January 16th, 2012 | Published in Articles
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In the fifth part of his account of legendary London, Stephen Grasso excavates the ancient significance of the London Stone, proclaims the city’s history of violent resistance to abusive authority and ignites Christopher Wren’s Monument to the Great Fire of London as a beacon of both hope and the regenerative power of purifying fire.
Turn left onto Cannon Street and you encounter the London Stone. Blink and you miss it. Hidden in plain sight, behind an iron grate in the external wall of a now-derelict building. The most neglected, overlooked, but perhaps most important bit of rock in the city. All that is known for certain about the London Stone is that it is old, possibly pre-dating the Roman city. The Romans themselves reputedly used it as a marker stone from which distances to and from the city were measured, and from which all routes out of the city radiated. Over the years, many legends have been attributed to the stone, primarily that it was the altar stone of the Temple of Diana built by Brutus the Trojan at the site of St Paul’s Cathedral. Other legends claim it was originally part of a prehistoric stone circle that once stood on Ludgate Hill, and some stories even claim that it was the stone from which King Arthur drew the sword Excalibur.
Like most hapless tenants in the city, the London Stone has been forced to move house several times due to circumstances beyond its control. For centuries, it stood as the nexus point of a crossroads near what is now Cannon Street Railway Station. It was moved in 1798, as carts kept crashing into it, and set in the wall of St Swithin’s Church. It remained here until 1940, when the church was destroyed during the Blitz. Miraculously, the stone survived the bombing, and was relocated to its current position on Cannon Street. The building housing the stone has seen various tenants come and go, including the Overseas Chinese Banking Company who occupied the premises for several years, and most recently a branch of the Sportec chain of retail sporting goods stores.
During this tenure, the outside wall surrounding the stone grate was plastered with the logos of brands such as Puma and Adidas, which made for a surreal picture. The totemic core of London’s foundation magic forced to compete for attention alongside a barrage of corporate glyphs. When Sportec first occupied the building, the manager of the store claims to have prevented the cowboy builders in charge of the renovation from chiseling into the stone – and during the tenancy took on the role of its unofficial custodian, explaining the history to baffled customers as they browsed the cricket section where the stone was housed. The building is now empty, and due for demolition, and it is unclear what will become of the London Stone. The stone itself is a grade 2 listed structure, but there has been talk of relocating it to the Museum of London for its protection. Taking it out of the landscape, installing it in a bland educational context, and sterilising the potency of the random street-side encounter.
The London Stone has long been a symbol of personal sovereignty within the city, with the first Lord Mayor of London assuming the title Henry Fitz-Ailwin de Londonestone. It passed into tradition for an incoming Lord Mayor to strike the stone with his sword and declare himself holder of the title. From street level you can see several shallow grooves in the top of the stone that look as if they have been made by repeated strikes of the sword over a period of time. In 1450, the rebel leader Jack Cade struck the stone with his sword in this manner when his forces entered the city and declared himself a Lord of the City by the power of the Stone. Cade’s rebellion was an uprising of some 5,000 Kentish peasants, dissatisfied with King Henry VI’s rule of the country and the endemic corruption that allowed the wealthy to act unlawfully and remain free from recrimination.
Cade’s forces swept through the city, taking over both the Guildhall and the Tower of London, and beheading the Lord High Treasurer and other dignitaries. The headquarters for Cade’s rebellion was a South London boozer called The White Hart in Southwark, just south of London Bridge and now long vanished; and the bridge itself was the scene of a major battle that began at ten in the evening and lasted until 8am the next day. Following this skirmish, the Lord Chancellor promised to fulfill all the demands of Cade’s manifesto and grant pardons to all of his men. However, within a week of the peasant army disbanding, Cade and the other leaders of the rebellion were rounded up and killed, and all the official promises made in the fires of rebellion were revoked.
The tale of Cade’s rebellion follows a similar trajectory to the earlier English Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, also known as Wat Tyler’s rebellion. The principal causes of this uprising were the brutal enforcement of an unfair poll tax, and discontent surrounding the much-loathed Statute of Labourers – a wage cap that prevented serfs from benefiting from the labour shortage that followed the Black Death. More than a third of the population of Europe had been wiped out by the plague, and landowners suddenly found themselves competing with one another for a limited supply of workers. Serfs used this leverage to demand better wages and conditions, a shift in economic power that threatened the landowners, and so laws were drawn up to set a maximum wage – frozen to the poverty levels of the plague days – and to restrict the mobility of labour so workers could not offer their services to the highest bidder.
The rebellion began at Brentwood in Essex in response to a heavy-handed poll tax collector, and quickly spread through the surrounding counties of London. Dissidents from Kent and Essex congregated at Blackheath in south east London, under the leadership of Wat Tyler and Jack Straw, and prepared to march on London itself. A wandering freelance priest called John Ball, who had been excommunicated by the church but nonetheless continued to preach, was liberated from the Archbisop of Canterbury’s prison and delivered an impassioned sermon to the forces gathered at Blackheath. It began:
“When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.”
The opening couplet of the sermon, while sounding oddly pornographic, challenged the basic premise of the feudal system and attacked the idea that there should be a gentry and a peasant class. In the Garden of Eden, there was no ruling aristocracy, just free men and women created equal. The notion of serfdom arises only from the criminality of the oppressor, or “naughty men”, as Ball puts it. A controversial position in 1381. The cryptic rhyme was to echo down the centuries and become a byword for insurrection, muttered by dissident peasants for generations. The men of Kent and Essex were soon joined by many of London’s poor and set about making isolated guerilla attacks on political targets throughout the city. The King, Richard II, was presented with a series of demands, including the end of villeinage, the system of near-slavery whereby serfs were made to work for landowners without pay. The Tower of London was stormed, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Treasurer and Lord Chancellor were decapitated on Tower Hill.
The King rode out to meet the rebel leaders at Smithfield and agreed to all of their demands. However, following an altercation, the rebel leader Wat Tyler was fatally stabbed by William Walworth, the Lord Mayor of London. A militia was hurriedly raised to rest back control of the city, all the promises made by the King were quickly reneged upon as soon as the rebels began to disperse, and the remaining leaders of the rebellion were rounded up and killed. While the Peasant’s Rebellion was unsuccessful in its aims, its example reverberated throughout the country, and inspired similar activity as far afield as York, Scarborough, Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge and Norfolk. Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball’s legacy was to usher in the beginning of the end of serfdom and the eventual demise of the feudal system in England. That is, until it received a PR makeover and was rebranded for the 21st century as the “Big Society”.
The sovereignty and empowerment bestowed by the London Stone does not appear to be that which proceeds from aristocratic title or moneyed inheritance. For such things are illusions sustained only by force of arms. It is perhaps more akin to the sovereignty of John Ball’s sermon. The condition of liberty within nature. A freedom of being that has been compromised in increments since Adam delved and Eve span. It is unlikely that the London Stone really was the same lump of rock that held the mythic Excalibur, but the persistent association suggests that there is some power that can be claimed from the Stone. Greedy robber barons, puffed-up lords of the manor, and financial profiteers try in vain to wrench it loose, but no amount of red-faced tugging will do.
As in the legends, the stone is choosy about who it selects to receive its gift. It looks for humble spirit and honest heart, a relationship to the land, a kinship and affinity with the rough stone itself, the bricks and mortar of the city, the clean earth, the trees and the dead. Commodities of being that are in short supply throughout the City of London. Jealous of a prize that can’t be bought or taken by force, the Old Boys are contemptuous of the London Stone. Wary of doing away with it altogether, and the grave curses that are prophesied to befall London if it is ever taken from the city, they do a hatchet job on its history and let it rot in a derelict shop front.
Only a tiny minority of Londoners have even heard of the London Stone, and fewer still know where it is, but cross over the road from Cannon Street train station and our city’s ancient foundation stone lies in state. It may now prove a logistical challenge to strike it with your broadsword, but in volatile times when we’re increasingly nudged towards economic serfdom by interests eager to widen the gap of inequality, the London Stone is the ancient site for taking that power back and asserting one’s personal sovereignty within the city.
The final crossroads before leaving the City of London is the intersection of Cannon Street, Gracechurch Street, Eastcheap and King William Street, in the shadow of the Monument. Constructed between 1671 and 1677 by Sir Christopher Wren, the Monument to the Great Fire of London functions as a principal Poteau Mitan of the square mile. It is a Petro mystery, ruled by Legba La Flambeau, whose fiery presence consumes the nearby crossroads. The Monument stands 202ft high, and remains the largest free-standing stone column in the world. If it were lain flat, its tip would mark the spot where the fire began, at the site of a bakery on Pudding Lane.
The Great Fire of 1666 is one of several apocalypses that have been endured by the city. It raged for four days and consumed the entirety of the square mile, and threatened to spill over to Westminster and Southwark before it was finally brought under control. The destruction swept through 13,500 houses, 87 parish churches, 44 company halls, the Royal Exchange and St Paul’s Cathedral, among other buildings, and left around 200,000 people dispersed into the surrounding areas. The death toll from the fire is numbered at eight, which seems miraculous given the extent of the blaze, until you realise that, in Old Boys terms, the lives of the poor don’t matter and their deaths are unlikely to have been added to the tally. The fire was hot enough to melt iron, and would have reduced its victims to unrecognisable charred bones, undocumented amid the rubble. The death toll also does not include the many left destitute who would have died from poverty and exposure in the harsh winter that followed the disaster.
At the peak of the Monument is a flaming urn cast in bronze, giving the structure the aspect of a candle. Simultaneously a lamp set for the dead and a beacon of hope. Wren’s first choice for the ornament was a phoenix with wings outstretched, as a metaphor for a new London rising from the ashes of the ruined city. No free-standing pillar on the scale of the Monument had been seen before by Londoners, and it struck a cultural impact akin to that of the Empire State Building in New York, a fantastical construct ushering in a brave new world. A promise that Wren would later follow through on and surpass with his breathtaking design for the new St Paul’s Cathedral.
The central mystery of the Monument and its crossroads is that of renewal by fire. There are many Londons. Every resident harbours their own dream of London and projects their vision onto the flickering lunar surface of the city. All of them are true, none of them are fixed. The city is a jagged hall of mirrors assembled from these competing and overlapping maps of the territory. Luan-Dun. Dogs howl. Scorpions crawl up out of the water. It’s easy to get stuck, in either your own rigid and limiting view of the city, or snared in someone else’s picture like a fly in a web. But here, at Monument, in the cleansing fire that courses brightly through time, all of these many Londons are consumed and reduced to ash. At Monument, all our faulty visions and inaccurate maps of the city can be offered up to the furnace. All that remains is the single white-hot flame of consciousness, and all our great plans and dreams collapse into the conflagration like so many crooked huts made of wattle and daub.
Article by Stephen Grasso
A printed version of this article – distilled here into potent shot glass form – appears in The Wanton Green, a collection of essays on the magic of place, edited by Gordon Maclellan and Susan Cross, and published by Mandrake of Oxford. All author royalties have been donated to Honouring the Ancient Dead, a British network organisation that advocates respect for ancient pagan human remains and related artefacts.
Click here to download Stephen Grasso’s accompanying mix (below). Credits for this mix are again due to Chris Josiffe for suggesting several of the insurrection-themed reggae tracks, and also to John Eden whose blog round-up of reggae and grime responses to the 2011 London riots contributed a few tracks towards the end. I should also give a nod to Neil Transpontine, because I sort of stole the Babylon/Dizzee/’Can’t tek no more’ theme from his essential ‘South east of the Thames‘ mix.