Rarely, perhaps never, has so spectacular a web of myth been woven around so unprepossessing an object: a small slab of limestone that lurks behind a metal grille set into a derelict, partially burnt-out building on Cannon Street in the City of London, with only balled-up pieces of chewing gum and dust for company.
London Stone has, in its time, been identified as a druidic altar for human sacrifice; a Roman milestone; the slab in which Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, was embedded; and part of the remains of the palace of the Roman governor of Britain.
One version has it that Brutus, the legendary founder of Britain, brought it from the sack of Troy. The saying goes that “so long as the stone of Brutus is safe, so long shall London flourish”. Now the City of London has taken a small step towards a more dignified future for the London Stone than its current lodging in the facade of the 1960s former Bank of China office – more recently a branch of Sportec and, latterly, a WH Smith.
Planning permission has been granted for the demolition of the building and the erection of new premises on the site, to include a special raised plinth so that the artefact can be viewed by the public. During the building works, it is hoped that London Stone will be displayed in the Museum of London – for about 20 months from late spring.
Roy Stephenson, the head of archaeological collections at the museum, confessed he had had a hard time working out an insurance value for the object as it is so meagre in its material reality and yet so rich with tradition and story. “It could be anywhere between £19.99 – what it would cost to buy a slab of stone down the garden centre – and £19 trillion, the turnover of the City of London,” he said, referring to the legend.
London Stone has in fact acquired some of its more creative associations only within the past 150 years or so, according to research by John Clark, the former curator of medieval collections at the museum.
In the late 16th century it was a famous local landmark rather than a locus of mystic or occult powers, he says. For Shakespeare, it was the stone on which, in Henry VI, Part 2, the Kentish rebel Jack Cade sits in order to dispense laws – “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.”
Christopher Wren believed it to have been part of a grand Roman building: while working on the rebuilding of London, he had discovered the remains of Roman mosaics nearby, on the south side of Cannon Street. At least once in the late 17th century it was used to destroy faulty goods by the officers of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers.
By the middle of the 18th century it was seen as an obstacle to traffic, and was moved against the wall of St Swithin’s church. It was also beginning to accrue myth: William Blake wrote of it as a druids’ altar (“They groan’d aloud on London Stone”), and in the late 19th century some of the stories that have stuck to the stone were published – including the notion that the city’s safety rests upon it, and the idea that it was brought to the spot from Troy.
St Swithin’s was bombed in the Blitz, but London Stone survived, and was set into its present position in the 1960s. Later still, it has featured as a psychogeographical landmark for authors Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair, and it appears in China Miéville’s fantasy novel Kraken to mark the headquarters of the “Londonmancers”, protectors of the city.
While it is at the museum, research will be carried out in an attempt to define its geology, which may help to explain its origin and purpose. But the likelihood is it will remain, to paraphrase Sinclair, an object that everyone agrees is significant, even if no one quite knows why.
And perhaps that is the way it should be. According to Clark: “It is a mysterious and mystic object. I’m not sure if we want to know what it really was; in the end, that would spoil it.”