‘Stone of London’ is returned to Cannon Street

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[Note from the editors: The scheduled story on Canada’s Pagan community has been delayed until next week as the team gathers more information. This week, we resume our regular international news day with today’s story coming from our correspondent in the United Kingdom.]

LONDON — The ‘stone of London’ has been returned to its rightful place this autumn. But what’s the history behind this sooty old piece of oolitic limestone? Where has it been? And why is its return a matter of importance?

The stone itself is a landmark at 111 Cannon Street, London. Its existence was first recorded in the 1100s. we don’t know when it was first cut or what it was for, although there has long been speculation that its origins are Roman – not an improbable speculation given the Roman roots of the capital. (We shall return to this hypothesis later in this article.) It is part of a larger piece of stone, but it was significant enough for rebel leader Jack Cade, in 1450, to strike it with his sword and declare himself to be ‘Lord of this city’ in opposition to King Henry VI.

Stone of London [C. Downer/wikimedia]

In Shakespeare’s play about Henry’s reign, Cade declares:

“And here, sitting
upon London-stone, I charge and command that, of the
city’s cost, the pissing-conduit run nothing but
claret wine this first year of our reign.”

In Elizabethan times, the stone was a popular attraction. There were claims that it had stood there prior to the founding of the city. Later, William Blake depicted it as a Druidic altar stone on which human sacrifices had been conducted. He wrote, “And the Druid’s golden knife/Rioted in human gore,/ In offerings of human life./ They groan’d aloud on London stone.” And, there have even been claims that it was the stone from which King Arthur drew his sword Excalibur.

The London stone is what anthropologists refer to as ‘multivalent,’ since no-one knows its origin or purpose. It is open to a multiplicity of stories and meanings. Whatever the case, the stone has remained a tourist attraction from medieval times onward. Author Nathaniel Hawthorne commented upon it, and so did American archaeologist George Byron Gordon.

By the 19th century, the stone was coming to be regarded as London’s palladium – an object which secures the safety of a place. In 1862, a contributor to the journal Notes and Queries quoted the following ‘ancient’ proverb: “So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long shall London flourish.”

The name refers to Brutus of Troy, who is said in legend to be the founder of London. However, the commentator was most probably the Reverend Richard Williams Morgan who, in 1857, put forward a story that the stone was the plinth on which the original palladium stone, brought to England by Brutus, had stood.

According to Williams, this became the altar stone in a Temple of Diana in ‘New Troy,’ or what was to become the city of London. But there are no references to any of this before Williams’ story, and it seems probable that he invented the whole tale.

It was a popular story, however, and folklorist Lewis Spence later adopted it in his 1937 work Legendary London. The story about King Arthur probably dates from a lot later than this and so does a tale that astrologer John Dee chipped bits off it for alchemical experiments. The writer Peter Ackroyd has depicted that tale in his work The House of Dr Dee and so has ‘psychogeographer’ Iain Sinclair, presenting it as part of London’s occult geography and echoing Blake’s use of the stone as the centre of ‘Golgonooza’, the mystical city.

The stone has also featured in a number of YA fantasy novels by Sarah Silverwood, Marie Brennan, and others.

The theory that currently holds most weight amongst contemporary archaeologists concerns the discovery that the stone’s original location, in Cannon Street, lies on top of a large Roman administrative building, a ‘praetorium’, or perhaps even a ‘governor’s palace.’ After excavating the area around Cannon Street station in the 1960s – 70s, archaeologist Peter Marsden put forward the theory that the London stone may have formed part of the gateway of this building.

The stone has been at Cannon Street for many years, most recently, in a branch of W H Smith’s where it was obscured by a magazine rack, but the building was demolished and replaced in 2016, and during this process the stone was moved to the Museum of London. On October 4, it was returned to its Cannon Street home where it will occupy a more prominent and accessible location than before.

With all the stories, modern people still speculate on the stone’s mystical power and influence. Curator Roy Stephenson comments, ‘Hopefully we didn’t upset the chakra or the karma which is associated with it. It all might be a load of rubbish but who knows, it is better to be on the safe side. I’m really pleased with where it is going … maybe there will be a solution to Brexit.”

The stone has moved around the city quite a bit already. In the 18th century, it was put in an alcove in St Swithun’s Church, but this was damaged in the Blitz. The stone was rescued from the ruins in 1960 and taken to the Guildhall Museum. As the Museum of London has pointed out, after a previous transition, during which the stone moved away and subsequently returned, the Cuban missile crisis was resolved. “Mind you Kennedy was assassinated shortly afterwards too,” Stephenson warns.

He comments, however, with regard to the renovations, “They have done a lovely job, it is like a mini-city centre apartment for the stone with a view out on to Cannon Street.” He said the museum had been proud to be temporary custodian – sometimes attracting a different kind of visitor. “We have had a few slightly whacky people through the galleries.”

It is to be hoped that the stone will now have permanent residence in greater state, in its old location – perhaps on the site of its original installation many centuries ago.