Once famous, now all but forgotten, London Stone was once accepted as both the symbol of London and its epicentre. It sits in a protected alcove at 111 Cannon Street in the City, on the ground floor of an office block opposite Cannon Street station, but that isn’t its original position. The stone was previously a little way to the west, on the south side of the old street (roughly in the middle of the modern street). It was moved in 1742, as it was obstructing traffic. A French visitor in 1578 – by which time it was a tourist attraction – said it was three foot (90cm) high from the ground. It’s now just over half that, possibly due to damage sustained in the Great Fire of 1666, but there also seems to have been more of it beneath ground level.
Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, distances to London have been measured from the site of the original Charing Cross, which is to say, the road junction on the south side of Trafalgar Square, where a statue of Charles I now stands. Supposedly, before that time, distances were measured from London Stone, and indeed an appendix to an 1830 act of parliament says that “The Roman Roads were all measured from London Stone.” If that’s true, it could explain the Stone’s original significance. It certainly isn’t impossible, but there’s no specific evidence to support it.
A hunk of limestone, which may have come from the Cotswolds, the Stone’s original position was in front of what had been a big Roman building, possibly the governor’s palace. The sixteenth-century historian John Stowe said it was listed in a document from the reign of King Athelstan (ruled 924–939), but the oldest known mention of it today is in a manuscript from around 1100, which gives it as the address or surname of someone called “Eadwaker æt lundene stane”. The father of London’s first mayor was similarly called “Ailwin of London Stone”.
Stowe says the Stone was “fixed in the ground verie deepe, fastned with bars of iron, and otherwise so strongly set that if cartes do runne against it through negligence, the wheeles be broken, and the stone it selfe unshaken”. That is no doubt why the Stone, or at any rate the top bit of it, was moved. The underground part seems to have destroyed when the District Line was built in 1884.
A manuscript from 1303 (line 456 of the Auchinleck Manuscript) says the Stone was brought from Troy by London’s legendary founder Prince Brutus, who set it up, declaring that the original Troy “Was never so fair a city as this city shall be.” Brutus was probably a mythical character, so the story is unlikely to be true, but there are all sorts of myths surrounding the Stone, not to mention a Brittonic verse, invented in the nineteenth century, to the effect that London will flourish so long as the Stone is safe.
The Stone’s most famous moment came in 1450 when Jack Cade led a popular rebellion from Kent against government corruption under the ineffectual king Henry VI, whose realm eventually imploded in the Wars of the Roses. It seems that when Cade reached London Stone, he struck it with his sword and declared himself Lord of London, an act dramatized by Shakespeare, no less, who has him sit on it as his throne. Unfortunately, Cade and his followers seem to have decided that everyone in London was the metropolitan elite and fair game for looting, so Londoners (who had previously sympathized with the rebels’ cause) were forced to take up arms and drive them out.
In 1798, the Stone was set into the wall of St Swithin’s church, on the north side of Cannon Street, which had burnt down in 1666 and been rebuilt to a design by Christopher Wren. But during the Blitz, the Luftwaffe bombed Wren’s church, damaging it beyond repair, and it was demolished in 1962. A bank, sportswear shop and newsagent which each in turn succeeded it all kept the Stone behind a grille which you could just about look into from the street, or from inside the premises.
The Stone was then largely ignored, until the 1960s building that housed it was itself demolished in 2016, and replaced by an otherwise equally nondescript office block, whose only claim to fame is that London Stone is now more prominently displayed in its façade. So if you’re strolling down Cannon Street some time, or catching a train from the station, give it a second glance. That’s a little bit of our history there, forgotten but not gone.