregular block of limestone measuring 53 x 43 x 30 cm (21 x 17 x 12 inches), the remnant of a once much larger object that had stood for many centuries on the south side of the street. The name “London Stone” was first recorded in about 1100 but the context shows that it was already by that time an established London landmark. It was originally situated on the south side of medieval Candlewick Street (since widened to create modern Cannon Street) and the London historian John Stow in the 16th century described it as “a great stone called London stone”, “pitched upright… fixed in the ground verie deep, fastned with bars of iron”. He went on to say that “the cause why this stone was there set, the verie time when, or other mermorie thereof, is there none.” It seems even then the origin and significance of the Stone had already been lost.
Medieval Londoners acquired or adopted the surname “at London Stone” or “of London Stone” because they lived nearby. One of these was “Ailwin of London Stone”, the father of Henry FitzAilwin – the first Mayor of the City of London – who took office at some time between 1189 and 1193, and governed the city until his death in 1212. By 1450 it seems that the Stone had taken on an association with power. A Kentish man, Jack Cade, leader of a rebellion against the corrupt government of Henry VI, entered the city with his men and struck his sword on London Stone, claiming to be “Lord of this city”. Some people believe that they can make out numerous well-worn grooves on the stone, furrowed by repeated sword blows of this type.
The fact that the material is not a stone native to London seems to suggest that it came to London with the Romans, who brought limestone from the Midlands for their buildings. The area between Cannon Street and the River Thames was a site of important Roman buildings, so it is theorised that the Stone originally formed part of the entrance into an important administrative building, a site that retained prestige and significance long after it was abandoned by its architects. The native Londoners were rather inclined to attach symbolic importance to stones, as ‘sacred stones’ are part of our most ancient traditions; even today, our monarchs are still crowned on the Stone of Scone in Westminster Abbey. Certainly, Elizabeth I’s adviser and occultist, John Dee, certainly thought that the Stone had ancient, occult powers and performed tests on it for many years during his experiments with alchemy.
By 1671, the Stone was being referred to as “the remaining part of London Stone”; it seems that it was damaged in the Great Fire of London and was being housed and protected by an elaborate cupola. London was changing over to more modern sensibilities, and in 1742 the Stone was considered rather a nuisance and to be blocking traffic. It was rather unceremoniously moved from its original site on the south side of the street to the north side, where it was first set beside the door of St Swithin’s Church, which had been rebuilt by Christopher Wren after its destruction in the Great Fire. It was moved again in 1798 to the east end of the church’s south wall, and finally – in the 1820s – set in an alcove in the centre of the wall.
And there the Stone remained undisturbed, until 1940, when St Swithin’s was bombed out during the Blitz. The outer walls – including the one with the Stone – were left standing for many years until, in 1962, they were demolished and 111 Cannon Street was built over the foundations. London Stone was placed without ceremony in the unremarkable little alcove that it occupies today. Currently, it’s the focus of a planning argument: it’s being proposed that it be moved down the road to the super-modern office block, the Walbrook Building, where it will be installed as a creepy sort of lobby decoration. I do hope this never gets approval…
Over its long, mysterious history it’s not surprising that the Stone has picked up more than its fair share of romantic legends. The most common of these is that it was the stone that formed the altar in a temple founded by Brutus, the Trojan refugee who is the mythical founder of ‘Albion’s London’, over a thousand years before the Romans arrived on the isles. Like the prophecy that foretells that England will fall if the ravens in the Tower ever fly away, the destruction of London Stone is meant to herald the destruction of its city. Even more romantic, many held that London Stone was the stone from which the legendary King Arthur pulled the sword Excalibur.
Wherever it came from and whatever its original purpose, the Stone is today rightly considered the heart of London. It’s survived regime changes, plagues, fires, modernisation and bombs. It has been written about by literary greats such as Shakespeare, Blake and Dickens. It might be a little inglorious to have it stuffed underneath a newsagent’s window display, but at least it’s accessible to Londoners and still part of the street where it’s been since – literally – time immemorial. So, if you ever find yourself in the City, near Cannon Street tube, remember to nip across to the WHSmith, buy an overpriced Terry’s Chocolate Orange and duck your head to see and pay your respects to London Stone.