London Stone Redux
It’s a wet November evening and the only movie that tempts us is Patrick Keiller’s London at the NFT. We take a crowded tube to Embankment and with heads lowered against the sting of slanting rain, we brave the swaying footpath on the Jubilee Bridge, dark outlines hurrying over the darker river. When we reach the South Bank, the theatre, all drab concrete brutalism, is one with the movie – all unforgiving camera and mournful voiceover.1
A distanced view of a distant world – London 1992 – the interminable Thatcherite decline. Long, static takes of deserted streets and distracted pedestrians, neglected monuments and vacant office buildings, roadworks, traffic, swirling river water, and the two protagonists always off-camera: Robinson, the disenchanted academic type, and the anonymous Narrator with his doleful commentary; world-weary ex-lovers reconnecting on meandering walks through the dejected city. It takes forty-five minutes for Keiller to get them to 111 Cannon Street, an undistinguished 1960s office building. And, there, jutting out to the sidewalk in its glassed-in ironwork cage, is London Stone.
They stop and stare down. ‘This’, says Robinson,
is the airborne vessel on which the magician Bladud flew to London, where he crashed on Ludgate Hill, the last stone of a circle that stood on the site of St. Paul’s […] This is the stone that Jack Cade, the Kentish rebel, struck with his staff when he took possession of the city.
The Narrator interjects that he thought the stone was a Roman milestone. But Robinson, absorbed, inspired, declares the route of the Number 15 bus – which runs along Cannon Street – to be a sacred route (Keiller 1994).
It’s a wet November night, and when we wake up the next morning, rain still falls from a dark grey sky. We exit the Circle Line at Mansion House, unfurl our umbrellas, and locate the stone on a helpful map outside the station.
We take St. Swithin’s Lane to Cannon Street – the heart of the City, London’s most ancient quarter – and stare down at the yellow-grey stone in its glassed-in ironwork cage. Attached to the top is an embossed metal plaque that reads:
This is a fragment of the original piece of limestone once securely fixed in the ground now fronting Cannon Street Station.
Removed in 1742 to the north side of the street, in 1798 it was built into the south wall of the Church of St. Swithun London Stone which stood here until demolished in 1962.
Its origin and purpose are unknown but in 1188 there was a reference to Henry, son of Eylwin of Londonstone, subsequently Lord Mayor of London.
Some dates, some history, a hint of mystery. A stone, a plaque, some insecure facts. A few lines in a movie that don’t make much sense. It’s a familiar feeling: we’re being reeled in, wet fish on a line.
Reeled in, winched back to 1188 and just beyond, to the tenth century, when London Stone stood in front of a large building more or less where Cannon Street rail station is located today – a building archaeologists think was the palace of the Roman governor. It was a prominent site and John Clark, a curator at the Museum of London, who has written with more care and erudition about this stone than anyone else, points out that placed here it was at the centre of the grid laid down by Alfred the Great when he rebuilt the city in the late 800s after it was sacked by Vikings (Clark 2010).2
St. Swithin’s Church was constructed in the thirteenth century and London Stone stuck with it through good times and bad. The stone survived the Great Fire of 1666 that destroyed the church and most of the City, and when St. Swithin’s was rebuilt, the stone, albeit ‘much reduced’, was protected inside a specially designed domed casing. When the church was bombed in the Blitz and finally taken down in 1962, the stone was mounted in the wall of the building that replaced it: 111 Cannon Street, then the headquarters of the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (Clark 2010: 40–41). After that, in the early 2000s, the building’s ground floor was occupied by a sporting goods store and, after that, by a WHSmith’s.
London Stone is a block of oolitic limestone and if you’re not sure what that is, the best place to look is in John McPhee’s magisterial Annals of the Former World, where he describes oolites forming in warm lakes like underwater raindrops around tiny pieces of rock or seashell ‘so tiny that in wave-tossed water they will stir up and move. They move, and settle, move, and settle’, he writes, and they accumulate layer upon layer of calcium carbonate, ‘building something like a pearl’. Sawn in half and viewed under a lens, you can see how they got their name: ‘a stone egg, white and yolk – an oolite’ (McPhee 2002: 55).
Oolites show up early in McPhee’s sweeping account of North American geology. ‘When a geologist finds oolites embedded in rock’, he writes, his skin all puckered from bobbing on the surface of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, ‘the Bahamas come to mind, and the Great Salt Lake, and, by inference, a shallow, lime-rich Cambrian sea’ (Ibid.).
And, sure enough, one hundred and fifty million years ago, as the uncountable ooids were getting their start in the waning millennia of the late Jurassic, the patch of land that would be England was floating somewhere between where we now find Mallorca and Florida, growing its limestone in the shallows of a warm, salty sea. That was the dawn of the oolites. But it was only one of the British Isles’ many transformative encounters with water. Three hundred and fifty million years earlier, England, Scotland, and Wales were split into two and separated by the width of the Iapetus Ocean – wider than the present-day North Atlantic – sheared along a line that would parallel the route of Hadrian’s Wall, a line that continued through Ireland and whose sole visible marker today is a narrow white streak that runs diagonally up the cliff by the café parking lot at Niarbyl on the Isle of Man.3
That Iapetus Ocean – ancient ocean of the southern hemisphere – was slowly, very slowly, extremely slowly, maybe as slowly as three centimetres a year, slowly but inexorably closing and, in its closing, setting up the monumental collision of three seductively named microcontinents: Avalonia (which included most of what would become England, Wales, and Ireland), Baltica (from which Scandinavia and north-west Europe would emerge), and Laurentia (which would form Scotland, as well as north-east North America).
A truly complex collision; a series of staggered and uneven concussions of continents and terranes known as the Caledonian orogeny, one of the great mountain-building episodes that shaped the landscape of Britain as well as much of Scandinavia and Greenland; that pushed up a now-eroded Himalayan-scale range where England and Scotland met; that gave us the Appalachians and the Atlas mountains; that began around 485 million years ago and churned on in many episodes at many points of contact for close to 100 million years, a definitive feature of that open ocean of time that spans the Lower Ordovician, the Silurian, and Lower Devonian periods, and that ultimately led to the formation of the supercontinent Pangaea, from which the continents we know today would peel off to pursue their eternally entwined destinies.
The depth of deep time will ‘awe the imagination to the point of paralysis’, says McPhee. The numbers are meaningless and mind-numbing (McPhee 2002: 16). But the immensity of the near-infinite doesn’t just awe us, it opens the past to geopoetry and invites geological imaginations to populate the inconceivable with elemental drama, with supercontinents unlike any we know today, with mountain ranges that rise from nowhere and erode into anonymous rubble, with temperatures fluctuating to their own scales, with immensely thick glaciers racing to blanket the land before sounding the retreat, and with oceans that open in their vastness and close so completely that only a thin white line in a cliff above a parking lot reminds us they were even there.4
We stand in the pouring rain at the entrance to 111 Cannon Street, wet fish, reeled in, cold and damp, stalking that storied stone in its glassed-in cage. And although the rain keeps falling from the lowering sky, when I press the buzzer the clouds part, the sun breaks through, time hiccups, and we’re swimming with the ooids, and the Romans, and Avalonia, and the dismal Tories, and the magician Bladud, and WHSmith’s, and Alfred the Great in the balmy saltwater shallows of the primeval Iapetus Ocean, and they’re telling us that time doesn’t really run in the tidy linear chronologies of historical and geological narration in which we’ve been dabbling so far but is probably more like the ‘real duration’ that the once-popular philosopher Henri Bergson described, a time of unreliable dimension, uncertain direction, and insecure features, the elastic ungraspable time that at times so estranges our senses, the time that Walter Benjamin was aiming to capture when he wrote (in characteristically gnomic prose) to his friend and fellow Jewish mystic Gershom Scholem in 1928 that the term ‘origin’ doesn’t refer to ‘the process of becoming of that [which has] emerged’ – as in, say, ‘the origin of life’ – but to what ‘emerges out of the process of becoming and disappearing’ – more like ‘the origin of species’, a continuous making and unmaking, a circle of chewing-up and spitting-out that is also how the Earth’s crust continually eats itself beneath the ocean, never growing old, and an insight that the famous critic illustrated with an image almost perfect for an oolitic limestone that’s born in water and can’t keep still, an image of the origin as standing ‘in the flow of becoming as a whirlpool’, an image I remembered as we walked back in the rain from seeing Keiller’s gloomy London at the NFT, back over the flimsy Jubilee Bridge, back across the Strand and through the throngs of tipsy tourists in Leicester Square, back past the Italian cafés and the crowded gay bars on Old Compton Street and the shuttered market stalls on Brewer Street, back though Oxford Circus and along Regent Street, walking north as the sidewalks thinned and the streets emptied and we got chilled to the bone, the way you do at night in London in November, but still letting the buses pass unremarked, perhaps both feeling the connection with other nights many years before, these streets in this weather, still walking until we got home to the flat we’d rented for just a week (a strange feeling of homelessness in a city we’d once lived in so fully and for so long) on a quiet, somewhat desolate street, and, not wanting to sleep, too unsettled by too many histories and too much feeling, we opened a laptop and found ourselves watching the 1959 version of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth with James Mason as the curmudgeonly Edinburgh geologist who follows a mysterious stone to its origin on Snæfellsjökul, the mystical glaciated volcano in western Iceland, and from there through the strangeness of the Carlsbad Caverns to the lost city of Atlantis and the eruption of Stromboli in the Tyrrhenian Sea, a frantically inventive madcap movie that upended our melancholy – which, anyway, rarely lasted long – and reached a climax when the scientific adventurers finally located the centre of the Earth in the middle of an ancient ocean and discovered that the beginning and end of everything is a ravenous whirlpool (a whirlpool in the flow of becoming) into which their home-made craft is relentlessly, remorselessly, terrifyingly – though also exhilaratingly – drawn (Bergson 1911, 1913; Benjamin in Buck-Morss 1991: 9).
So we’re still standing on Cannon Street – although now it’s 1450 and everyone knows it as Candlewick Street – and we’re outside St. Swithin’s and here comes Jack Cade at the head of his peasant revolt against Henry VI, the last of the Lancastrian kings.
Henry’s stock is low. He’s on the point of losing France in the Hundred Years’ War and he’ll misplace his mind three years later. Finally, he’ll lose his life in one of those murky backstairs corners of the Tower. Cade is a loyal but frustrated subject. Like so many before and since, he resorts to arms because he can’t think how else to achieve a more just and better-managed country (Clark 2007, n.d.; Harvey 1991; Kaufman 2009). The rebels advance, the king retreats. But soon the battle swings in Henry’s favour. His people negotiate a surrender that includes immunity for the insurgents and a hearing for their grievances. But it’s a trick and Cade flees. The king’s troops corner him near Lewes in Sussex and mortally wound him. They bring his corpse back to London, draw and quarter it, and send parts out for display in what, for now, remains Henry’s kingdom.
Cade was an effective tactician. Early in the rising he defeated a royal army and assembled a huge force at Blackheath, then outside London. In July, he entered the capital. At Candlewick Street, he circled London Stone on horseback and struck it emphatically with his sword (some people still see the gash), declaring on pain of death that none of his men should rob or pillage the city. Then, off he cantered – frantic metallic clippety-clops on the cobblestones – to behead Henry’s despised Lord Treasurer, James Fiennes, Lord Saye, whose taxes had done much to spur the revolt.
Cade was an effective tactician but an ineffective disciplinarian. And, soon, the occupied city was robbed and pillaged. Roused to action, the city’s militia saw off the rebels in a bloody battle on London Bridge. Then surrender, deception, and death in Sussex.
It was a brief but traumatic rebellion, and Jack Cade and London Stone would form a lasting pair. The persisting image comes in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2, a hundred and fifty years later. Cade is centre stage in act IV, seated astride the stone like Al Pacino in Scarface, ‘lord of this city’. An erratic buffoon, a plundered city, a looted stone throne. On strides Dick the Butcher with his famous request: ‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers’. And the rebel commander with his reply: ‘Nay, that I mean to do’. No matter your view of lawyers, it’s an unsympathetic portrait.5
Shakespeare’s play premiered in 1594. Eight years earlier, William Camden published Britannia, the first detailed geographical survey of Britain and Ireland, and a catalogue of the antiquities he encountered on his travels. Camden was the most prominent of the early antiquarians, forerunners of today’s archaeologists and empirical historians (Parry 2007; Sweet 2004; Vine 2010). They scoured the landscape of the British Isles, looking for ancient objects and monuments, seeking a newly historical sense of what it meant to be British; eager, as Camden wrote in the opening lines of Britannia, to ‘restore antiquity to Britaine, and Britaine to his antiquity’ (Camden 1806, I: ‘To the Reader’).
The antiquarians looked first to the much-admired classical civilisations of Greece and Rome. But, as they stumbled over barrows and cairns and dug up more and more pre-Roman artefacts, they were soon chasing a more stirring story, an earlier and more heroic Britain peopled by noble Celtic warrior tribes led by cultured Druid priests standing resolutely against Roman invaders. Britannia, a detailed gazetteer and a guidebook to national identity, quickly became an ‘inspiration for all British antiquaries’ (Sweet 2004: 57).
Every ancient object had something to say. London Stone was impressive. It was a ‘great stone […] fixed in the ground verie deepe, and bound with bars of iron’ but it was also of unclear significance and unknown provenance; debtors had paid their creditors there and it was considered to mark the centre of the city (Stow 1908, I: 224). However, when Camden rode down Cannon Street his mind was on the old city walls and the role of the Emperor Constantine in their construction. The stone barely drew his attention. In passing, he suggested it was a Roman mile marker (Camden 1806, II: 80).
A hundred years later, William Stukeley – whose tales of Druid rituals started a craze for Stonehenge, Avebury, and the rest of Britain’s ancient monuments – entered London from the east, passed the stone in his carriage and, as if stating an established fact, noted it was ‘the lapis milliaris from which distances are reckon’d’ (Stukeley 1724: 112). A hundred years after that, Charles Dickens described the stone as not only the centre of the capital but ‘the theoretical centre of Roman England’ (Dickens 1886: 210).
There were, though, other opinions. In 1720, John Strype, clergyman, historian, and follower of Stukeley, suggested that the stone could be of ‘greater Antiquity than the Times of the Romans’ – that it was, in fact, ‘an Object or Monument of Heathen Worship’, a view dramatised not long after by William Blake in his hallucinatory poems of the New Jerusalem rising from London’s ruins that figured London Stone as Druid Albion’s centre of Justice, a sacrificial altar for the execution of the Satanic Moral Law (‘They groan’d aloud on London Stone’) (Stow 1720, II: 194; Clark 2010: 43–44; Blake 1965: 171).6 Soon after, Thomas Pennant, a Welsh zoologist and friend of Linnaeus who published popular, illustrated antiquarian Tours of the British Isles and amassed a notable collection of rocks, minerals, and fossils, wrote that the stone was ‘preserved like the Palladium of the city’, a comment mysterious today but not at all obscure then to men and women of classical education who knew the Palladium as the wooden statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom, that kept Troy safe until Odysseus and Diomedes broke into the citadel and stole it, opening the city to the Greeks (Pennant 1813: 5).
And then, in 1862, Richard Williams, an Anglican minister and activist in the Celtic revival movement, elaborated Pennant’s remark of seventy years earlier into an ‘ancient saying’ that he translated from the Welsh for the curious gentlemen readers of Notes and Queries: ‘So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long will London flourish’ (Clark 2010: 45–53; Merrion 1862).7 Williams, like all antiquarians, was not only familiar with the Palladium but also had read and debated Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain, so knew the story of London’s founding as New Troy around 1100 BC by Brutus, the great-grandson of Aeneas, who sailed north from fallen Troy to slay the giants of Albion and establish Britain as his kingdom (Geoffrey of Monmouth 1977: 73–74).
John Clark thinks talk of Druids and Brutus is nonsense. He’s in no doubt that the stone arrived in London with the Romans, hauled into the newly founded settlement along with blocks of Portland Stone, Bath Stone, and the rest of the 150-million-year-old oolitic limestone from which the buildings and monuments of Londinium were raised, creamy-coloured limestone cut from quarries in Dorset, the Cotswolds, and other sites along the broad middle-Jurassic band that sweeps up in a north-easterly arc from England’s south coast all the way to Yorkshire, a bed of limestone once topped with an ancient track beside which, in the first half of the first century AD, as the Romans consolidated their invasion, they built Fosse Way, the military border and supply route that ran 230 miles from Exeter to Lincoln, separating the conquered east from the recalcitrant Iron Age west.
But the Reverend Williams’ London Stone arrived by a different and deeper route. His stone was the plinth of Athena’s Palladium, a gift to Brutus from Aeneas after the fall of Troy, ferried proudly across the shiny Aegean Sea through the uncertainties of the Mediterranean and out over the dark depths of the Atlantic, blustering north to the uncivilised wildness of the British Isles and installed as the altar in the Temple of Diana that Brutus raised on the site of what is now St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was on this stone that the ancient British monarchs swore their coronation oaths, and it was this same stone – the plinth taking on the powers of the statue it once bore – that cast its protective aura over the modern city from its berth in the wall of St. Swithin’s. Antiquity to Britain and Britain to his antiquity. If Pennant and Williams hadn’t come to this so late it would explain why Jack Cade stopped at Candlewick Street to proclaim his rule.
Because this is London Stone restored to the nation. More than a milestone, more than a sacrifice-stone in a Druid temple, more than a pillar in a stone circle, more than a Roman vanity, and more than just a forebear of the Stone of Scone, Scotland’s Destiny Stone press-ganged into serving England’s rulers. This is London Stone as the ur-stone that binds the nation to its long-discarded origins deep in the foundational moments of Western civilisation; binds the present to the time of heroes, gods, and giants; binds it fast to the prehistory of the nation, the originary nation that only yesterday rose up in the salty eddies of the Iapetus Ocean, that warm and shallow sea which disappeared so inexorably into the monumental mountain-building collision known as the Caledonian orogeny.
It’s a cold and wet November morning and we’re still sheltering in the entrance to 111 Cannon Street. It’s raining heavily, but when I press the buzzer the clouds part and the sun breaks through. Waiting at the door, I remember a story from 2006 on the BBC website: 111 Cannon Street is scheduled for demolition and Chris Cheek, the manager of the first-floor sporting goods store, has braced himself between London Stone and a team of construction workers preparing to attack it with sledgehammers.
‘Do you share the ancient belief that the stone really is London’s Palladium and that the well-being of the city and its people depend on it?’ the reporter asks. ‘Yes, I do, really’, Mr. Cheek replies. ‘I’m not into hocus-pocus but there is something about this stone. For some reason it’s been kept, there’s something special about it’ (Coughlan 2015).
We stand and shiver. It takes forever for someone to answer the door. The building is again undergoing redevelopment, and when we get inside we discover that the sports store is now the construction project-management room and that the stone is hidden behind a presentation easel and upstaged by architects’ drawings, schedules, and floor plans. Outside, everyone hurries past without glancing at it, just as they do in Keiller’s movie. But it’s still there, surviving great fires, great wars, forgotten rebellions, public apathy, and official neglect, surviving even when it was in the way, persisting where so many other stones have failed.
But there’s always room for doubt. John Aubrey, best remembered now for his tart sketches of contemporaries in Brief Lives, was also a pioneering antiquarian. In 1666, he toured a charred, still-smouldering London with his friend, the polymath experimenter Robert Hooke, recently and lucratively appointed as one of three surveyors organising the reconstruction of the ruined metropolis following the Great Fire. Among Aubrey’s notes are some brief entries on London Stone. ‘London Stone was not a lapis milliaris as supposed’, he wrote. ‘It was rooted a matter of ten foot deep [and it] was a kind of Obelisque [that] stands about the middle of London (i.e., between Ludgate and Aldgate). It was so fast set with Roman mortar that Mr. Hooke was [obliged] to get a Derbyshire miner to break it up, and he was 2 or 3 dayes before he could fetch up a little core. This was for the foundation of a Cellar. The stone remaynes still, but now scarce peeps his head above ground’. Moreover, ‘the stone that stands there now’, Aubrey continues, ‘is only a mock-stone; [and] I have known one or two worn out in my time with carts’ (Aubrey 1980: 508–09).
I download Keiller’s London and compulsively watch and rewatch the few seconds starring London Stone. I’m looking for something but not sure what.
The more time I spend with Robinson, the more I feel for the Narrator. Then I decide that, sour and misanthropic though they often are, these two enjoy each other. Under leaden skies and drizzling rain, they fit with London’s mood, shuffling though the city, sifting the suburbs for their secrets, contemporary antiquarians tangling time at every turn. At first, I thought theirs was the kind of history that turns the present into a rubbish tip. Then I realise there are other ways of feeling this: for some people, these histories might one day send the rubbish tip up in flames.
Because they’re not alone. London Stone sets off other anxious wanderers, scouring the metropolis, upturning paving-stones in search of buried power. ‘The point about London Stone’, writes the novelist Iain Sinclair, ‘is that while everyone agrees it is significant, nobody knows why’. Blake in his glorious madness took the stone, he says, as a ‘point from which to move the world’. Here’s the revolutionary gesture: ‘Break the glass, strike the stone. If it is to be treated as a trophy from a colonial war, encased like a fire extinguisher, it will demand justice’ (Atkins and Sinclair 1999: 168).
You wonder what he knows. One man’s hocus pocus is another’s religion. One person’s religion is another’s occult paranoia.8 Sinclair has a map in mind, a speculative pre-Christian geography of the London encountered by Brutus. This is how E. O. Gordon, writing in 1914, saw the geometry of New Troy on the Thames, a symbological force field ‘little less imposing than the London of today’ (Gordon 2003: 8).
London was a ritual amphitheatre bounded by mounds and crowned by ‘the mighty unhewn monoliths of the Druidic circle’ that Gordon – like Camden, Williams, Robinson, and Sinclair, too – believed stood where St. Paul’s Cathedral stands today. That circle was the fortified enclosure for the High Priest of New Troy, an area that maps perfectly onto the square mile of today’s City, too perfectly perhaps, neatly mapping the transmutation of religion into money. Gordon’s England looks like a grey version of Mexico, Christian conquerors raising flags on the ruins of indigenous temples, the faint pulse of pantheism beneath the steely wheels of capital. All these topological traces – a mound, a river, a stone – a national grid whose power is accessed now only by initiates through arcane books and obscure websites. Silenced, hidden, skewed, wounded, barely visible in its remains.
The mighty circle is long gone, its absence marked only by London Stone, that ‘single obeliscal pillar’, as Gordon puts it, that ‘index stone, preserved behind iron bars’, constant as the eternal flame at Delphi (2003: 13).
‘The new alignment hurts’, writes Sinclair. ‘It’s part of a process whereby all the ritual markers of the original city have been shifted, not by much, by just enough to do damage; to call up petty whirlwinds, small vortices of bad faith’ (Atkins and Sinclair 1999: 168).
1 My thanks to John Law, Evelyn Ruppert, Annemarie Mol, and the other participants in the ‘When Authorities Meet’ workshop. An earlier, abbreviated version of this essay was published in Cabinet 53 (Spring 2014).
2 Clark also discusses the view of prominent late nineteenth-century British folklorists such as Laurence Gomme that London Stone was a ‘fetish stone’, the symbolic founding stone of the original settlement and the site at which the most important village rituals were performed. See also Clark (n.d.) for his most extended discussion.
3 There’s much debate on the precise location of the suture. See, for example, Todd, Murphy, and Kennan (1991). A brief description of the complex features of the timing and nature of the closure of the Iapetus Ocean can be found in Barclay et al. (2005: 13–16).
4 ‘Geopoetry’ is from Hess (1962).
5 The outline of Shakespeare’s portrayal can be found in some of the contemporary chronicles discussed in Kaufman (2009). For a sharply contrasting view of Cade’s organisational capacity and politics, see Bohna (2003).
6 For Blake, the Druids were the codifiers of custom into Law and punishment who tolled the death knell of the original Jerusalem and, therefore, as Beer (1969: 182) points out, London Stone was ‘a true rock of anti-vision since it marked the point from which all distances were measured and was thus a point of reference for the world of abstract calculation’.
7 On the invented traditions of Welsh patriots in the period just prior to Williams’ generation, see Morgan (1983).
8 The phrase is from Coverley (2006: 123).
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