Who founded London?

History books claim that London dates back to Roman times, but could it have been founded before then?


Most staid and sober historians agree that London – Londinium as it then was – was built by the Romans shortly after their invasion of Britain in 43 AD. That being the case, its nominal founder was the then Roman emperor Claudius, a man whose disability (a club foot and possibly cerebral palsy) had led many to think he was stupid, but who proved to be one of Rome’s ablest emperors. Anyone who wants to know more about Claudius could do a lot worse than watch Derek Jacobi play him in the BBC’s 1976 mini-series I, Claudius.

Brutus of Troy

But there are those who doubt the club-footed emperor’s claim on being the founder of our town. Geoffrey of Monmouth, the twelfth-century chronicler who wrote down the legends of King Arthur, tells of a Trojan prince called Brutus (not the same Brutus who was involved in killing Julius Caesar, although Caesar will crop up in the story). This Brutus was the great-grandson of Aeneas, the hero of the Latin poet Virgil’s famous epic the Aeneid, which cast him as the ancestor of the Romans. Aeneas was himself the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and the half-brother, therefore, of her other son Eros, whose statue of course does not stand in Piccadilly Circus. So we are talking here not just royal lineage, but divine lineage no less.

Brutus on a 15th-
century manuscript of
Geoffrey of Monmouth

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his History of the Kings of Britain, Brutus arrived in the land then known as Albion, and wasted no time in building, on the banks of the Thames, a city which he called Troia Nova (“New Troy”), later corrupted to Trinovantum, and Latin sources do indeed refer to a civitas Trinovantum. Boring pedants will say that this in fact meant, not “city of Trinovantum” but “nation of the Trinovantes”, a local Iron Age tribe, and that Geoffrey had simply misunderstood it, but we shall ignore their foolish objections.

King Lud above the doorway of his former pub

So how did New Troy, aka Trinovantum, end up with the name London? Well, it’s all to do with a third claimant to the title of London’s founder, namely Good King Lud, who supposedly ruled in the first century BC. In truth, Geoffrey doesn’t actually say that Lud founded London. What he says is that King Lud had the city, or at least its walls, rebuilt and fortified with towers. After his death, it was his brothers and his sons, together with an army of citizens from Trinovantum and Canterbury, who saw off Julius Caesar, and delayed the Roman takeover by over a century. Roman sources (notably Julius Caesar himself) do not corroborate this story, but they wouldn’t, would they.

Ludgate in 1685

Also according to Geoffrey, King Lud had Trinovantum renamed as Kaer-Lud (Lud’s City), which became corrupted to Caer-London, and then just London. When he died, he was buried by the city’s western gate, which was then named after him as Ludgate. Again, boring pedants will no doubt point out that Ludgate is probably derived from the Olde Englishe term for a postern or swing gate, and has nothing at all to do with King Lud, if such a person ever really existed anyway. But again, we shall ignore their foolishness, because our story is much better than theirs.

The King Lud pub
around 1910

For many years, Ludgate Circus had a pub named after King Lud, and the gate itself wasn’t demolished until 1760. Its last incarnation, dating from the sixteenth century, had a statue of King Lud over the gateway, which today resides in the side porch of the Church of St Dunstan-in-the-West on Fleet Street. The site of the gate is now marked by a plaque on the wall of St Martin's Church on Ludgate Hill, but it has recently been noted that one stone from the gate itself appears to survive, just on the bend of Pilgrim Street, off Ludgate Hill opposite the church.

Was this stone part of Ludgate?

Now of course the boring pedants, having boringly done all the proper research, will tell us that all this stuff about Prince Brutus and King Lud is not so much legend as myth, and that while a town may quite possibly have existed on the site of London before the Romans arrived, no proof of it has ever been found, and Claudius very probably was the city’s nominal founder.

A coin from the
reign of Claudius

Amidst all this sober boringness however, two salient facts should be observed. Firstly, Claudius was deified after his death, and was therefore a god, so the city does have divine lineage after all. And secondly, London was founded around 47 AD, nearly nine centuries before England came into existence, and was a cosmopolitan city right from its birth, so any claim that London has always belonged to England is in fact spurious.