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.
- An overview history of London, to 800AD
- The Battle for London, 296
- Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon London
- 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.
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.
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]
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!