London Goes Back to the Future

How South Bank might look

How South Bank might look

15 October 2015

London as a Catholic nation is digitally re-imagined by graphic artists

New report reveals how Britain might have looked had the spies of yesteryear not foiled the Gunpowder Plot, thwarted attempts to murder Queen Elizabeth I, and aided Henry VIII's break from Rome

A new report by acclaimed historian Dr Tracy Borman, Chief Curator for Historic Royal Palaces, shows how feats of intelligence and espionage during Tudor and Stuart times shaped Britain's culture, religion and even architecture

Graphic artists produce images of top predictions including:

-Catholic Monasteries which would have become widespread in London if Henry VIII had not revolutionised religion in this country; - An opulent palace fit for James I's daughter Elizabeth which might have taken the place of the Palace of Westminster if Guy Fawkes' gunpowder plot had succeeded; - A large riverside castle which could have been built on the insistence of Mary, Queen of Scots if she had become Queen of England
- Research conducted to celebrate the launch of new series History's Ultimate Spies which airs on TV channel Yesterday on Friday 16th October at 10pm

Download images HERE

Scottish style castles, grand monasteries and opulent palaces would dominate the London skyline in modern Britain were it not for a few ingenious spies. That's the verdict of a new report released today, which suggests that had the espionage and intelligence agents in the Tudor and Stuart times been unsuccessful in their missions London's iconic skyline would be completely changed.

The History's Ultimate Spies report, written by acclaimed historian Dr Tracy Borman, was commissioned to celebrate the launch of History's Ultimate Spies on TV channel Yesterday at 10pm on Friday 16th October.

The report focuses on the spy networks created by Thomas Cromwell to aid Henry VIII's break with Rome, Francis Walsingham - regarded as one of history's greatest ever spymasters and credited with foiling many plots to kill the protestant Elizabeth I and replace her on the throne with the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, and Robert Cecil, who thwarted the infamous Gunpowder Plot.

The report is accompanied by visual representations of how London might have looked had the intelligence agents failed.


Catholic Monasteries in the City:

In order to do King Henry VIII's bidding, Thomas Cromwell established a network of spies that steered Henry through his troubles with Rome, divorces, assassinations attempts and the establishment of a new religion. One of Henry's boldest actions was to set about dissolving Catholic monasteries as a part of a larger move towards his new Church of England. If Cromwell had not been successful, these would have not only remained but grown in number, so London's skyline would have featured many more grand monasteries.
Mary, Queen of Scots' Riverside Castle:

A fierce Protestant, Francis Walsingham rose to become one of history's greatest ever spymasters and an indispensable servant to Queen Elizabeth I. His hatred and suspicion of Catholicism drove him ever on and his formidable network of spies helped to foil many plots against the Queen; the most infamous of all being the plan to assassinate her and put Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne of England.

Had Mary, Queen of Scots become Queen of England, she would have looked to make her mark by building Scottish-style castles in keeping with examples such as Edinburgh or Sterling castle alongside the River Thames.

Borman's report adds that "the royals favoured riverside palaces, as the Thames offered the primary mode of transport at the time, and also provided a good source of water for washing and getting rid of waste". Mary would have most likely picked a spot by the river for her new castle and the Southbank, which would have been close to the centre of what was a much smaller London in these times, would have been a sensible option for the site for it.

A Grand, Opulent Castle fit for a Queen

As Walsingham was to Elizabeth, Robert Cecil was to her successor James I. Cecil was a formidable political operator, who devised and established an extraordinary web of spies and informers designed to ensure the King's security. Cecil's greatest triumph was the thwarting of the infamous catholic Gunpowder Plot. There is a theory that the great spymaster knew all about it from day one and orchestrated the whole plot in order to bring maximum discredit on Catholics.

Had the Gunpowder Plot been successful, James I's young catholic daughter Elizabeth would have been placed on the throne, and one prediction made by Borman is that the void left by the destroyed Houses of Parliament might have been filled by an opulent castle for the young princess.

Borman writes that Elizabeth was "known to be spoilt and have extravagant taste, spending lavishly throughout her life on fine clothes and jewels". History shows she went on to marry Frederick, Elector Palatine, who built her a splendid palace with menagerie and Italian-Style garden. It would be no surprise that a grand, new home would be something Elizabeth requested had she become Queen much earlier had the Gunpowder Plot not been foiled.


The report also found there would be several social and cultural connotations had history changed in this way, as well as further potential changes to London's skyline.

  • Large Abbeys and monasteries would have been much more common. Borman writes in the report that "the great Abbeys of Fountains and Rievaulx might still be seen for miles around" as the Dissolution of Monasteries would not have taken place without Thomas Cromwell and his supporters.
  • Had James I been assassinated in the gunpowder plot the English Civil War could have been avoided, as his son and heir Charles I would never have become King. It was Charles' actions which were almost wholly responsible for outbreak of the Civil War, so without him on the Throne England's history could have been very different.
  • Had the Armada been victorious and brought England under Spanish rule, King Phillip II of Spain might have replaced Tudor palaces with buildings more in style of El Escorial, his headquarters in Madrid
  • Had Napoleon been successful at the Battle of Trafalgar, monuments such as Nelson's Column and Wellington Arch might have been replaced with buildings in Napoleon's honour, to celebrate the Frenchman's victory. Napoleon was a rampant self-publicist and could very well have built a monument in his own honour in the same way that Nelson did.
  • If England had become a mere satellite of either Spain or France after being defeated in these famous wars, there would have been significantly less investment in London all round as it would no longer be a capital. This would have meant the city would have been much less developed: o The South Bank might have remained a swampland o There might have only been one bridge over the River Thames. o The Industrial Revolution might not have taken hold to the same extent in England, as parent country Spain or France would have prioritised themselves when it came to these kinds of technological advances. Britain might therefore have stayed much more agricultural
  • If we had been conquered by Spain, our cultures and traditions may have evolved in line with those in Spain o Our national dish may have become paella as opposed to fish and chips o The theatrical traditions of Shakespeare, who reached the peak of his successes during his time, might have been replaced as a cultural activity with attending bull fights. Shakespeare's Globe may never have been built. o Through changes in religion, our lives would have been dominated by regular (and prolonged) church services

If Mary, Queen of Scots had triumphed over Elizabeth, we may also have seen greater French influence on our language and culture, as Mary had been raised in the French Court, and loved all things French.

  • Our national cuisine in this country might have improved, and developed in line with French influences.
  • London's street might have been lined with Parisian-style cafés.

General Manager for Yesterday, Adrian Wills said,

Londoners are rightly proud of our city's most famous landmarks, but it is staggering just how different the capital's skyline might have looked had it not been for the work of the James Bond's and M's of yesteryear. History's Ultimate Spies on Yesterday shows how these men and women altered the course of history in the shadows and behind the scenes.

Dr Tracy Borman, Chief Curator for Historic Royal Palaces said

In the Tudor and Stuart periods, England was under tremendous pressure from the Catholicism of mainland Europe, and was a country in transition. These religious tensions birthed scores of assassination attempts from within and declarations of war from elsewhere, and the role of Britain's spies should not be underplayed when discussing how history eventually unravelled. History's Ultimate Spies on Yesterday shows just how integral spies were to both domestic affairs and foreign wars, and the huge repercussions their work had for our country and the City of London alike.

History's Ultimate Spies premieres Friday October 16th on Yesterday at 10pm


For more information: Toby Leston -

Notes to editors:

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