History and Tour

Origins of Power

The site where Downing Street now stands rose to importance early in British history.

Settlement by the Romans, Anglo Saxons and Normans made the area around today’s Westminster a prestigious centre of government over 1000 years ago.

Location, location, location

Westminster AbbeyThorney Island - ‘the island of thorns’ - was a marshy piece of land lying between two branches of the river Tyburn that flowed from Hampstead Heath down to the Thames.

The land was boggy, creating problems for building which persist today, but it did have an ideal position. A ford across the river Thames joined the Roman road from Kent near where Westminster Bridge now stands, creating good transportation links.

For that reason, the Romans chose Thorney Island as a good place to settle, and the area began to develop. Traces of these Roman and later Saxon buildings have been found within the grounds of Number 10.

The early settlements were not very successful. The area was prone to plague and its inhabitants were very poor. A document of the Mercian King Offa in 785 refers to “the terrible place which is called Thorney Island”.

It took royal patronage to give the area prestige. King Canute (reigned 1017-35) built a palace in the area, and Edward the Confessor (reigned 1042-66) and William I (reigned 1066-87) followed suit.

Westminster, as the area became known, quickly became the centre of government and Church, with the building of the great abbey nearby.

The earliest building known to have stood on the site of Downing Street was the Axe brewery owned by the Abbey of Abingdon in the Middle Ages. But by the early 1500s, the brewery had fallen into disuse.

Henry VIII’s pleasure palace

The Palace of Whitehall viewed from the Thames. Picture: Historic Royal PalacesHenry VIII (r. 1509-47) made Westminster even more important by building an extravagant royal residence there.

Whitehall Palace was created when Henry VIII confiscated York House from Cardinal Wolsey in 1530 and extended the complex. Today’s Downing Street is located on the edge of the Palace site.

The huge residence included tennis courts, a tiltyard for jousting, a bowling green and a cockpit for bird fights. Stretching from St. James’s Park to the Thames, it was the official residence of Tudor and Stuart monarchs until it was destroyed by fire in 1698.

It made the surrounding real estate some of the most important and valuable in London - and the natural home of power.

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