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
“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.”
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 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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.