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London Observed

According to old stories, England — or Albion — was settled by the Trojan prince Brutus, the great grandson of Aeneas, after many years of wandering. Troynovant, or New Troy, was the name of the capital. Such mythic tales were only beginning to be questioned in the England of Queen Elizabeth. New sources of evidence were sought in written records, archaeological finds, and systems of mapping. London came into focus as a subject of historical study as voyages of discovery and trade to new parts of the world awoke English interest in the origins of their own society.

Cornelius Tacitus. Annales. London, 1598

William Camden. Britannia. London, 1586

Stow. A survay of London. London, 1598

Schedel. Liber chronicarum. Nuremberg, 1493

Norden. Speculum Britanniae. London, 1593

London, from Civitates Orbis Terrarum. Hand-colored engraving, 1574.

The first written reference to London is thought to have been made by Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus. His Annales, written in the second century AD, told the story of Boadicea, a British warrior widow who led a native rebellion against the Roman governor, Suetonius, in 61 AD. In describing Suetonius’ decision not to defend London, Tacitus characterized the city as “not greatly famous by the name of a colonie, but for concourse of Merchants, and provision of all things necessary, of great fame and renow[n]e.”


Centuries later, headmaster of Westminster School (for boys) William Camden set out to write an account of Roman Britain. Intending to emphasize Britain’s place in the Roman Empire, Camden ended up surveying the history and topography of England, county by county. Adapting the Greek term for place, Camden’s “chorographical description” of the nation became a landmark in English history writing.


But perhaps best known is John Stow's Survey of London, which provides the one indispensible source of information about London at the turn of the seventeenth century. His Survey is organized as a systematic walk around the walls, through the gates, and into the wards of his native city. Stow’s sources included the memories of older contemporaries, the records of the city, and charters of the recently dissolved monasteries. He aimed to preserve the memory of the medieval city passing out of existence. His account was adapted over the years as London grew and changed.


For visual depictions of the city, we can turn first to the "Nuremberg Chronicle," a world history mixing a Christian view of providential history, from Creation to Last Judgment, with new humanist influences from Italy. The “Nuremberg Chronicle” combined some fairly realistic depictions of late fifteenth-century cities with purely fanciful, interchangeable views. London clearly was not of sufficient importance to the publisher Koberger to invest in a custom woodcut. Instead, the woodcut used to

depict London in the Latin edition pictured above also depicted Troy, Pisa, Ravenna, and others.


Other visuals of London can be found in maps of the city. John Norden's small but user-friendly map of London offers a scale of distances and an alphabetical key to major streets, homes, and public buildings in London.  Norden emphasized London’s civic governance by adding the coats of arms of the major trading companies. His was the first map of London to focus closely on the city apart from the seat of national government in Westminster. By contrast, Franz Hogenberg's

Londinum Feracissimi Angliae Regni Metropolis features the medieval city walls, but

the view takes in the whole area extending from the seats of national government at Westminster and Whitehall Palace in the west to the broadening of the Thames for ocean-going traffic in the east. Several streets and intersections are labeled, but the most reliable points of orientation to the city are the river landings and other landmarks that can be seen best from the river. St. Paul’s Cathedral is centered in the view. This is a rare surviving depiction of the medieval St. Paul’s. The cathedral is shown complete with its spire, even though the spire had burnt in 1561.

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