Later Anglo Saxon London
The arrival of the Saxons has been dated to the beginning of the fifth century when, according to the historian Gildas, the land of Britain was licked by a “red and savage tongue.” Within certain cities “in the midst of the streets lay the tops of lofty towers, tumbled to the ground, stones of high walls, holy altars, fragments of human bodies.” But in fact the Angles and the Saxons were already living in the London region, and it is clear from the archaeological evidence that by the late fourth century troops of Germanic origin were guarding London as legionnaires under the imperial banner.
It was once assumed, however, that the arrival of the Saxons resulted in the destruction and desertion of the city itself. In fact there was no fiery carnage in the London area from which Rome retreated. On several sites has been found a layer of “dark earth” which was believed to indicate dereliction and decay, but contemporary experts have suggested that levels of dark soil may point to occupation rather than destruction. There is other evidence of the continuous habitation of London during that period once known as the “dark ages.” In one of those extraordinary instances of historical survival, it has been shown that the provisions of London law in the Roman period— particularly in terms of testamentary provisions and property rights—were still being applied throughout the medieval period. There was, in other words, a continuous administrative tradition which no Saxon occupation had interrupted.
The old chronicles assert that London remained the principal city and stronghold of the Britons. In the histories of Nennius and Gildas, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Bede, it is regularly cited as an independent town which is also the home of the British kings; it is the place where sovereigns were made and acclaimed, and it is the site where the citizens were called together in public assembly. It is also the chief place of defence when, on various occasions, the Britons fled within the safety of the walls. It is the seat of the British and Roman nobility, as well as representing one of the great sees of the Christian realm. The ancient British kings—Vortigern, Vortimer and Uther among them—are depicted as reigning and living in London.
Yet in these early chronicles the distance between factual interpretation and fanciful reconstruction is short. In these accounts, for example, Merlin makes many prophecies concerning the future of the city. Another great figure who exists somewhere within the interstices of myth and history is also to be found in London: King Arthur. According to Matthew of Westminster, Arthur was crowned by the archbishop of London. Layamon adds that he entered London after his investiture. The mark of this urban civilisation was its sophistication; Geoffrey of Monmouth, for example, celebrates the affluence and courtesy of Arthur’s subjects as well as the “richness” of decorative art everywhere apparent. In Malory’s great prose epic, derived from several original sources, known as Le Morte d’Arthur, there are many references to London as the principal city of the realm. At a time of foreboding after the death of Uther Pendragon, “Merlyn wente to the Archebisshop of Caunterbury and counceilled hym for to sende for all the lordes of the reame and alle the gentilmen of armes that they shold to London come” and gather “in the grettest chirch of London—whether it were Powlis or not the Frensshe booke maketh no mencyon.” In later books the Feir Maiden of Astolat is laid beside the Thames, Sir Launcelot rides from Westminster to Lambeth across the same river, and Guenevere “cam to London” and “toke the Towre of London.”
The less controversial documents of historians and chroniclers add detail to this picture of legendary munificence. Ecclesiastical records reveal that a synod was held, either in London or Verulamium, in 429; since the assembly was called to denounce the heresies of a British monk, Pelagius, it is clear that there was still a thriving religious culture in the regions bordering upon London.
Some twelve years later, according to a contemporaneous chronicle, the provinces of Britain accepted Saxon domination. Although that source is silent on the fate of London, it seems to have retained its independence as a city-state. By the middle of the sixth century, however, the city can be assumed to have accepted Saxon rule. Large parts of the walled area were employed as pasture, and the great public buildings were no doubt used as marketplaces, or stockades for cattle, or as open spaces for the wooden houses and shops of a population living among the monumental ruins of what was already a distant age. There is a wonderful Saxon poem on the material remnants of just such a British city; they are enta geweorc, the “works of giants,” the shattered memorials to a great race which passed away hund cnect—a hundred generations ago. In the description of broken towers and empty halls, of fallen roofs and deserted bath-houses, there is a combination of sorrow and wonder. There are intimations here, also, of another truth. The stone fabric of this ancient city has been dissolved by wyrde or “destiny,” and age; it has not been violently attacked or pillaged by marauders. The Saxons were not necessarily destroyers, therefore, and this poem displays a genuine reverence for antiquity and for a beohrtan burg, “bright city,” where heroes once dwelled.
We can infer, in turn, the lineaments of Saxon London. A cathedral church was built here, and the palace of the king was maintained on a site now claimed by Wood Street and Aldermanbury. Seventh-century records mention a “king’s hall” in London, and two centuries later it was still known as “that illustrious place and royal city”; the location of the royal palace beside the old Roman fort in the north-west of the city suggests that its fortifications had also been maintained. But there is even more striking evidence of continuity. One of the most important archaeological discoveries of recent years has been that of a Roman amphitheatre upon the site of the present Guildhall; this is exactly the location where the Saxons were known to hold their folkmoots, in an area always specified as being to the north-east of the cathedral. It seems certain, therefore, that the Saxon citizens used the ancient Roman amphitheatre for their own deliberations; it throws a suggestive and curious light upon their relationship to a remote past, that they should sit and argue upon stone rows erected more than two centuries before. It is no less suggestive, of course, that the modern Guildhall is erected upon the same site. There is evidence, at the least, for administrative permanence. It seems very likely, in turn, that the great walled city was known as the centre of authority and of power.
This would help to explain the location of the thriving Saxon town, Lundenwic—wic meaning “marketplace”—in the area now known as Covent Garden. A typical Saxon community, in other words, had grown up just beyond the walls of the powerful city.
We may imagine several hundred people, living and working in an area from Covent Garden to the Thames. Their kilns and pottery have lately been found, together with dress pins and glass beakers, combs, stone tools and weights for their looms. A butchery site has been excavated in Exeter Street, off the Strand, and farm buildings in Trafalgar Square. All the evidence suggests that a flourishing commercial area was, therefore, surrounded by small settlements of farmers and labourers. The names and sites of Saxon villages are still to be heard within the districts of a much greater London, Kensington, Paddington, Islington, Fulham, Lambeth and Stepney among them. The very shape and irregular street line of Park Lane are determined by the old acre strips of the Saxon farmers. Long Acre, too, reflects that pastoral tradition. It was an extended community, therefore, and it may have been of Lundenwic—rather than of London—that Bede spoke when he described it as situated “on the banks of the Thames … a trading centre for many nations who visit it by land and sea.”
Documents dated 673–85 are concerned with the trade regulations to be observed by the men of Kent when they barter in Lundenwic. Gold coins stamped “LONDUNIU” were being used in the same period, so that there was no necessary disparity between administrative London and commercial Lundenwic. Similarly a continual process of assimilation and absorption was maintained between erstwhile Britons and Saxon settlers, achieved by intermarriage and peaceful commerce. The evidence for this lies in the most reliable of sources, language itself, since many old British words are to be found in “Saxon” English. Among them are “basket,” “button,” “coat,” “gown,” “wicket” and “wire,” so it can be surmised that skill in textile and wicker-work can best be attributed to the Britons. Another English word testifies to the mixed nature of London: the name Walbrook is derived from Weala broc, “brook of the Welsh,” which suggests that there was still a defined quarter for the “old Britons” in their ancient city.
Bede had said that “Londuniu” was the capital of the East Saxons, but over the period of middle Saxon rule the city seems to have accepted the authority of any king who was dominant within the region—among them kings of Kent, Wessex and Mercia. It might almost be regarded as the commercial reward for any successful leader, together with the fact that the walled city was also the traditional seat of authority. Given this changing pattern of sovereignty, however, it is not perhaps surprising that the main source of continuity lay within the Christian Church. In 601, four years after the arrival of Augustine, Pope Gregory proclaimed London to be the principal bishopric in all Britain; three years later Ethelbert of Kent erected the cathedral church of St. Paul’s. There follows a bare chronicle of ecclesiastical administration. In the year when St. Paul’s was erected Augustine, Archbishop of Britain, consecrated Mellitus as bishop of London; the citizens then formally became Christian but, thirteen years later, Mellitus was expelled after a change of royal rule. The innate paganism of London, for a while, reasserted itself before being eventually restored to the Roman communion.
And then came the Danes. They had plundered Lindisfarne and Jarrow before turning their attention to the south. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in 842 there was “great slaughter in London,” a battle in which the Vikings were beaten back. Nine years later they returned and, having pillaged Canterbury, sailed up the Thames and with a fleet of 350 ships fell upon London. The city wall along the river may well have been already in ruinous condition but, even if the Saxons had been able to mend it, the defences were not enough to withstand the army of invaders. London was entered and pillaged. Many of the citizens may already have fled; those who remained were put to the sword, if Viking custom was followed, and their huts or shops consigned to the flame. Some historians have considered that the events of 851 marked a decisive moment in London’s history, but this is perhaps to misunderstand the nature of a city which is perpetually rising from flame and ruin. Indeed it has been defined throughout its history by such resurrections.
The invaders returned sixteen years later. Their great army moved through Mercia and East Anglia intent upon capturing Wessex; in 872 they built a camp near London, no doubt to protect their warships along the river, and it seems likely that their purpose was to control London and the Thames basin in order to exact tribute from neighbouring kingdoms. Certainly they occupied the city itself, which was used as a military garrison and storage base. Here they remained for fourteen years. This was not a bare ruined city, therefore, as some have suggested, but once more a busy centre of administration and supply. The Norse commander, Halfdere, minted his own silver coinage which, interestingly enough, is based upon Roman originals. The tradition of literal money-making in London had been preserved since that distant period, testifying once again to the organic continuity of its financial life. Coins were minted in London for Alfred, in his role as client king of Wessex. The native inhabitants may not have been as fortunate as Alfred; from the evidence of coin hoards buried in the first year of Norse occupation, the richer citizens ran for their lives along with every other Englishman who was able to flee.
Then, in 883, Alfred engaged in some form of siege, mustering an English army outside the walls of the city. London was the great prize, and three years later Alfred obtained it. It was, in fact, in the city itself that his sovereignty over the whole region was formally advertised, when “all the English people that were not under subjection to the Danes submitted to him.” London was still the emblem of power, in other words, even after its occupation by the Norsemen. The Danes sued for peace and were allocated territory to the east of the River Lea. London became a frontier town, therefore, and Alfred initiated a scheme of resettlement and fortification. The walls were restored, the quays rebuilt, and all the activities of Lundenwic brought within the defences of the revived city; it is at this point that Lundenwic passes into history as Aldwych, or “old market-town.”
London had once more become new, since Alfred instituted a scheme of works which might qualify as an early attempt at city planning. He built a road, just within the walls, from Aldgate to Ludgate; the outline of it still exists in the streets of the modern City. The alignments of new streets were plotted close to the wharves of Queenhithe and Billingsgate. He re-established London and rendered it habitable.
Certainly the city was powerful and formidable enough to withstand Viking assaults in succeeding years; the burgwara, or citizens, even marched out against them in 893 and 895. On that later occasion Londoners sallied forth to destroy or plunder the enemy ships. The fact that the Vikings were unable to retaliate against London suggests the effectiveness of its defences.
The restoration of London’s life and power might not have been all of Alfred’s doing, although his native genius as a planner of cities suggests that he played a prominent role. He had given lordship of London to his son-in-law, Ethelred, and had granted lands within the walls to religious and secular magnates. There then grew up that curious division or subdivision of land which is manifest today in the various wards and parishes of the City. An area of London ground might have been defined by streams, or by the course of Roman remains, but once apportioned to an English lord or bishop it became his especial soke or territory. Churches, of wood or of limestone and sandstone, were erected to bless and protect each well-defined area of London’s earth; these sacred edifices in turn became the focal point for small communities of tradesmen, artificers and others.
The early tenth century was a period of peace, although the citizen army of London assisted Alfred in his efforts to free those British regions still held under the Danelaw. The historical records describe only the succession of Mercian kings to the overlordship of London. In 961 there was a great fire, succeeded by an outbreak of plague fever; the cathedral church of St. Paul’s was destroyed in the conflagration, and once more we witness the periodic fate and fatality of the city. There was another great fire twenty-one years later, and in the same year three Viking ships attacked the coast of Dorset. The succeeding years were marked by a series of Viking attacks upon the prosperous city; no doubt the London Mint, with its reserves of silver, was a particular attraction. But the defences, restored by Alfred, were strong enough to withstand a number of incursions; in 994 the Danes sent a force of ninety-five ships into the Thames in order to blockade and assault the city, but they were driven back by London’s army. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle these citizens visited upon the Danes “more slaughter and harm than they ever supposed that townsmen could inflict.” It is important to recognise, in the course of these battles and sieges, that London itself had acquired its own army and therefore a measure of independent power; it possessed the characteristics of a kingdom or a sovereign state which, for many centuries, it never wholly lost.
So the soldiers of London continually resisted the Danes, and there are records of them seizing the alien ships and rowing them back to the city. They marched to Oxford to assist their countrymen and, although the Viking raids occasionally swept within the vicinity of their walls, the city stood firm. Indeed London still maintained its position as a flourishing port, and in 1001 an Icelandic poet recorded his impressions of the quayside where merchants from Rouen, Flanders, Normandy, Liège and other regions paid a fixed toll upon their goods; they brought in wool, and cloth, and planks, and fish, and melted fat; a small ship paid a toll of one halfpenny, and in turn the mariners bought pigs and sheep for their journey homewards.
In 1013 the Danish leader, Sweyn, commanded a full invasion force of Scandinavian warriors and marched upon London “because therein was King Aethelred.” The “citizens would not yield,” according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “but resisted with full battle.” It was not enough, however, and after a long siege they surrendered their city to the Danes. The reigning monarch fled but in the following year he returned with a most unlikely ally, Olaf of Norway. Olaf’s Norsemen manoeuvred their ships close to London Bridge, tied them to its wooden piles with ropes and cables, then, assisted by the tide, strained at the wooden supports until they were dislodged and the bridge itself fell into the Thames: a notorious episode in the history of that great thoroughfare. In recent years iron axes and swords have been found at this point in the river. An Icelandic saga suggests that “the citizens, seeing their river occupied by the enemy’s navy so as to cut off all intercourse that way with the interior provinces, were seized with fear.” Since they were being relieved of a temporary and alien king this is perhaps open to debate, but the loss of the bridge was indeed a serious impediment to commerce and communications. Yet the saga ends happily, or at least with an encomium—“And thou hast overthrown their bridges, oh! thou storm of the sons of Odin! skilful and foremost in the battle. For thee it was happily reserved to possess the land of London’s winding city.” Olaf himself was eventually beatified, and in London were erected six churches to venerate his memory, one by the southeastern corner of the bridge which he had once destroyed. St. Olave in Hart Street, where Samuel Pepys worshipped, still stands.
During the next three years the English and the Norse were engaged in a series of sieges and battles and assaults; in this protracted warfare London remained the single most important site of power and authority. After the death of Aethelred in 1016, “all the councillors who were in London and the citizens chose Edmund as king,” again according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which suggests that there was some kind of folkmoot where the king was chosen and saluted. When Cnut eventually won the crown in 1016 he extracted tribute from the whole nation, but London was obliged to render one-eighth of the entire amount.
Meanwhile, a Danish population, trading peacefully, settled outside the walls in the area once occupied by the Saxons. The church of St. Clement Danes, at the mouth of the Strand, marks the site of their occupation; it is even possible that a tribal community of Danes had lived and worked here for several generations, but it was in the time of Cnut that the wooden church was turned to stone. It is also believed to be the burial place of Harold Harefoot, the son of Cnut, and there is a runic monument which proclaims the fact that three Danish leaders also “lie in Luntunum.” So once more we have evidence of a flourishing market-centre dependent upon the walled city. William of Malmesbury suggests that “the citizens of London,” after long familiarity with the Danes, “had almost entirely adopted their customs”; this suggests a renewed history of assimilation.
One custom was thoroughly absorbed. There was once a stone cross close by the church of St. Clement Danes, which marked a place of power and ritual. Here an open court assembled, and it was “at the Stone Cross” that manorial dues were paid; for one piece of land in the vicinity, payment was given in horseshoes and iron nails. It is sometimes believed that this is an obscure remembrance of a pagan rite, but it has also become a modern one. In the early twenty-first century there is still a ritual of presenting six horseshoes and sixty-one hobnails in the Court of Exchequer, within the Law Courts close to the site of the old cross itself, as part of rent due to the Crown.
So the Danes, and the Londoners, flourished during a period in which the historical narratives record only the actions of “the citizens of London” or “the army of London” as an independent and effectively self-governing community. When the pale-skinned and devout Edward (afterwards “the Confessor”) was anointed, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that “all men chose him for king in London.” A legal statute in fact defined London “qui caput est regni et legum, semper curia domini regis” as the source of law and royal rule.