Sunday 13 March 2011

From the archives: London Stone

Two years after I wrote about the London Stone, it is still imprisoned in its Cannon Street cage. Surely it deserves better treatment than this!

Imprisoned in a metal cage, London Stone is almost invisible to passers-by. It's in a neglected-looking building opposite Cannon Street Station, the former premises of the Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation. When the bank was converted to a sports shop, the stone was nearly destroyed by a builder until the manager intervened. What a sorry situation for one of London's oldest mysteries.

Originally, the Stone was much bigger than the lump which survives today; it may have shrunk in the seventeenth century, but nobody knows for sure when or how this happened. It stood on the site of Cannon Street Station until 1742, when it was moved across the road. Half a century later, it was incorporated into a church, St Swithin London Stone, which survived the Blitz but was demolished in 1962. In 2006 it was announced that the current building was to be demolished and the Stone moved temporarily to the Museum of London, although this has not happened yet.

What is the stone's purpose? Nobody knows. The most popular explanation, with some centuries' pedigree, is that it was a Roman milestone from which high roads radiated and distances were measured. Alternatively, was it a prehistoric menhir, or part of an altar built by Brutus the Trojan, mythical founder of London?

In the middle ages, the Stone seems to have assumed a symbolic role as a place to pass laws and make proclamations. According to Shakespeare, Jack Cade struck his sword upon it in 1450 when he declared himself Lord of the City. The first Lord Mayor of London was Henry, son of Eylwin de Londenstane. There is even a myth that the Stone's safety and that of London are connected.

The Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers found a more prosaic purpose for the stone in the seventeenth century. They enforced standards of spectacle-making, and substandard pairs were broken on London Stone:
[In 1671] two and twenty dozen of English spectacles, all very badd both in the glasse and frames not fitt to be put on sale... were seized and taken away by the Master and the Wardens by vertue of the Charter of this Company and the Lord Maior's Warrant and carryed to Guildhall and there in the Maior's Court by a jury were found badd and deceitful and by judgement of the Court condemned to be broken, defaced and spoyled both glasse and frame the which judgement was executed accordingly in Canning Street on the remayning parte of London Stone where the same were with a hammer broken all in pieces.
It may be neglected today, but the legend and sense of the Stone's importance does persist. Let's hope that in future, it gets the setting it deserves.


Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that no crackpot religious organization has laid claim to it and demanded access to it for their ceremonies. They seem to have hijacked everything else.

I think the best thing would be to place the London Stone in the British Museum. After all, it has been moved so many times that no particular location can now be claimed as the place where it "ought" to be sited. In the Museum it would be both visible and protected.

Left to its own devices, it's likely to go on shrinking until it finally disappears...

CarolineLD said...

Yes, having it left to the mercies of whoever happens to occupy that building seems crazy. There was talk of temporary relocation to the Museum of London, which would also work well, or to the refurbished Cannon Street station.

Anonymous said...

I also had a bit of a moan about this recently, here:

I'm sure a better and more accessible home can be found quite inexpensively. I'm guessing that nobody has responsibility for it, so nobody owns the problem.

Brooke said...

Thank you for this post. I remember seeing this stone on a tv program many moons ago, and could never remember enough about it to look for it again. I will now go and have a look at it.