People moved from Europe into southern Britain in around 15,000 BC and rising sea levels later made Britain into an island. The first inhabitants of the London area were farmers, while foreign traders brought goods to London via the Thames. The Romans established the city of London in AD 50 bringing with them people from all over Europe. When the Romans left in 410, London was invaded by the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings. In 1066 William the Conqueror became King of England, bringing the Norman aristocracy with him. During medieval times, many foreign merchants traded from London. Protestant craftsmen sought refuge in the capital from the 16th century. Huguenots from France fled religious persecution during the 17th century and developed the City’s banking system alongside Dutch and Jewish financiers. Large numbers of Germans settled in London between the 17th century and World War I. Famine in the 1840s brought many Irish to the capital in search of a new livelihood. Meanwhile unemployment pushed Italians to emigrate to find jobs. The 20th century saw many refugees from Europe seek a new home in London, particularly in the postwar period, including Spaniards, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. Britain is now part of the European Union and citizens from other member countries can enter freely.
By 15,000 BC the climate became warmer. Gradually people moved across the bridge of land which then led from mainland Europe into the empty territory of southern Britain. The area has been continuously occupied since this time. In fact, everyone in Britain today is descended from people who have come from abroad at some time.
Recent excavations in Uxbridge have shed light on the life of early settlers in the London area. 10,000 years ago hunters from Europe lay in wait on the tundra to catch herds of reindeer and wild horse migrating along the valley of the River Colne.
At around 6,000 BC Britain was separated from mainland Europe by rising sea levels. Settlement from abroad was now by boat. Over the sixty centuries before the Roman invasion, people came from overseas at various periods to settle in the Thames valley.
As this is a time before written records, we do not know when settlement occurred. Hunting communities may have brought trade items from across the North Sea. Farmers from northern Europe may have settled, bringing new crops and animals.
For thousands of years, overseas traders sailed up the Thames, bringing goods from the rest of Europe. There may also have been occasional large-scale settlement of the Thames valley by people from across the Channel and the North Sea.
The first city of London was established around AD 50 by Roman colonists. It was a cosmopolitan town from the start. These earliest Londoners came from all over the Roman Empire. They included soldiers and officials of the army of occupation. Merchants and slaves came in their wake, and craftworkers were brought in to decorate fine Mediterranean-style buildings.
The inscriptions and graffiti they left behind show that some inhabitants came originally from modern-day Italy, France, Germany and Greece. People from other parts of the empire, such as Spain and North Africa, may also have been here.
In the 4th and 5th centuries the rulers of Britain employed German mercenaries to protect the country from raiders. Some time after the Roman administration officially withdrew in 410, these mercenaries rebelled and the area was opened up to their fellow Anglo-Saxons. After the Romans left, written records were virtually non-existent for over two centuries.
The Anglo-Saxons came from modern-day Denmark, north Germany and Holland. They were farming people who settled the countryside along the Thames valley. Early cemeteries and settlements have been found in places such as Ham, Mitcham and Hammersmith. The walled city of London, however, remained abandoned for over 150 years.
London was occupied by four main groups of people between the 7th and 11th centuries: the British, the Anglo-Saxons, the Scandinavians and the Norman French.
Missionaries came to London from overseas to spread the Christian gospel. North German slave traders were present in the late 7th century. Imported materials suggest the presence of other overseas merchants.
Viking raiders from Scandinavia attacked London in 842 and many times afterwards. Eventually the Danish leader Cnut become King of England in 1016.
In 1066 another invader, William of Normandy, whose ancestors were Vikings, was crowned King. Norman French influence on the English language is still in evidence today. Several monastic houses linked to overseas religious orders were founded in London.
In the late 13th and early 14th centuries, much of medieval London's overseas trade was in the hands of 'alien' merchants living in the city. They exported raw materials such as wool and grain and imported valuable goods in return. Gascons developed the wine trade, and Flemings imported woollen cloth, dyestuffs, pottery and bricks. Spanish merchants brought leather and iron.
After Henry VIII's split with the Catholic Church in 1534, England became a place of refuge for Protestants fleeing persecution in the Low Countries and Germany. Settlers from northern Europe and Italy also came to London at various periods as employment opportunities arose.
Large numbers of people from the Spanish-ruled Netherlands moved to London from the mid-16th century and stimulated the further development of numerous crafts and industries. Major contributions were made to the textile and clothing industry, ceramics, glass manufacture, printing and engraving.
In the 17th century, a group of predominantly Dutch, Huguenot and Jewish financiers met in the City to develop the systems which made London the world’s financial capital. Merchants from backgrounds like these had the international connections which facilitated worldwide trade.
By the late 17th century there was an established German population. During the following century, refugees came from south west Germany, as did merchants and sugar bakers.
In the 19th century, London's advanced economy continued to attract German settlers. These ranged from wealthy financiers to office clerks and factory workers drawn by higher wages and better working conditions. The population reached a peak of 27,000 just before World War I.
The 1840s saw a large influx of Irish people escaping famine in their homeland. A sizeable Irish population continued to settle in the capital, peaking in the 1950s.
Large numbers of people from Europe came to London in the century before World War II. Some came as refugees from political upheavals and revolutions. During World War II, several governments in exile were established in London.
Like the rest of Britain, London experienced a labour shortage during the years of reconstruction in the late 1940s and 1950s. Initially this shortage was filled by people displaced by the war and by former German prisoners of war.
Britain drew increasingly closer to the Continent with membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973 and the European Union (EU) in 1992. Today Europeans from the 25 EU member countries are able to live, study and work in London without restrictions.