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May 14, 2008

The Tudor and Stuart monarchs presided over a cultural renaissance, but it was fire that changed the face of London forever.

The much married and celebrated divorce of Henry VIII (1491-1547) almost qualifies as the "father" of modern London, though the changes he brought about were the accidental outcome of a bid for personal freedom from the power of the Church.

In 1536, after the Pope had refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, Henry decided to cut all ties with Roman Catholicism. He pronounced himself head of the Church of England, persuading Parliament to authorize the dissolution of the monasteries.

Their property and revenues were granted to the Crown, and Henry either gave them to close supporters or sold them. Cardinal Wolsey's house was added to an expanding palace in Whitehall. Hyde Park and St James's were enclosed as deer parks.

When foreign visitors commented on the depressing ruins of the churches and monasteries, the areas were redeveloped. The City took on the church's humanitarian work, buying St Thomas's to care for the sick and elderly, Greyfriars for orphans, Bridewell for criminals and beggars, and Bethlehem (which later became corrupted to "Bedlam") to house lunatics.

Convent (now Covent) Garden and Clerkenwell, Stepney and Shoreditch, Kennington and Lambeth all expanded, taking London's population from 50,000 in 1500 to 200,000 by the end of the century. Today, little survives of Tudor London's typically wood-framed houses with their oversailing upper storeys. A fair idea of the character of the old street scene however, was preserved in the Old Curiosity Shop at 13 Portsmouth Street, near Lincoln's Inn. A lasting monument to the era is Henry VIII's Hampton Court Palace, southwest of London.

Henry's daughter, Elizabeth I, whose mother, Anne Boleyn, had been beheaded for supposed adultery, came to the throne in 1558. She was truly London's queen and the "Golden Age" began, not only in a commercial sense, but also in education and the arts. She presided over the English Renaissance and her court was enlivened by music and dance.

William Shakespeare, a Londoner by adoption, was far from adulated by the authorities. When the Lord Mayor banned theatrical performances from London, Shakespeare and his fellow playwright Ben Jonson moved outside his jurisdiction to new sites on the south bank of the Thames, an area notorious for bear pits, brothels and prisons.

Being childless, the "Virgin Queen" Elizabeth chose James VI of Scotland to succeed her as James I of England, thus launching the Stuart dynasty. Religious conflict continued, and a Catholic faction attempted to blow up Parliament in the infamous "Gunpowder Plot". On 5 November 1605, Guy (Guido) Fawkes was caught about to ignite barrels of gunpowder in the cellars beneath the House. Fawkes was executed, but 5 November, Guy Fawkes Day, is still marked with fireworks, and his effigy is burned.

Against a background of conflict between King James and Parliament, London responded to a new influence: the Italian architecture of Palladio as seen through the work of Inigo Jones. The purity of Jones's style is best seen in the Queen's House at Greenwich, begun in 1613. Six years later came the Banqueting House in Whitehall, the first time Portland stone was used in London. Throwing gothic to the winds, he designed the little-known Queen's Chapel at St James's Palace.

His most significant contribution to the new city was his work on the old Convent Garden for the Duke of Bedford. The great Piazza he created there was the prototype for the most loved and typical feature of the city, the London square. On the east side, behind a massive portico is "the handsomest barn in England": his St Paul's church.

At the beginning of the 17th century, London's rapidly expanding population began to make demands on water supplies that the city could no longer satisfy. Private, though necessarily self-interested, benefactors set up conduits in various streets and restrictions were put on brewers and fishmongers to prevent waste.

By 1600 a source of pure water was vital, and for one man, Hugh Myddleton, an obsession. A Welshman, goldsmith and banker, he conceived the idea of bringing a "New River" to London from springs near Hertford. At his own expense he started work on the man-made river in 1609 and brought it as far as Enfield before his money ran out. He turned to a former customer, James I, who became his partner with a half-share in the profits. By 1613 the New River Head in Finsbury, just north of the City, was reached.

Great tragedies lay ahead for London. In 1665 the still inadequate water supply and lack of sanitation brought the dreaded plague to the overcrowded city, and before it ran its course 100,000 inhabitants died. The Great Fire, less than a year later, came as if to cleanse the stricken city. From a baker's shop on Pudding Lane, Eastcheap, the flames raged for five days, reaching as far west as the Temple.

Miraculously, only half a dozen people died. The disaster was chronicled by Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), an Admiralty official and the most famous diarist of his time. He watched from the attic of his house in Seething Lane near the Tower as, under the Lord Mayor's direction, houses were pulled down to stop the fire spreading. Most people busied themselves removing their belongings to the stone churches or to boats on the river.

Pepys dug a pit in his garden to save his wine and "parmazan" cheese. He saw "St Paul's church with all the roof fallen", and watched the fire crossing the Bridge to Southwark. After the fire, 13,000 houses and 87 parish churches lay in ruins, but rebuilding was immediately planned.

Christopher Wren, Surveyor General to the Crown, returned from Paris, his mind filled with new ideas. London, too, he thought, should have rond-points, vistas and streets laid out in a grid pattern. But people wanted homes quickly and traders wanted to carry on their businesses, so Wren's best ideas were never realised. Expediency dictated that the new should rise on the sites of the old, with one prudent difference: new buildings were made of brick, not wood. Wren turned his inventive powers to rebuilding 50 of the City's damaged churches. His achievements lie in the individuality of their soaring towers and steeples which rise above the rooftops.

In 1675 work began on his masterpiece, a new St. Paul's Cathedral. People sensed that St Paul's had a symbolic importance to the City which Samuel Pepys movingly described in his diary. There is a story that, when Wren asked a workman to fetch him a stone in order to mark the precise centre of the cleared site, the man brought a fragment of an old tombstone. On it was inscribed the single word Resurgam, "I will arise again".
About the Author
Dev Patel runs London's oldest Superstretch Limo Hire company since 1988 and offers Hummer Limo Hire tours and Hummer Limousine Hire transfers in London and beyond on 07956 224 399. http://www.hirelimolondon.co.uk/index.html
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