London: A history lesson

Jane Pauley offers a London history lesson, from the beginning:

For centuries London was the center of the vast British Empire, but there was a time when it was a mere outpost on the fringes of another.

Nowhere is that more evident than a wall, just within sight of the Tower of London, which marks the boundary of the city's first Roman settlement nearly 2,000 years ago.

Remains of a Roman settlement in what was then called Londinium, c. 43 AD. CBS News

"Londinium," as the Romans called it, was a trading post. With trade came wealth. But as the Roman Empire began to recede, so did London's fortunes.

The first Anglo-Saxons slipped into the region in the 6th century, under the cover of the Dark Ages, though not until after the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066 would the city become both an economic and political powerhouse.

Which brings us to the Tower of London, site of the great Norman keep, built on the orders of William the Conquerer.

The Tower of London.  CBS News

"It signified to all London, 'The Normans are here, we're going to rule you and we are the boss,'" said Yeoman Sergeant Bob Loughlin.

"This was shock-and-awe?" asked Pauley.

"Yes, it was."

The tour of the Tower of London

The Tower would figure prominently in the city's history, serving as a palace, a zoo ("For food every day we tried to feed the elephants loaves of bread, raw meat and buns," said Loughlin), an armory, and a treasure chest for the crown jewels.

The Beefeaters' private club

But the Tower of London is probably best known as a prison. Two wives of Henry VIII, Anne Boyelyn and Catherine Howard, lost their heads there.

"The prisoner would be brought up onto the scaffold, given a chance to speak and then, generally, pay the executioner as well," said Loughlin – to ensure the executioner did a good, "clean" job.

Executioners weren't the only ones looking for a cut of London's prosperity … and by 1600, the city's population began to swell. It was the age of discovery, science and literature.

But the 17th century also proved to be a time of great turmoil. In 1665 a catastrophic plague would afflict London. And if that wasn't enough, a year later, a great fire engulfed the city.

"The fire starts about one in the morning, in the middle of the night when everyone's asleep. So, it gets hold before much can be done about it," said Meriel Jeater, a curator at the Museum of London.  "Even though it burned down a quarter of London, the fire spread slowly enough that people could escape."

The Great Fire of London in 1666. More than 13,000 houses and 87 churches were destroyed. CBS News

It would take about 50 years to rebuild the city.

London may not be on the sea, but in the 18th and 19th centuries it ruled the waves as the capital of an "empire on which the sun never sets."

Queen Victoria and capitalism reigned, and as the result of empire and the Industrial Revolution, "You've got factories with machines actually making things, and a growing middle class who was able to purchase them," said Jaeter.

There were more than six million Londoners at the dawn of the 20th century, and a bright future awaited the world's largest and wealthiest city.

Then came the First and Second World Wars.

During the Blitz of World War II, Londoners kept calm and carried on. CBS News

During the Nazi blitz of 1940 and '41, London was under constant bombardment, but its citizens remained calm and carried on, buoyed by the oratory of Winston Churchill. "Out of this time of trial and tribulation will be born a new freedom and glory for all mankind," he said.

Britain would emerge victorious, but exhausted, and its age of empire faded beneath history's horizon.

London, though scarred, remained a beacon for those seeking opportunity. In the 1950s and '60s, a new wave of immigrants would change the face of the city. 

Four lads from Liverpool would also come to call it home – and once again exert British influence across the seas.

Today, London maintains its vibrancy as an international capital of commerce … as a center of culture … and as one of the most cosmopolitan cities under the sun.

Millennium Bridge, a pedestrian walkway across the Thames, was opened in 2000. CBS News

Don't miss our special broadcast, "A Sunday Morning in London," hosted by Jane Pauley, on CBS May 13!

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Story produced by Gavin Boyle.