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How Anglo-Saxon London flourished after the Dark Ages

Posted in British Cities, Historical articles, History, Invasions, London, Royalty, Trade on Friday, 10 August 2012

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This edited article about London originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 761 published on 14th August 1975.

Mellitus, picture, image, illustration

Bishop Mellitus arriving in London by Pat Nicolle

Bishop Mellitus was not impressed by what he saw. The city’s walls still stood, apparently undamaged, but inside these massive Roman defences the scene was dismal – houses with their roofs fallen in, streets in a terrible state, the western half of the city apparently abandoned, very few people even on the eastern side.

Londinium might not be dead, but it was certainly very decayed. In Rome, Augustine and his companions, including Mellitus, had been briefed on the long-lost province of Britannia. They were told about the pagan Saxons, the “English” who had already seized much land from the supposedly Christian Roman-British. They had been warned that Londinium would be a shadow of its former self – nevertheless the reality was very depressing.

There were people still in London, but they did not welcome Mellitus as a saviour bringing back the torch of civilization. In fact they do not seem to have been Christians any more. It was tough going for Mellitus, installed as bishop of this tattered town in the year 604 AD. He built a church in the west of the city, London’s first St. Paul’s cathedral. It may have stood in the city’s administrative centre.

The name may be a corruption of senatus populusque (“the senate and people”), the official title of the Roman state.

One thing is certain, Bishop Mellitus did not make himself very popular. A few years later the good folk of London threw out their first bishop.

This period of London’s history, in what used to be called the Dark Ages, is the most obscure of all. Bits of information appear in various chronicles, while archaeology throws very little light on the scene. Some brick and stone houses may still have been occupied. A once-comfortable mansion, with under-floor central heating, seems to have been at least partly occupied in Billingsgate into the late 5th century. Its inhabitants traded with the east, if old broken wine jars are anything to go by. Certainly someone either repaired or carefully dismantled this house in the 6th or 7th century.

One odd comment in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions either five sorts of people in Britain, or five separate languages – the last being “Boc-laeden” or Book Latin. Could these have been the remaining Romano-British clinging grimly to their homes in places like London? When the last Roman legions left early in the 5th century, many of these people were delighted with their re-discovered independence. They tried to come to terms with the infiltrating Saxons, and to some extent succeeded. At least in 429 AD a battling bishop, named Germanus, from Auxerre in France, led the British to victory over the Saxons – shouting “Alleluia” all the way.

Having put the pagan Saxons in their place, the British authorities allowed these newcomers to settle in certain areas, but not in London. The nearest Anglo-Saxon settlements seem to have been at Bow, in London’s present East End, at Northfleet south of the river, and Hanwell to the west. They were primitive places, mostly oblong wooden huts with floors sunk below ground level. Quite a contrast with that centrally heated Romano-British mansion in Billingsgate!

Such an arrangement could not last long. According to the traditional histories of Bede and Gildas, the Romano-British leader, Vortigern, quarrelled with Hengist and Horsa, chiefs of the “English” newcomers of Kent. Two battles followed; at Aylesford Horsa was slain, but at Crayford the British were routed “and fled to London in great terror”, as the Chronicle puts it.

We do not know what happened next, though archaeology might come up with an answer soon. The Anglo-Saxons do not seem to have got much closer to London. Instead they by-passed it. Perhaps Grim’s Dykes, a series of ditches on the outskirts of Greater London near Harrow, were a sort of defensive frontier for the Londoners. Only in the 7th century, when St. Augustine, Mellitus and others, were converting the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, do the mists of legend start reluctantly to lift from London.

In 675 AD, a certain Erkenwald, known as the Light of London, became bishop. The oldest bit of Anglo-Saxon architecture in the city was built in his day, a church re-discovered beneath All Hallows-by-the-Tower after a German air-raid in World War Two. By this stage, English newcomers were colonizing the western part of the old city, rapidly mingling with the Romano-British still inhabiting the eastern section on the far bank of the tiny Walbrook stream.

London still had trade connections, but it suffered from always being on a frontier between rival English kingdoms. Various rulers claimed it, though after a while London became solidly associated with the midlands realm of Mercia. One important trade was in slaves, Welsh war prisoners or even captured English noblemen like Imma, a Northumbrian leader seized by the Mercians in 679 AD. London was also the only town to put its name on little silver “sceattas”, England’s earliest coinage.

London was now an exciting sort of place, though it was not as grand as Roman Londinium had been. The regular Roman street plan was fast disappearing into the mud, and a new English layout appeared. This is still basically the plan of London to this day. Buildings were of wood, thatch, wattle and daub. The old walls had been patched up and there were even a few stone built churches. Although built of wood, some town-houses could be quite pleasant, like one some way outside the city walls where the Savoy Hotel now stands, or a fine timbered hall on the site of the present day Treasury building discovered in 1963.

By this time, London faced another threat – the Vikings!

In 851 AD, no fewer than 350 ships appeared; the city was stormed and this first English London collapsed into ashes. Some years passed before King Alfred drove out the invaders and repaired the city’s walls.

From then on, London was a major centre of resistance to the Vikings. When at last these invaders were absorbed, London could get back to its proper business – which was “business”.

The city was not a capital, not even of the kingdom of Wessex. This was at Winchester. Yet London was already the centre of England, of its trade and of its wealth. Anglo-Saxon Londoners organized themselves into a “Frithsgild”, a sort of peace-brotherhood designed to maintain law and order, and it seemed to work. They say no news is good news, and that was certainly true for the prosperous businessmen of London in the 10th century, for nothing much seems to have happened. Meanwhile the city’s network of trade-links spread across Europe as the money rolled in.

When the Vikings had another go at England in the early 11th century they naturally headed straight for London. After a number of humiliating setbacks at the hands of mere “citizens”, they took over the city in 1013. Next came the most famous of all London’s sieges, in May 1016 AD. Ironically, the city was defended in the name of King Cnut, Viking ruler of Eastern England, against Ethelred the exiled English leader.

London’s wooden bridge was converted into a fortress linking walled London on the north bank to Southwark with its ramparts of wood, stone and turf on the south – blocking the river. Olaf of Norway, Ethelred’s ally, covered his ships with wickerwork walls from demolished houses, rowed up to the bridge and passed ropes around its piles. Olaf’s sailors then rowed away so furiously that they simply pulled the wooden bridge down. This strange incident may be the origin of that nursery-rhyme – “London Bridge is falling down.”

King Cnut emerged victorious, however, and London prospered as one of the leading cities of his huge empire that covered most of the British Isles and Scandinavia.

Even after Cnut’s empire broke up on his death, this boom continued. London’s political importance also grew, and the city certainly had its way when it persuaded King Edward the Confessor to let the turbulent but powerful Godwinson clan return from exile. When Edward died in 1066 one of this family, Harold, grabbed the throne of England although Edward had nominated William of Normandy as his successor.

London’s leading citizens apparently approved, though whether they realized what this action would lead to is quite another matter.

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