The London Stone was originally situated on the south side of medieval Candlewick Street (since widened to create modern Cannon Street) opposite the west end of St Swithins church. This was very close to the homes of Henry VIII’s financial agents Edmund Dudley and his next door neighbour Richard Epson. Both were falsely executed as traitors in 1510 and were Henry VII’s first scapegoats for his father’s unpopular policies.
The stone was described by the London historian John Stow in 1598 as “a great stone called London stone”, “pitched upright… fixed in the ground verie deep, fastned with bars of iron”.
A French visitor to London had twenty years earlier recorded that the Stone was three feet high, two feet wide, and one foot thick (90 × 60 × 30 cm).
Medieval Londoners adopted the surname ‘of London Stone’ simply because they lived nearby it. One of these was “Ailwin of London Stone”, the father of Henry Fitz Ailwin the first Mayor of the City of London, who took office at some time between 1189 and 1193, and governed the city until his death in 1212. The Fitz-Ailwin house stood away from Candlewick Street, on the north side of St Swithin’s church.
London Stone was a well-known landmark in medieval London, and when in 1450 Jack Cade, leader of a rebellion against the corrupt government of Henry VI, entered the city with his men, he struck his sword on London Stone and claimed to be “Lord of this city”.
By the time of Queen Elizabeth I, London Stone was not merely a landmark, shown and named on maps, but a visitor attraction in its own right. Tourists may have been told variously that it had stood there since before the city existed, or that it had been set up by order of King Lud, legendary re-builder of London, or that it marked the centre of the city, or that it was “set [up] for the tendering and making of payment by debtors”. In 1608 it was listed in a poem by Samuel Rowlands as one of the “sights” of London (perhaps the first time the word was used in that sense) shown to “an honest Country foole” on a visit to town.
The stone was damaged in the Great fire of London in 1666 but unlike most of the medieval city it survived.
During the 19th and 20th centuries London Stone was regularly referred to in popular London histories and guidebooks, and visited by tourists. During his stay in England in the 1850’s the American author Nathaniel Hawthorne recorded a visit to London Stone in his journal, noting the indentations on the top “which are said to have been made by Jack Cade’s sword”.
In 1940 St Swithin’s church was burnt out by German bombing in the Blitz. The outer walls remained standing for many years, with London Stone still in its place in the south wall. In 1962 the remains of the church were demolished, and replaced by the present building, 111 Cannon Street, which originally housed the Bank of China; London Stone was placed without ceremony in the specially constructed grilled and glazed alcove in the new building that housed it until March 2016 . At that time planning permission was granted to allow the building to be demolished and replaced by a new one. The new premises will publicly display London Stone on a plinth. It is now on display at the nearby Museum of London while the building works are carried out.
By the 1960’s, archaeologists noted that in its original location London Stone would have been aligned on the centre of a large Roman building, probably an administrative building, now known to have been in the area of Cannon Street station. This has been tentatively identified as a pretorium or Roman encampment or possibly the the local Governors palace.
The London Stone has been identified as a “mark-stone” on several ley lines passing through central London.
There are two recent additions to the mythology surrounding London Stone. The first claims that Dr John Dee, astrologer, occultist and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, “was fascinated by the supposed powers of the London Stone and lived close to it for a while” and may have chipped pieces off it for alchemical experiments; the second that a legend identifies it as the stone from which King Arthur pulled the sword Excalibur to reveal that he was the rightful king of England.
Statue on John Stow’s grave.