The capital of the United Kingdom, London lies on the banks of the Thames River in south-east England. With a population of 7,825,200 in the area (1570 km2) embraced by the Greater London Council and 13,945,000 within a 64 km radius of its center, London is one of the six largest cities in the world. A significant proportion of the city's population is immigrants (or their descendants) from East Europe and former British territories in the West Indies, Africa, India and Pakistan, and Ireland, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
London is built on a chalk basin bisected by the Thames some 60 km from its mouth on the North Sea. From the City of London, the original 274 ha settlement, London has spread and absorbed the surrounding suburbs.
Many of the suburbs are dormitory areas and most of the city's famous buildings and historical institutions are found in central London, which mainly comprises the municipalities of the City of London, known simply as The City, and the much larger City of Westminster.
Today, London is an important manufacturing center, well served by international airports and large dockyards. It is the international air travel crossroads, most major international airlines operating services to London. Despite London's reputation for inclement weather, the average yearly rainfall is only 595 mm and on average there are 4.4 hours of sunshine each day. Temperatures vary from a winter average of 5°C to a summer average of 18°C.
The first historical records of London, written by the Roman historian Tacitus, appeared in the second century AD. He noted that in AD 61 Queen Boadicea of Iceni invaded the thriving Roman trading center and fort of Londinium. Roman rule was subsequently re-established and maintained until the early fifth century when Anglo-Saxon invasions began. In 886 London was released from Danish rule by the West Saxon king, Alfred the Great. He established a form of government there and the city again thrived as a trading center.
Nearly 200 years later at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the Norman ruler, William I, conquered London. He was able to negotiate a peaceful settlement and London continued to grow and prosper.
King Richard I instituted a municipal government in the late twelfth century and soon afterwards, under the Magna Carta of 1215, the city was granted the right to hold annual mayoral elections. The famous original London Bridge (now in the United States) and portions of Westminster Abbey were built at this time. Guilds, the forerunners of modern unions, rapidly spread with the rise of craft industries. During the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), London became a center of Renaissance culture. In the English Civil War, in the mid-seventeenth century, the city sided with a democratic Parliament against the monarchy but Charles II was welcomed back after pledging reforms and undertaking to renew the city's charter.
In 1665 nearly 75,000 people died during the Great Plague and in the following year most of the city was destroyed by fire.
London was quickly rebuilt with the aid of Christopher Wren, whose masterpiece, St Paul's Cathedral, was completed in 1711.
The economy experienced a dynamic growth following reconstruction; roads and bridges were built to facilitate transportation and coffee-houses became popular centers for social life.
A centralized police force was established in 1829. The railways, including an underground network, grew with the rise of industrialization. The metropolis developed large slum areas in which workers lived in unhygienic and crowded conditions. London suffered no real damage during World War I but substantial parts of it were destroyed by bombs in World War II.
Central London can be divided into east and west; the east contains all the great financial institutions in The City, such as the Bank of England, the Stock Exchange, Lloyd's of London, the Baltic Exchange and the London Metal Exchange. It is one of the world's centers of international 'invisible' commerce, such as insurance, shipping, banking, bullion and stock exchange, and the square mile known as The City has long been known as 'the richest square mile in the world'. The East End, slightly farther from the center, is famous for another London institution, the cockney, a true cockney being one born within the sound of Bow Bells (St Mary-le-Bow Church, Cheapside). The West End is in the City of Westminster and includes the city's theatre district and the major shops in Oxford Street.
Exclusive residential areas, such as Mayfair and Knightsbridge, are also in this area. Tourist attractions in Westminster include Buckingham Palace, St James's Palace, Whitehall, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Trafalgar Square. The Tower of London is in the east, in the City of London. Parks such as Hyde Park, Green Park, Regents Park (with its zoo), St James's Park and Kensington Gardens are dotted about central London and some notable bridges, such as Tower Bridge and the Albert Bridge, span the Thames River.
Among the institutions for tertiary education are the University of London, the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Art and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. With its colleges, over 50 live theaters, opera houses, concert halls, seven large professional orchestras, more than 100 museums, many famous art galleries (including the National Gallery) and its scholarly libraries (including the British Library), London is an international cultural center and the cultural heart of the English-speaking world.