Literary London Course


Why, Sir you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of Life; for there is in London all that Life can afford'.

Doctor Johnson

The course aims to provide a literary history of London from Chaucer to the 20th Century. In the centre of London, virtually every street corner has its place in literary history. Our problem is selecting from the many possible authors, the many possible books, the enormous number of possible themes and which street corners to visit! But we will have fun selecting!

  Literary Origins  

It is said that during their training they learn by heart a great many verses, so many that some people spend 20 years studying the doctrine. They do not think it right to commit their teachings to writing, although for almost all other purposes, for example, for public and private accounts, they use the Greek alphabet.

I suppose this practice began originally for two reasons: they did not want their doctrines to be accessible to the ordinary people, and they did not want their pupils to rely on the written word and so neglect to train their memories. For it does usually happen that if people have the help of written documents, they do not pay as much attention to learning by heart, and so let their memories become less efficient.

Jules Caesar from ‘The War in Gaul’

This short lecture describes the earliest writings about London. London was founded by the Romans in AD43 in territory belonging to the ancient Britons. However, very little survives in written form about this period. London is mentioned by Roman and early Christian authors but no substantial description of London occurs until the early medieval period.

The lecture will note the earliest written descriptions and then will look at the problematic ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ by Geoffrey of Monmouth to investigate the legendary origins of London. This is a wonderful source of stories about London before, during and after the Romans. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to distinguish fact, fiction and legend in Geoffrey's work!. As he is one of the chief sources for the Dark Ages it is a tragedy that we cannot be sure which facts he made up and which he recorded from genuine folklore. His influence is, however, profound – he is the main source for the stories of King Arthur, Cymbeline, and King Lear.

Key Work

Geoffrey of Monmouth (Trans Lewis Thorpe) 'The History of the Kings of Britain'. Penguin Books 1966

Other Books

‘In their Own Words – an anthology of Quotations from the Celtic, Roman and Dark Age Periods’, Kevin Flude 1991 (available only on-line at

Shakespeare, W ‘Cymbeline’


Snyder, C 'Exploring the World of King Arthur' Thames and Hudson 2000

Malory, Thomas 'Le Morte D'Arthur' ed. J Cowen, Penguin 1969

Historical Fiction

Rutherfurd, Edward ‘London’, Arrow Books 1998

Web Site:

  Chaucer’s London  

'Among the noble cities of the world which Fame celebrates, the city of London, seat of the monarchy of England, is the one which spreads its fame more widely, distributes its goods and merchandise further and holds its head higher.'

'Moreouer the Citizens of London, wheresoeuer they become, are notable before all other Citizens in ciuilitie of maners, attire, table and talke.'

William FitzStephen

Chaucer was the first great medieval poet to make English his chosen language for ‘publication’. He was born in the Vintry in the City of London a few years before the Black Death, which devastated England in 1348 and carried off some of Chaucer’s relatives. His family was a wealthy merchant family connected with the Royal Family and he was thus able to gain an education at the royal households where he worked as page and squire. He became a trusted Civil Servant and Ambassador, presumably partly because of his linguistic abilities. This enabled him to travel and become acquainted with the great French and Italian poets which increasingly influenced his works.

His works are made vivid by his marvelous portrayal of the diverse characters, which appear in his works. He drew on his experience of London life to create this gallery of flawed humanity. London was the home of the King and Court and also of the merchants and craftsmen that formed the backbone of the governing class of the City of London. It was also the home of the ordinary people, the journeymen, apprentices and labourers many of whom were excluded from the body politic. The result was an exciting City, full chivalrous aristocrats, rich traders, prosperous traders and seething with potentially riotous citizens. Chaucer lived above one of the City Gates, which in1381 was besieged by the peasants of Essex in the infamous Peasants Revolt of which he was an eyewitness.

The lecture looks at London during Chaucer’s life and at the characters of the Canterbury Tales.


In the afternoon the tutor takes the group to the City of London, the Guildhall, and St Bartholomew's Monastery. In the evening the group takes a trip around London visiting a historical pub.

Key Work

The Prologue of the Canterbury Tales – many editions in translation are available.

Chaucer, G ‘The Canterbury Tales’, Trans Nevill Coghill Penguin 1982

Other Books

Chaucer, G ‘The Riverside Chaucer’ Ed. Benson, L. Oxford University Press 1987 – for those who want to read in the original medieval English.


Baker, Timothy. 'Medieval London' Cassell London. 1970

Coulton, GG 'Chaucer and his England'

Howard Donald R. 'Chaucer and the Medieval World', Weidenfeld and Nicolson. London 1987

Langland, William (Trans J.F. Goodridge) 'Piers the Ploughman' Penguin Books 1959

Rutherfurd, Edward ‘London’

Spencer, B. 'Chaucer's London' Museum of London. 1972

Williams Gwyn A. 'Medieval London' Athlone Press. London. 1970

Web Site:

  Shakespeare’s London  

This royal throne of Kings, this scept'red isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious This royal throne of Kings, this scept'red isle, stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.....

William Shakespeare: 'Tragedy of King Richard the Second'.

William Shakespeare is one of the world's greatest writers. He was born, retired and died in the delightful midlands market town of Stratford-upon-Avon, but his life's work was in London. London was the biggest city in Britain by a long way – a magnet for all those with talent, for those who wanted to make money or to experience life to the full. London was full of young and mostly single men and women trying to earn a living. In their spare time they frequented the taverns, inns, theatre and houses of ill fame thickly scattered around London. The expansion of population in London in the 16th and 17th Century provided, for the first time, the economic conditions in which full-time professional theatres could develop. London was also the home to the town houses of the aristocracy. The great Lords added lustre to their names by acting as patron to the poets and writers of the period. Thus by 1592 Shakespeare found himself a well-paid and a well known respected playwright, drawing on the poetic tradition of Christopher Marlowe and Richard Greene.

He became a shareholder in the best of the acting companies, which in 1599 rebuilt the Globe Theatre on Bankside in Southwark. In 1603 the company became known as the King’s Company as King James I courted popular opinion by patronising the leading company. The 17th Century saw the production of a run of perhaps the best series of plays in literary history.

In the lecture we will look at London in Shakespeare’s day and his relationship to it. We will end the lecture with a look at stage craft in Shakespeare’s day looking at excerpts from "Henry V", "Midsummer’s’ Nights Dream", "Hamlet" and the "Tempest."


In the afternoon, the group takes a self-guided field trip to Southwark to visit the Tabard where the Canterbury Tales began and to see the Globe Theatre on Bankside. In the evening, the group will attend a performance at the Globe (this depends upon availability and if it is not possible to book, an alternative theatrical performance will be booked.)

Key Work

Henry IV Part One

Other Works

"Henry V"

"Midsummer’s’ Nights Dream"


"The Tempest"


Beier A.L. and Finlay R. 'The Making of the Metropolis'. London 1500-1700'. Longman, 1986

Harrison GB. 'Introducing Shakespeare'. Penguin 1985

Kay, Dennis, 'Shakespeare, His Life, Work and Era', Sidgwick and Jackson 1992

Lloyd Evans, G. and B. 'Companion to Shakespeare', Dent 1985

Manley, Lawrence (Ed.).' London in the Age of Shakespeare' Croom Helm 1986

Nicholl, C, 'The Reckoning - The Murder of Christopher Marlowe' Picador 1993

Public Record Office. 'Shakespeare in the Public Records' HMSO 1985

Salgado G. 'The Elizabethan Underworld' Sovereign, 1977

Schoenbaum, S. 'William Shakespeare A Compact Documentary Life' New American Library 1986

Schoenbaum S. 'Shakespeare. The Globe & the World'. Oxford University Press. 1981

Historical Fiction

Burgess, A, 'Nothing Like the Sun' Vintage 1992

Burgess, A. 'A Dead Man in Deptford' Vintage 1993

Web Sites

  Westminster Self Guided Tour  

You ask what is our policy? I will say: it is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against the monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.

You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be: or without victory there is no survival

Winston Churchill May 13th 1940

On this suggested self-guided tour we explore Westminster - the political centre of Britain. Westminster is the home of Parliament, of the Royal Family and has a host of cultural institutions such as the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, and Banqueting House and Cabinet War Rooms. Originally,

Westminster used to be an island on the River Thames called Thorney Island. In the Saxon period the Abbey was built on the island to the west of London which the became known as the west minster. Minster meaning large or important church. Westminster became important nationally when Edward the Confessor removed the royal palace from the walled city of London to the island from fear of the fierce Londoners who supported his rival Earl Godwin. Edward rebuilt the Abbey in magnificent style, and was the first English King to be buried there. King Harold, Earl Godwin's son, was the first English King to be crowned in Westminster Abbey. Since then, most English King's have been crowned, many buried and some married in the Abbey.

Westminster Palace was the main residence of the Kings of England from this time and therefore the King's council met here. This developed into Parliament. After a fire at Westminster King Henry the VIII moved the royal palace to Whitehall. Parliament took over the old Palace at Westminster where the House of Commons used St Stephens Chapel as its meeting place. This was a collegiate chapel with the seats facing each other and not the altar. This seating arrangement is still followed in the present day House and has contributed over the years to the arguementative and theatrical debates held in the Chamber.

Parliament gathered powers and traditions to itself during the medieval and Tudor periods until by the 17th century it could challenge the power of the King himself. It was in Westminster in 1648 that King Charles I was beheaded following the Civil War with Parliament. He was executed at the Banqueting House, one of the first Renaissance buildings in London (built by Inigo Jones). Ironically, the Banqueting House was decorated by Rubens with paintings symbolising the divine right of Kings to rule. The Banqueting House with its wonderful ceiling is still available to visit.

At the end of the 17th-century, a constitutional settlement was arrived at and King William and Mary moved the palace from Westminster to Kensington. Whitehall became the home of the Civil Service and the Prime Minister moved into No 10 Downing Street. In the 19th and 20th centuries Westminster has been the scene of many demonstrations and sometimes of riots by groups demanding the right to vote. In particular, the Chartists demanding universal manhood suffrage and suffragettes demanding votes for women.

The Westminster area was badly damaged in the Blitz when the House of Commons was razed to the ground. A commemoration of World War II can be seen in the Cabinet War Rooms which are displayed as it would have been when Winston Churchill was leading the Government from this Bunker.

Along the river from Westminster and Whitehall is Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column. Surrounding the square are a series of fine buildings including Canada House, South Africa House, St Martins-in-the-Fields and the National Gallery. The Gallery has one of the most comprehensive collections of European Art from the medieval period to the 19th century. Around the corner is the National Portrait Gallery. This is well worth a visit as it has portraits of the Kings, Queens and Aristocrats of England; as well as the politicians, artists writers and other famous people. A pleasant place to take lunch is the Crypt Restaurant at St. Martins-in-the-Fields.

Key Work

Churchill, Winston ‘History of the English Speaking People’ Cassell 1998

Various audio tapes have also been made of Churchills Wartime Speeches which are very enjoyable.

Other Works

Ashley, M 'The Glorious Revolution of 1688' Pather 1968

Hill C. 'God's Englishman - Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution'. Weidenfeld and Nicholson. 1970

Pepys, Samuel (Ed John Warrington) 'The Diary of Samuel Pepys' Dent 1906

Pepys. S (ed. Latham R.) 'The Illustrated Pepys' Bell & Hyman 1983


  Village of Palaces – Literary and Artistic Chelsea  

'More hath built near London upon the Thames side a commodious house, neither mean nor subject to envy, yet magnificent enough; there he converseth with his family, his wife, his son, and daughter-in-law, his three daughters, and their husbands, with eleven grandchildren. There is not any man so loving to his children as he; and he loveth his old wife as well as if she were a young maid; and such is the excellency of his temper that whatsoever happenith that could not be helped, he loveth it as if nothing could happen more happily. ... I should rather call this house a school or university of Christian religion; for there is none therein but readeth or studieth the liberal sciences.


Chelsea has been called the 'village of palaces' as it was the home of so many aristocratic mansions, and palaces. In the Tudor and Stuart periods Chelsea was the home to illustrious people such as Thomas More, Henry VIII, the princess Elizabeth, Katherine Parr, Lady Jane Grey, and the Duke of St Albans, the bastard son of King Charles II. In the 18th and 19th centuries Chelsea became more bohemian becoming the home of many artists and writers such as Swift, Smollett, Turner, Bram Stoker, George Elliot, Rossetti, Henry James, Whistler and most tragically, Oscar Wilde. Part of the attraction was the Riverside setting, the Thames inspired both Turner and Whistler who produced evocative paintings of the river.

The Riverside idyll was shattered by the building of the embankment along the River Thames in the 19th Century. Although a wonderful piece of 19th-century engineering it somewhat ended the artistic tradition in Chelsea. It was not until the 1950s that Chelsea became fashionable again. It was here that John Osborne's "Look back in Anger" was first performed, and Chelsea became the place to be. The trendy centre was the King's Road and stars such as Mick Jagger, Michael Caine, Mary Quant and Terence Stamp frequented the boutiques, coffee bars and Italian restaurants.

The lecture and field trip explores the literary and artistic tradition of Chelsea. In particular we look at Thomas More in Chelsea, the Pre-Raphaelites and Oscar Wilde.


In the afternoon the tutor takes the group to the Chelsea to visit the places mentioned in the lecture.

Key Works

‘Utopia’ by Thomas More, Paul Turner(Translator). Paperback (January 1965)

‘De Profundis’ by Oscar Wilde, Alan Gurganis (Modern Library Paperback Classics September 2000)

Other Works

Ackroyd, Peter ‘The Life of Thomas More’, Vintage 1999

Oscar Wilde

‘Humphrey Clinker’ Tobias Smollett


Walker, A. 'Kensington & Chelsea' Antler Books London 1987

Grant, W 'Kensington and Chelsea' Batsford 1975

Hollis, 'St Thomas More' 1961

In general books on Turner, Whistler, the Pre-Raphaelites, Wilde and the Swinging Sixties!



'Down by the Docks they consume the slimiest of shell-fish, which seem to have been scraped off the copper bottoms of ships. Down by the Docks, the vegetables... acquire a saline and a scaly look, as if they had been crossed with fish and seaweed. Down by the Docks, you may buy polonies, saveloys, and sausage preparations various, if you are not particular what they are made of besides seasoning. Down by the Docks, the seamen roam in mid-street and mid-day, their pockets inside out and their heads no better. Down by the Docks, the shabby undertaker's shop will bury you for next to nothing, after the Malay or Chinaman has stabbed you for nothing at all: so you can hardly hope to make a cheaper end'. Down by the Docks were thousands of men hoping to achieve a day's wage which would seldom keep them above the poverty line. London's Docks epitomised an economic miracle in which most Londoners played no part.


From Sketches by Boz’ by Charles Dickens

Dickens’ works have such influence that they have inevitably coloured our view of the 19th Century. It is hardly possible to imagine Victorian London without images from Dickens’ books crowding the mind. The lecture is designed to provide the essential background to Dickens' life in London and will examine the influence London had on Dickens and vice versa. Charles Dickens came to London at the age of 12 when his father was slipping desperately into debt. His education abandoned, Charles Dickens spent much of his time walking around the City. He came both to love and hate London. He loved the crowds, the characters, the history of the City. He hated the poverty, the hypocrisy, the inequalities between the rich and poor and determined that he would make his mark. He began his career working in the law, for which he gained a healthy contempt, became a reporter - reporting on Parliament - for which he had not much more respect. His move from journalism to fiction was an unexpected success and throughout his subsequent career he used his skills to try to help improve the condition of the poor.

Dickens had a restless spirit and was not a happy man. He threw himself into his work and not only produced his masterpieces but edited newspapers and magazines, campaigned for charities and reform, produced and acted in amateur dramatics and even had time to fundraise for friends and literary colleagues who had fallen on hard times. As his home life became more unhappy he spent more time away for example, performing his famous readings from his books. Despite medical warnings he would not restrain his passionate performances or reduce his punishing schedule and he suffered a stroke. He was buried in Westminster Abbey despite his wish for a private burial.

His influence continues unabated as every generation is taught compassion and the possibility of redemption from modern performances of a Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist.


In the afternoon those self-guided field trip exploring Dickens London and visiting Dickens House Museum.

Key Works

‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens

‘David Copperfield’ by Charles Dickens

‘Oliver Twist’ by Charles Dickens

Other Works

Ackroyd, P. 'Dickens' Sinclair-Stevenson. 1990

Tomalin, Claire. 'The Invisible Woman' Viking 1990


Shepherd, Thomas. London in the Nineteenth Century. Frank Graham. 1970 (first published 1829)

Ackroyd. P (Introduced by) 'Dickens' London'. Headline. 1987

Flint, Kate. 'Dickens' Harvester Press. 1986

Forster, J. 'The Life and Charles Dickens' J.M. Dent 1966

Hardwick, M & M. 'Dickens's England' J.M. Dent. 1976

Paroissien, D. (Ed). 'Selected Letters of Charles Dickens' Macmillan Press. 1985

Robinson, Peter. 'The London of Charles Dickens' Midas Books 1979

Dickens, Charles. 'A December Vision - his social journalism'


  London Through Modern Eyes  

'And when he grew bored with all this information, he decided that it was time to return to St Mary Woolnoth ... he noticed that there was a gap between the back of the church and the next building - an open patch of ground .. I suppose,' he said, 'these are the excavations?'

..he suddenly descended into the site by means of a metal ladder. Tentatively he crossed around the edge of the open pits, smelling the dankness of the earth as he did so.

... 'And how far down have your reached? He asked her, peering into a dark pit at his feet.

'Well its all very complicated, but at this point we're down to the sixth century. It really is a treasure trove. As far as I'm concerned we could go on digging for ever.

'And as Hawksmoor looked down at what he thought was freshly opened earth, he saw his own image staring back up at him from the plastic sheeting.'

'Hawksmoor' Peter Ackroyd

Modern London is frequently portrayed in recent fiction. It is a city with a thousand different faces and there are many and various viewpoints taken by London’s 20th Century authors. One of London’s most inspiring writers was Virginia Woolf the leading member of the Bloomsbury Set. She is perhaps the most famous of the many women writers who, in the work of Hilary Mantel and Jeanette Winterton, continue to draw on London as an inspiration. Peter Ackroyd and Ian Sinclair are another two writers as obssessed with London as they are with writing. The multi-cultural and modern sides of the City are shown in the novels of writers such as Martin Amis, and Hanif Kureishi amongst many others, while a more old-fashioned view of London life is given in the humourous work of London lawyer John Mortimer whose Rumpole of the Bailey is a much loved character.

The lecturer will take a selection of passages from modern authors to give an introduction to the rich diversity of the writing available. However, the exact content of the lecture will vary depending upon the particular specialitity of the lecturer.


In the afternoon there is a self-guided field trip around modern London giving the visitor a chance to sample both the vibrancy of the modern City with its steel and glass architecture and the multi-cultural nature of the streets. .

Key Works

Iain Sinclair ‘Lights Out for the Territory – 9 excursions in the Secret History of London’ Granta 1998

Other Works

Any of the Rumpole books by John Mortimer

Peter Ackroyd ‘London’ – a biography’ Chattos and Windo, 2000

Martin Amis ‘London Fields. Vintage International 1991

Moorcock, Michael ‘Mother London’ Simon & Schuster 2000

Bell, Quentin 'Bloomsbury'

Woolf, Virginia 'Mrs Dalloway'

Woolf. Virginia ' Roger Fry a Biography'

Woolf. 'A Writer's Diary' Triad London 1978

Ed. Gillian Naylor. 'Bloomsbury' Pyramid Books. 1990

Lyndall Gordon. 'Virginia Woolf - A Writer's Life' Oxford University Press 1984





 Latest News  Search  Contact us

Next Guided Walks:

Sat 2.30 18th Nov 2017 The Archaeology & History of Chelsea  - From King Offa to the Swinging 60s - Sloane Square Tube 

Sat 2.30 2 Dec 2017 Myths, Legends and the Origins of London - Tower Hill Tube

Sat 10.45 16 Dec 2017 Exploring Roman London - a Literary & Archaeology Guide Tower Hill Tube 

Sat 10.45 30 Dec 2017 Medieval & Reformation London  - Smithfield to the Guildhall  - Barbican Underground 

Sat 10.45 13 Jan 2018  Cromwell and More's Tudor London - St Pauls Tube Exit 2 


Sat 2.30 27 Jan 2018 William Shakespeare and Tudor & Stuart London -  Tower Hill Tube  

Sat 2.30 10 Feb 2018 The Archaeology & History of Southwark - From London Bridge to Bermondsey Abbey - London Bridge - Tooley Street exit

Sat 2.30 24 Feb 2018 The Archaeology & History of Rotherhithe - Rotherhithe Tube


Sat 2.30 10 March 2018 Cornhill - City of London Ward Walk -  Bank Tube Station Exit 3


Four Humours of Shakespeare

Latest Publication

The Four Humours of Shakespeare by Kevin Flude





Search this site or the web powered by FreeFind
Site search Web search


Copyright © 2016   Cultural Heritage Resources. Site Template Updated 23 oct 2016


Page Last Updated
5 November 2005