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Legendary Origins and the Origin of London's place name

Before the advent of modern archaeology there was little evidence upon which to base any discussion of the origins of London. By reading Roman authors they knew the City was called Londinium and was in existence in the Roman period. The only evidence available for London before the Romans was legend and place name evidence.

The most influential writer on the origins of Londinium was the highly controversial 12th Century cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth who wrote the seminal 'The History of the Kings of Britain' in about 1136. In this book he traces the origins of London (and Britain) back to its foundation by Brutus, great grandson of Aeneas - the Trojan.

'Once he had divided up his kingdom, Brutus decided to build a capital. In pursuit of this plan, he visited every part of the land in search of a suitable spot. He came at length to the River Thames, walked up and down its banks and so chose a site suited to his purpose. There then he built a city and called it Troia Nova. It was known by this name for long ages after, but finally by a corruption of the word it came to be called Trinovantum.'

This bold story was probably based on a desire to give London a pedigree as old as Rome's and was substantiated by a misunderstanding of part of Julius Caesar's account of his invasions of Britain in 55 and 54 BC. Upon crossing the Thames Caesar encountered 'the Trinovantes, about the strongest 'civitas' in south-eastern Britain'. Geoffrey of Monmouth read this as:

'about the strongest city in south-eastern Britain'.

Historians now prefer to read this as:

'about the strongest political unit (tribe, chiefdom, civic administration) in south-eastern Britain'

Thus Geoffrey summoned into existence the shadowy city of Trinovatum. But he knew it was called Londinium by the Romans so he had to find a route from Trinovatum to Londinium. He continues:

After Lud, the brother of Cassivellaunus, who fought Julius Caesar, had seized command of the government of the kingdom, he surrounded the capital with lofty walls and with towers built with extraordinary skill, and he ordered it to be called Kaerlud, or Lud's City, from his own name. Thereafter, we are told the town was renamed by the legendary King Lud as Kaerlud, then Kaerlundein, and eventually London.

The truth of all this is hard to tell. We have no independent evidence of Lud the brother of Cassivellaunus and so, Geoffrey may have been gratuitously making history up as he went along.

But we should probably give him more credit as he was attempting to marry now lost Celtic folklore, historical sources, chance archaeological finds and dubious place name evidence into a coherent whole. He may have seen the creation of King Lud as necessary to get from Caesar's Trinovantum to Claudius' Londinium.

It is certain that Geoffrey's historical objectivity was seriously marred by his understandable desire to play up the part of the native Britons. He was a British patriot trying to counter balance centuries of historical writing that gave pre-eminence to Roman, Saxon, and Norman versions of history. An early origin for London gave London back to the natives.

Unfortunately archaeologists have excavated enough of London to prove it did not exist as a town before AD 47. So, if we discount Geoffrey's derivation of the Londinium what is the accepted meaning?

This has become so controversial that virtually all archaeological and historical works give no origin for the name Londinium at all. They admit that linguists believe it to be pre-roman and possibly pre-celtic in origin.

Before the 20th Century most ideas centred around the 'don' at the end of the name deriving it from 'dun' which is used extensively in the 'celtic world' as the name for a fortress or hill-fort. So London was thought to be either the 'Lake Fort' from Llyndid or Londinos's Fort, from an otherwise unknown celtic personal name derived from Londo - which means fierce. So Londinos Dun might be translated as the fierce person's Fort!

Recently, Richard Coates has come to the conclusion that the name derives from pre-celtic Old European and from the name Plowonida. This springs from 2 roots, 'plew' and 'nejd'. The former meaning something lto do with flowing, swimming, boating, washing away, the latter more simply to flow. The suggestion is that it was the name for the part of the River Thames below Westminster and before the Estuary which was too wide to ford - i.e. it means boat river or flooding river, river too wide to ford.

When a settlement was set up by Plowonida the celts added a place name suffix 'on' or 'onjon' giving Plowonidon or Plowonidonjon, but the British Celts did not pronounce the P and so through linguistic change it developed into Lundonjon and then Lundein or Lundyn which is the form of the name that the Welsh used and from which the Romans derived Londinium.

The absence of any evidence for a pre-roman City at all can probably be overcome by speculation that it might have been the name of a small settlement in the area for which there is now evidence or even that it might have been the name of the pre-roman settlements in Southwark.

The former is an updated extract from Kevin Flude and Paul Herbert from 'The Citisight's Guide to London' Virgin Book 1990, Reprinted by Author's Choice 2001 iuniverse.com

Updated by Kevin Flude2003

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