About this series: In the period I work on – fifteenth century London – Londoners had developed all sorts of legends and myths and had lots of ways of retelling their past. These histories fascinate me and are my main topic of research. However, in this series I am investigating the truth or fiction behind some of those myths.
This post begins a four-part miniseries where I investigate London’s early history, pre 800 A.D.
- Overview of London, 43 A.D. to 800 A.D.
- The Battle for London, 296
- Daily life in Anglo-Saxon London
- St Erkenwald and the Christianisation of London
In the Beginning
London goes back a long way. Historians and archaeologists have speculated that London could be older than the Romans – in Celtic languages ‘-don’ means a fort or fortified palace. However, if there was ever a British chieftain’s palace, fort or village at London, then archaeologists still haven’t found it.
The Romans thundered into Britain in 43AD. They didn’t just want to conquer Britain: they wanted to remake it in a Roman style. A key part of this was to introduce city living. The Romans built planned settlements with all of the cultured features that Romans would expect: from grand government buildings down to everyday things such as under floor heating in houses. These showy little propaganda projects declared to the Britons exactly what they could expect if they got on board with the Roman project. The Romans also built a series of forts, military walls and army bases to show the Britons what would happen if they didn’t get on board with the Roman project.
London was not originally one of these showcase towns. Roman military engineers spotted that London was a good site for a bridge. They build a fort to defend the bridge, and a port to provision the fort.
London was a great place for a port because the river at London is tidal. This means that at some times of the day, the flow of the river reverses: ships can ride the tide in to the port, wait a while and then ride the river currents out. London is also far enough from the sea that the river water is not salty.
Combine that with an important bridge, a prominent place in the road network and a site of military importance, and it is easy to see why the town grew so fast. They christened their new settlement ‘Londinium’, and it grew up as a grubby little port city.
And yet it all could have ended so easily. In 60 AD a serious revolt spread through the Britons. Queen Boadicea of the Iceni led her chariot-riding armies down Watling street and burned London to the ground. Soon her rebellion was crushed.
But London’s site was too good to waste, and the Romans rebuilt. Out of the ashes, Rome started to build Londinium again. This time it was not to be a ramshackle, unplanned little military port: it was to be one of the biggest and best planned cities north of the Alps.
London was set out, like most Roman towns, as a great grid. Londinium had all of the mod cons: a forum, which was the centre of political and commercial life; a bustling port; steamy bathhouses; large and grand temples; and an amphitheatre. It wasn’t just a political capital though – it was a busy port, a thriving commercial city and in the second century it established itself as the largest city north of the Alps at about 60,000 strong.
One fun way to learn more about the city at its height is from this interactive map of archaeological sites and finds in the city, (here).
A much more approximate map can be seen below.
Crisis of Londinium in the third century
The second century was the city’s peak. The peace of the early Roman period began to give way after around 200 AD and the British provinces suffered from invasions from the Picts, Germans and others. It was also the site of a number of soldier revolts, in which the garrisons of Britain declared their generals to be Emperor. The empire fractured and split into pieces.
The greatest and most lasting symbol of this period was London Wall: the Romans constructed huge stone walls around London which enclose an area of around one square mile. Parts of these walls are still standing today, and they mark the historic divide of the old town (‘the Square mile’) and the rest of London.
The empire reunified gradually in the late 200s and was ruled as a whole by Emperor Constantine the Great (306-337). While the empire was successfully stuck back together, the province of Britain did not quite return to how it had been. It had been ravaged by invaders repeatedly and lost much of its prosperity. The Romans were also very suspicious of its loyalty on account of the revolts, and maintained a heavy military presence.
Londinium was rebuilt as a political and military centre, and for a while was renamed ‘Augusta’, a title which suggests that it was a city favoured by the Emperors. However, it never quite recovered as a commercial centre. Dominic Perring suggests that in the early 300s the city might have consisted of as little as 100 houses (D. Perring, Roman London p. 127): hardly a thriving imperial capital! Roman Britain was a fundamentally rural place. The Roman experiment with cities had never quite taken.
Troubles returned to haunt the Empire and in around 410 the Romans withdrew their last garrisons. The Britons seem to have fragmented quickly into lots of little states. Mercenaries who had been invited over from Germany – from the Angle and Saxon tribes – quickly became important to the military and began to dominate. Our picture of exactly what was going on in London in this period is hazy. The archaeology suggests that very few people were living in the city after the year 400, but a few may have held on as late as about 450. But by the mid-400s at the latest, the site of London within the walls was abandoned.
We used to think that there was a big gap in London’s story here: there is simply no archaeology within the walls of London between about 450 and about 800 AD. And yet, in Anglo-Saxon chronicles and charters there are occasional references to something called ‘Lundenwic’. ‘Wic’ means market: what exactly was Londonmarket?
It wasn’t until the 1980s that archaeologists figured this puzzle out. In a part of town called ‘Aldwych’ (a name which probably comes from ‘Old Wic’) they found the remains of an Anglo-Saxon town. This is around Covent Garden, lying between the modern-day Westminster and the Square Mile. This is a very sought-after area with many historic buildings – as such archaeologists haven’t been able to do as much digging as they would like. Our picture of Lundenwic is therefore still developing.
Below: I’ve found this map on the internet of Anglo-Saxon find-sites, but haven’t been able to verify its original source. Sourced:
In Anglo-Saxon times this site would have been a rural area outside of the walls of the Roman town. It appears that it may have begun as a small fishing port and import market, but grew steadily as Anglo-Saxon England began to gain some stability. At its peak size, around 800 A.D., it may have housed 10,000 people. This is small by today’s standards, but large for the early middle ages.
Early Anglo-Saxon England was a violent and chaotic place, full of petty kings and Kingdoms. Every King in England wanted a piece of London. Just for example, consider the length of the Thames. London’s area was settled by the Middle Saxons, or the men of ‘Middle Sex’. They were wedged between the East Saxons (Essex), South Saxons (Sussex), and the Kingdom of Kent. If we follow the Thames further in land, it would have flowed through the territories of two other powerful kingdoms, Wessex in the West of England and Mercia in the middle.
Rather staggeringly, every single kingdom that I just named had a go at taking over London at some point. First Essex gobbled up London and Middlesex. Next Essex was bullied and dominated by Sussex and Kent, with Kent as the main winner by about 600AD. This couldn’t last: Mercia stormed down to beat Kent, and took London as a prize. Mercia squabbled with Wessex but mostly held its own until England was invaded by Vikings from Scandinavia. The Vikings humbled Mercia and took over London in 886. London was burned at least once in this period. Finally, Wessex drove out the Vikings by about 900AD. In the process it renamed itself England and took over the whole country, including London.
It wasn’t just politics that was in flux: different religions were in a battle for souls. London bounced back and forth between pagan religions and Christianity.
London was clearly a place of struggle and strife. It often found itself on the frontiers between kingdoms and between religions. What did this mean for the average Londoner? This is the question that I hope, at least in part, to answer in the rest of this miniseries.
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