All Hallows by the Tower: a window on Anglo-Saxon London

In September 1666, the Great Fire devastated London. In a desperate scramble, the authorities at the Tower of London set about destroying buildings to create a fire block between the city and the Tower of London.

Diarist and man about town Samuel Pepys ran from the flames towards the tower. He stopped off at the church of All Hallows by the Tower, and climbed its steeple. From it, he watched the world burn. He wrote in his diary:

“So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower, and there got up upon one of the high places, Sir J. Robinson’s little son going up with me; and there I did see the houses at that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side the end of the bridge; which, among other people, did trouble me for poor little Michell and our Sarah on the bridge.”

Samuel Pepys Diary, September 1666: see here.

Most of the medieval and early modern city passed away on a single day. But the actions of the men at the tower meant that a little pocket of the medieval and early modern city survived in the very east corner of the London.

Today I want to look at All Hallows by the Tower, one of London’s great survivors. Today this little church is a time capsule for two thousand years of London’s history.

Above: All Hallows by the Tower in 1955. The tower, built in 1658, is the same one that Pepys would have climbed. Commons license

The earliest architecture on the site can be found in the basement, where a Roman pavement peeks through the floor. It is thought to be the floor from a second century house.

The roman pavement. Taken from trip advisor, see here

The church was built on top of this Roman layer. Its origins can be dated as far back as 675, when it was founded by the nun and saint, Ethelburgh (Aethelburh) of Barking. On this blog we have met Ethelburgh and her brother Erkenwald bishop of London in other posts.

It was long thought that there were no traces left of this early Anglo-Saxon church. However, in 1940 the church was hit by a falling German bomb. Amid the tumbling masonry some fascinating discoveries were made. Within the walls was hiding an old Anglo-Saxon arch.

Above: The Anglo-Saxon arch of All Hallows by the tower. Taken from the parish website, here.

We can’t date this arch precisely, but one interesting feature is that the top of the arch is made up mostly from recycled Roman bricks and tiles – this probably suggests that it was put up at a time when Roman ruins were still visible and accessible. It probably argues for an early date.

A little later in the Anglo-Saxon period, a crypt was built. This is now the under-croft chapel. There are still some Anglo-Saxon burials here.

The Undercroft chapel. Taken from the parish website, here.

Several other Anglo-Saxon and medieval artifacts can be seen in the church’s museum, including an Anglo-Saxon stone cross with an inscription that states that it was made by Thelvar.

The church also has numerous medieval and Tudor tombs. Perhaps the most remarkable survival is this Tate panel, a late fifteenth century Flemish altarpiece

The Tate alterpiece, from the Parish website, here

All Hallows by the Tower is a building with so many layers of history buried within it. People sometimes think that all of Old London passed away with the great fire. In All Hallows by the tower we can get a little window onto Anglo-Saxon and medieval London.

The main aisle of All Hallows by the Tower. Commons licence.

If you liked this blog post then why not check out the virtual tour of All Hallows by the Tower on the parish website; or maybe listen to this podcast by London Undone.


Romans vs Germans: The Battle for London, 296

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 continues a four-part miniseries where I investigate London’s early history, pre 800 A.D.

  1. An overview history of London, to 800AD
  2. The Battle for London, 296
  3. Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon London
  4. St Erkenwald and the Christianisation of London

The oldest ever picture of London

The year 296 might not mean a lot to you. It does however mark a milestone in the history of London: the oldest surviving image of London was made in this year. Constantius I, the Caesar (junior co-emperor) of Rome struck a golden medal which has a picture of the city on it.

Above: The medal of Constantius I celebrating the capture of London. Public domain,

The way that the Romans represented London is very far from how we would today. The city is represented by a submissive and kneeling woman, Londinia (labelled ‘Lon’), who shrinks before the awesome majesty of the Emperor. Behind her are two towers and a wall, representing the London walls and fortifications.

Bearing down on Londinia the mighty and warlike Constantius, on the back of his war horse and clutching a spear. Next to him floats a ship, representing his mighty navy. Londinia has been conquered and laid low by a fearsome military force.

Constantinius had won a victory at the battle of London, and he wanted everyone to know it. He also had a panegyric (praise poem) written in which a sycophantic poet praised him for his glorious deeds. Between the medal, the panegyric and a few other wources, we actually know quite a lot about this battle. In this post I am going to run through the story of the Battle of London, 296.

Britannia, the troubled province

The year 296 represented for Britons a sort of season finale to a much longer period of disturbance which had lasted on and off for about a century. The two biggest recurring problems were revolts by generals and invasions by foreign barbarians. Britain was a frontier province, which meant that when invaders came knocking, Britain was often the first to answer. Because of this, Britain also had a massive garrison of soldiers. A large garrison situated far from Rome’s watchful eye meant that Britain was particularly prone to revolts by discontented generals and their soldiers.

The German soldiers serving in Britain revolted in 286 and declared a ‘Britannic Empire’ of Britain and Gaul. Rome was unhappy about this but had its own troubles. The Romans retook Gaul in 293, but the rebels still held out across the narrow sea.

The British soldiers deposed their emperor and put up Allectus in his place, a German of the Menapian tribe. Allectus tried desperately to negotiate with the Romans, and to preserve some of his independence. They were having none of it. It was conquest or nothing.
Above: A coin from Imperial pretender Allectus, showcasing his naval power. Commons licence,

The Caesar (junior sub-emperor of Rome) Constantius Chlorus amassed ships and men and by 296 he was finally ready to launch an invasion. Constantius sent much of his navy ahead of him. The plan was probably to destroy the British navy at the Solent by the Isle of White and so clear the path for a land invasion. Constantius waited in Gaul, ready to man the land invasion.

The Battles of the Solent, and London

The fleet set off in September 296 but met with an unforeseen problem: a massive bank of fog. Most of the fleet made it to the right destination and won a major victory. However, some of the ships became separated and lost in the fog. They must have been stuck for quite some time, because they ended up accidentally arriving in London.

They arrived on a chaotic scene: after Allectus had lost his battle in the Solent, his Frankish German mercenaries had seen the writing on the wall. The Britannic empire was not going to be around long enough to pay their wages! They had turned heel and gone to London where they were pillaging the city. The Roman fleet landed, beat the Franks and claimed London again for Rome.

The Panegyric is not the clearest of documents, but here is how it describes events:

Invincible Caesar, with such accord have the immortal gods granted you destruction of all the enemies you assailed, and especially the Franks, that those troops of yours who had lost their way through fog at sea, became detached…and made their way to London. There through all the city they destroyed the remnants of the barbarous horde that had survived the battle, just as they were taking thought for flight after pillaging the place, and thus afforded your provincials not only safety by slaughter of the foe, but also the pleasure of beholding it. What a manifold victory, one marked by countless triumphs!

Stanley Ireland, Roman Britain: A sourcebook, 3rd edition, (London, 2008), p. 132]

Roman Triumph

Constantius had sat out these battles, and it is possible that he did not expect victory to come so quickly or easily. He sped across the channel. The Panegyric tells us that his next move was to hold a Triumphal entry, a traditional rite whereby a conqueror enters a city and is acclaimed by the people. Our text doesn’t specifically say that this was at London, but it appears to be the logical choice.

Our author describes it as follows:

Deserved, therefore, was the triumphal gathering that streamed forth to greet your majesty the moment that you landed on the shore, the longed-for avenger and liberator. Beside themselves with joy, the Britons met you with their wives and children. With veneration they regard not only you yourself, on whom they looked as one from heaven descended, but even the sails and oars of that vessel that brought your divine person, and they were ready on their prostrate bodies your tread to feel.

No wonder it is if they were borne along by such great joy after so many years of most wretched captivity, the violation of their wives, their children’s shameful servitude. At last they were free, at last Romans, at last restored afresh by the true light of the empire!’

Stanley Ireland, Roman Britain: A sourcebook, (London, 2008), p. 133

Now look again at the medal. It has lots of the same elements that the panegyric gives to the triumph. It has the ship, the triumphal lord, and the women prostrating themselves.

The medal and the poem are two of the lasting legacies of this battle. However, they aren’t the only one. The revolt of 286-296 was also a great inspiration to the twelfth century writer and forger Geoffrey of Monmouth who respun it into a British war of independence. Expect me to revisit this in the future!

A Brief History of Early London, to 800 A.D.

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.

  1. Overview of London, 43 A.D. to 800 A.D.
  2. The Battle for London, 296
  3. Daily life in Anglo-Saxon London
  4. 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.
Above: A model of Roman London bridge, on display at the Museum of London. Photo by Steven G Johnson, Creative commons licence:

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.
Above: An approximate map of Londinium. It mixes some features from different periods, and so is not entirely accurate. Commons licence, see

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.
Above: A surviving Roman section of London Wall at Tower hill station. Photograph by John Winfield, creative commons licence

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.

Above: The medal of Constantius I celebrating the capture of London from a force of rebellious German soldiers in the year 296. London is both the tower in the background, and the kneeling woman. Public domain:

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.
Above: A very approximate map of the kingdoms of early Anglo-Saxon England, from J.G. Bartholomew, A Literary and historical Atlas of Europe, (London, 1914)

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.

Chronicle of London

I’ve set up Chronicles of London to blog about Medieval and early modern London. For my research I work on 1400-1550 so expect to see that period well represented. I also want to expand my comfort zone so will range backwards and forwards from 600 to the Great Fire of 1666. I’m especially interested in history, literature and learning.

On this blog I want to try to explore the reality of life in the pre-modern city.

Another particular interest will be the Literature of London. Historians sometimes act as though the Tudors invented the idea of writing about cities. I want to show that there was a long and fascinating tradition of writing about London. I will retell, and where appropriate translate, some of the best literature of London.

I will also do series on Myths and Legends. This will cover what Londoners thought about their own past. It will cover their parades, statues, law books, chronicles, literatur and any other ways that Londoners used to talk about the history of London.