This Was London

Posted July 27, 2012 at 3:55pm

This is the story of a nation’s capital and a burgeoning global power. 

Over two short centuries, this city grew from the population of a sleepy suburban town to the seat of the world’s most powerful empire. This city survived fire, and she grew. She survived plagues and sickness that destroyed her inhabitants. This city survived economic and religious unrest, but, still, she grew up and out, and she grew strong. 

Over 200 years, the city’s unbridled urban and suburban sprawl and her economic development shot out from all sides, circling the capital’s center like the skirts of a whirling urban-planning dervish. 

This is London’s story from the 16th century to the end of the 17th century, a critical and dramatic period in her history. By the end of this time, the Catholic Church had been displaced by the Church of England and a bill of rights that limited the power of the monarchy and parliament had been agreed to. At this same time, England had established herself as the world’s major colonizer, a naval superpower and a destination for immigrants from around the world. Like today, the influx of migrants during this period carried extraordinary social and economic consequences for the city.

Emerging Empire

“Open City: London, 1500-1700,” now on exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library, carefully investigates the city in this period. 

“It is a critical moment in London’s history,” exhibit curator Kathleen Lynch says. “When it has grown from a medieval town mostly contained within walls to, by the end of the period, [a place where] the population exploded tenfold.” 

During this time, Lynch says, London’s population went from 50,000 inhabitants to 500,000.

“London [went] from being the capital of England — England being this small island on the outskirts of Europe — to, by 1700, being the seat of an emerging empire and an emerging naval power.” 

The exhibit examines this critical period through studying the changes in three critical public spaces: the church, the theater and the markets. 

“We are trying to take a close-up look at what’s happening — how does it feel in the city when you get down to the parish church [level]? What are some of the forces that are butting up against each other, and how is change happening in that particular locale?” Lynch continues. 

In between these close-up views of a changing city, the exhibit is punctuated by maps of London that force the viewer to put the extraordinary population boom, urban sprawl and social change into perspective. 

One intricate and surprisingly moving map was drawn just after the Great Fire of 1666. The map, begun just two days after the disaster, shows the devastation that gripped London. Two-thirds of the city was burned to the ground over two days, people’s livelihoods were decimated, and tens of thousands of Londoners were displaced. 

The map of the destruction is highly detailed and charmingly so. Every street is delineated and each house is drawn, “so you get a sense of the real life of the city. It’s not just a street map.”

Less than 20 years after the Great Fire, a rebuilt London had expanded into a capital of wealth and power on the world stage. 

Center of Attention

The timing of the show dovetails nicely with London’s current moment at the forefront of public attention. 

Beginning with the spectacle of the 2011 royal wedding, Queen Elizabeth II’s jubilee earlier this year and culminating with the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, much of the world has been exposed to views of London’s streets, palaces and waterways. 

So the timing of the exhibit, which looks at the city’s history through an examination of public spaces, is pretty close to perfect.

London’s history is, of course, a microcosm for England during a period of dramatic change. Less obviously, perhaps, it is an interesting examination of one great capital city, London, through the lens of another great capital city, Washington. 

The parallels between this period of London’s history and the past 200 years of America’s history generally, and the District’s history specifically, are striking. 

In some ways, London’s history as a destination for people from all over England and the empire is the mirror image of Washington’s reality. 

Lynch says immigration and people coming into London are among the focal points of the exhibit. The crowded streets and the competing classes left Londoners struggling to come to terms with the influx of residents. 

“We can’t handle the indigent. We can’t handle the people that don’t belong to us,” Lynch says many Londoners complained. “We have responsibility — parish by parish, in that time — to take care of our own, but who are these people?”

In Washington, of course, this reality is flipped. D.C.’s migrant workers are the lawmakers, staffers, diplomats and consultants who work in our city for a time or season before moving on. Instead of an influx of poor, our most constant stream of immigrants come from the educated and the powerful classes. Some of them contribute and weave themselves into the landscape of this capital city; others even help to govern the capital. But generally, they use resources, make decisions, then leave.

One can’t help consider how the history of the mother country’s capital pushes against our own, complicating our identity both as Washingtonians and Americans.