Opposite the entrance to Cannon Street Station in the City – itself built on the site of a medieval church that was destroyed in the Great Fire – there stood until earlier this year one of London’s oldest landmarks, a largely forgotten chunk of masonry (limestone, to be exact) that is said to be of great significance although its surroundings were somewhat modest. Set into the wall behind an iron grille in front of a branch of W.H. Smith’s on busy Cannon Street was the London Stone.
Some say that it is of Roman origin, and that it may have been an object of religious veneration in pre-Christian times. Could it have something to do King Arthur? Or was it a milestone? There’s even a legend in a similar vein to that concerning the ravens at the Tower, although this one ties in with either of the City’s mythical founders (take your pick between Brutus of Troy and King Lud) to the effect that London will fall if it (the stone) is destroyed. The fifteenth-century rebel leader Jack Cade is said to have struck it with his sword, an apparently ancient way of declaring himself to be in charge, although there’s not much evidence for this other than the relevant scene in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2.
All we know for sure is that there are references to the London Stone dating back to the late eleventh century, and it was sufficiently well-known in medieval times for its name to have been given to the surrounding area (the first Lord Mayor was called Henry Fitz-Ailwin de Londonestone). After the Great Fire of 1666, Sir Christopher Wren (who reckoned that it was of Roman origin) built it into the south wall of one of his churches, St Swithin London Stone. This was badly damaged in the Blitz and the remains were demolished in 1962, following which the London Stone was put into its current setting in front of a shop which was built on the site of the church. Occasional development of this site resulted in rumours that the Stone would be removed; perhaps wary of the old legend, the developers left it in its place.
Last year, I went to have a look while going for a stroll in the City, and was assured to note that I wasn’t the only one who was taking a close look as a couple of tourists were interested too; conversely, people from all over the world have come to see it (and have been invariably taken aback by its less-than-auspicious setting), while others just walked past it every day without giving it a glance (for them, it was probably just something on the way to work; historically significant things in London can be like that for Londoners, sometimes). Sadly there was a fair amount of rubbish in the grille but at least the Stone was visible, and the back of it could be seen from the inside of the newsagent’s. A very modest setting for an ancient monument that had survived plagues, rebellions, fires, bombing raids and even the attentions of post-war property developers and (according to a BBC report from 2006) twenty-first century cowboy builders.
That changed earlier this year, when the prospect of yet further development led to the London Stone's removal from its site. It can now be seen in the Museum of London, presumably getting more attention in a glass case rather than behind a litter-strewn grille, although when the building work is complete on Cannon Street it will return there, to be displayed on a plinth; once again, no doubt, it will attract the attention of some while being ignored by others.