London Under Attack! A History of Invasions and Riots

Boudica rallies her troops as they prepare to battle.London is a complex delight of cultures and crime, of poverty and wealth, of gang warfare and suburban bliss, of traffic jams and serene parks and gardens. People of all races and religions flock to London always have, always will. Some have come more peacefully than others.

When discussing attacks on London, the idea that comes into your head is of some foreign power invading the city or, in more modern times, attacking from the air. The reality is that the majority of the attacks on the capital have come not from a foreign enemy but from members of the (now) British population or even from Londoners themselves.

The Attack of the Romans

The first attack on the city was actually carried out by the native population of Britain on the foreign founders of the city, the Romans. Although there have been problems with immigration throughout history and up to the present day, thankfully not many of the new arrivals have been as severely treated as those Roman inhabitants of London were by Boudicca in 60 AD.

The attack on London by Boudicca was the most ferocious and devastating attack London ever faced. Not only was almost the entire population slaughtered but the town as it was then was entirely destroyed. London grew again, however, and achieved an even greater level of importance.

The departure of the Romans supposedly led to the almost abandonment of London according to some the invading Saxons had no use for towns. This may have been a slight exaggeration as when areas of Kent were attacked by the Jutes in the fifth century, the native population fled to the stronghold of London, which still had the Roman wall.

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The Vikings Move in

There were to be further foreign attacks on the town when the Vikings arrived on their raids in the ninth century. By this time, of course, the Saxons were themselves seen as British.

It may shock some to learn that by the following century, all Jews in Britain over the age of seven years old were forced to wear yellow stars on their clothes

Vikings attacked London in 842 with a resulting slaughter of many of the inhabitants. They returned in 851 and actually destroyed much of the town before occupying it in 871. At this time there were no standing armies, so as in the attack by Boudicca, when the Roman army had departed, the main victims were civilians.

It was the success of the attack by King Alfreds men in 886 that finally took London back into native hands. It is also from this period that London seems to have become more than just another town due to its position.

For the next few centuries the position of London was to become one of uncertainty as the crown of England was disputed between a number of Saxon and Viking rulers whose supporters seemed to have changed sides as often as they changed their clothes. The loyalty of Londoners in the past was also just as questionable. It was finally to be the arrival of William the Conqueror, himself descended from Vikings that put an end to the dispute over the city and it became firmly entrenched in Norman hands. This was especially the cas once he built the Tower of London.

There was to be some time before any foreign enemy was to attack the city again. This is not to say that London was now safe and peaceful: the next few centuries were to see never-ending disputes between the king and the Aldermen of the city, rebels and Parliament. Little seemed to have changed from earlier days when former allies changed sides at the drop of a hat.

A Riotous 12th Century for London

The 12th century was to see a number of disputes over the city, the first being when Matilda, the daughter of Henry l, became queen but was then deposed by her cousin Stephen. The population of London accepted Matilda but preferred Stephen because Matilda had revoked some of the rights of the Aldermen. When Matilda took the Tower, the population revolted against her.

Later in the 12th century, King John had his falling out with the rebel barons who invited the eldest son of the King of France to become king. When he arrived in London he was greeted with pleasure by the population who had by then turned against John.

One royal who held a grudge against the population of London was Edward I. His mother had been attacked by Londoners from the bridge as she tried to sail from the Tower to Windsor. During the battle of Lewes in 1263, he led his father’s cavalry against the rebel infantry, who were mainly Londoners, and committed widespread slaughter.

The 12th century also saw an increase in violence towards the Jewish population of the city. There were a number of violent attacks due on the surface to the difference in religion and the mania prompted by the crusades. An underlying reason was that murdering the Jewish was a way of getting out of paying debts to Jews the main moneylenders. It may shock some to learn that by the following century, all Jews in Britain over the age of seven years old were forced to wear yellow stars on their clothes.

Thatcher's Government wasn't the only one to meet resistance over Poll Tax. Image Credit - Paddy Garcia

Tax Riots:Thatcher Had It Easy

The Middle Ages saw a number of attacks on London by peasants from various parts of the country. In 1381, Wat Tyler and his men arrived in the original Poll Tax riots. They were more forceful than the poll tax protestors of the Thatcher era, and destroyed a number of large houses in the city; they were helped by a large proportion of the London population, who joined them.

In 1450, Jack Cade arrived with another mob that also wanted to show their displeasure over taxes. They did this by executing a number of government officials and by grabbing as much loot as they could before going home. There were no doubt also a number of looters who did not have far to go to carry their haul home. Attacks on London were not always feared by the local people, who were not averse to joining in if it meant they could pocket some of the loot on offer. This wasnt only the case in the medieval period the danger was greater by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Religious persecution had not disappeared by this time and the main target of this persecution was Roman Catholics. There had even been a strong belief that it was a Catholic plot that had led to the Great Fire of London; when the monument to the fire was first erected, one of the plaques on it said that Papists had started the fire deliberately.

Religion Becomes an Issue

The Gordon Riots were an uprising against penalities place upon Roman Catholics.The proof that violence in the city was not only inspired from outside was shown in the Gordon Riots of the late 18th century. What began as a demonstration against pro-Catholic moves by Parliament led to serious rioting that resulting in widespread damage to several parts of the city, hundreds of deaths and ended with the almost complete control of the city by the army.

The untrustworthy nature of the native population was shown again during the Napoleonic Wars when military forces had to be available in London not only in case of invasion, but also as a means of controlling the huge underclass that had grown around the city. Frequent riots causing widespread damage in London were to carry on until the beginning of the 20th century. There may be problems in London today with knife crime and gang culture, but in comparison with the past, London today is much safer than it ever was.