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  • Writer's pictureLondon On The Ground

Ludgate, London, Lud and legend

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

Lud, a pre-Roman ancient Briton, founded London, according to legend.

King Lud's head looks out over Ludgate Circus in the City of London from the former pub building bearing his name, now a branch of Leon
King Lud

There is a very old legend that a king called Lud ruled in ancient Briton in the century before the Roman invasion of AD43. The story goes that Lud founded London and was buried at the City's western gate, named Ludgate after him.


There is also a tradition that says London itself derives its name from the legendary king.

 

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For a schedule of forthcoming London On The Ground guided walks, please click here.

 

According to folklore, Ludgate was built by King Lud in 66BC, although in reality it was one of the original gates in the Roman walls of London, which were not built until around 190-200AD. This was around a century and a half after the Romans founded London and more than two and a half centuries after Lud is supposed to have built a gate in the walls.


The gate straddled Ludgate Hill about half way between where St Paul's Cathedral and Ludgate Circus are today.

Ludgate. By Anonymous cartographer/etcher;[1]; from University  of Toronto Wenceslaus Hollar Digital Collection. Scanned by University of Toronto. High-resolution version extracted using custom tool by User:Dr_Sachs. - http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/52/17th_century_map_of_London_(W.Hollar).jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20290711
Ludgate before its demolition in 1760. Source: Wikipedia. Public domain, scanned by Univ of Toronto

Ludgate was rebuilt a number of times, including in 1215-17 with materials from destroyed houses of Jews. It was rebuilt again in the 15th century by a wealthy widow named Agnes Foster. Her husband, Stephen Foster, once an inmate of the debtors' prison over the gate, rose to become Lord Mayor of London.


Damaged in the Great Fire of 1666, Ludgate was finally demolished in 1760.

By anonymous - The painting was photographed in the YaleCenter for British Art, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1599453
Ludgate in the Great Fire of 1666. Anonymous. Public domain, photo by Yale Center for British Art, source: Wikipedia

However, some statuary from the gate's façade still remains visible not far away, outside the church of St Dunstan in the West on Fleet Street.


Crumbling statues of King Lud and his two sons (who are said to have helped defend Britain against Julius Caesar) can be seen in the porchway at the entrance to what is now the livery hall of the Carmen's Company, just to the right of St Dunstan's.

Lud & Sons, once on Ludgate

Above the same entrance, there is a statue of Queen Elizabeth I that was also once on Ludgate. This was made in her lifetime and is the oldest among the statues of Queens in the City of London (read more about these statues of queens here).

Queen Elizabeth I, statue once stood on Ludgate, now outside St Dunstan in the West, Fleet Street
Queen Elizabeth I, this statue once stood on Ludgate

The legend of King Lud was presented as historical fact in Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain), a book written by Geoffrey of Monmouth more than a millennium after the mythical monarch was said to have ruled. Geoffrey's work is thought by modern historians to be primarily a work of fiction.


Geoffrey of Monmouth was a cleric, who lived from around 1095 to around 1155 and wrote a number of works in Latin. The best known of these is Historia Regum Britanniae, which relates a 12th century view of the history of Britain from its supposed settlement by Brutus of Troy up to the seventh century.


Brutus, according to Geoffrey, was descended from Aeneas of Troy, who is mentioned in Homer's Iliad and is the main character in Virgil's Aeneid. Aeneas' descendants also included Romulus, who founded Rome, and his twin brother Remus.


In Geoffrey's story, Brutus conquered the island of Britain, then known as Albion, and its population of giants. He founded a city on the River Thames, calling it New Troy before the name changed to London.


Brutus' palace was guarded by two captured giants, Gog and Magog, who are still today seen as mythical guardians of the City of London (their statues stand in Guildhall and wicker effigies are carried in the annual Lord Mayor's Show).


King Lud oversaw the rebuilding of cities and the refortification of New Troy/London. Geoffrey attributed the name London to a derivation of Caer Lud, or Lud's fortress.


Among other stories of kings of the Britons, Geoffrey of Monmouth was one of the first to write down the tale of King Arthur. He also wrote of a King Leir, whose story was modified by William Shakespeare into his play King Lear.


Lud may have been based on a mythical hero from Welsh legend called Lludd Llaw Ereint, which means Lludd of the Silver Hand.


According to the Welsh tradition, separate from that recorded by Geoffrey, Lludd ruled Britain and his brother Llefelys ruled Gaul (more or less modern France).


There's a good story from the Welsh legend about Lludd asking his brother Llefelys for help in eradicating three plagues troubling Britain.


The first was a plague of Coraniaid, a race of dwarfs from Asia who could hear everything, thought by some to represent the Romans. Llefelys advised a potion of crushed insects to kill them.


The second plague was a fearful scream heard every year on the day before May Day, so demoralising that it robbed men of their strength, pregnant women of their children and young men and women of their senses, while nature became barren.


Llefelys found that the scream came from a red dragon under attack from a white dragon. A pit was then dug to capture the dragons directly under the point where they eventually fell exhausted from the air at the end of their fight.


The third challenge was an armed giant, who had magical powers to lull Lludd's court to sleep and then stole all their food and drink. Lludd overcame the intruder in combat, avoiding his soporific affect by frequently dipping his head in cold water. After defeating the giant, Llud pardoned him and made him his loyal subordinate.


Coming back to London, the notion that Ludgate is named after a legendary ancient British royal hero is attractive.


In truth, however, the name Ludgate more likely derives from 'flood gate', 'Fleet gate' (the River Fleet flowed across the bottom of Ludgate Hill), or 'hlid gate' (from the old English word for a postern).


Although he may only be a legend, King Lud - or, at least, a fanciful likeness of him - can still be seen almost at the former location of his namesake gate.


A large pub by the name of Old King Lud traded on Ludgate Circus from 1870 to 2005. The building is still there, now a branch of the fast food chain Leon.

Former Old King Lud Pub, now Leon fast food chain, Ludgate Circus, City of London
Former Old King Lud Pub, now Leon fast food

If you are passing that way, take moment to notice the effigies of Lud over the doorways and between the windows in the roof of the former pub.


Lud is the King of Leon now.

 

The former King Lud pub building on Ludgate Circus and the statues that once adorned Ludgate itself (now outside St Dunstan in the West) are among the many landmarks that can be seen on my Fleet Street walk, 'Printers, Papers, Pubs and Prisons' (next available date 5 March).

 

Walks available for booking

For a full schedule of forthcoming London On The Ground guided walks, please click here.




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