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. I don’t claim to be an expert Anglo-Saxonist.
This post continues a four-part miniseries where I investigate London’s early history, pre 800 A.D.
- A history of London to circa 800 A.D.
- The Battle for London, 296
- Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon London
- St Erkenwald and the Christianisation of London
Why don’t we take a walk in Lundenwic
We start in the old and abandoned city of Londinium. I want you to imagine a city in ruins. The city walls are still there and are standing strong, but most of the rest is disintegrating. Some of the strongest old public buildings may be holding out quite well. However the private architecture was mostly of brick and wood – neglect and the elements must be taking their toll. It wouldn’t be a pretty sight.
But in the west quarter of the city, activity has returned. There is a great wooden Cathedral and St Paul’s, and the church of St Martin Ludgate stands to attention at the west gate of the city. Around it there presumably would have been a bishop’s palace with all of the administration, food, priests and monks that that entailed. The singing of monks would have echoed through the empty city.
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.
Moving to the West, a great road runs out of the gate and along the north side of the river. Lundenwic has grown up around this road, with jetties protruding into the river and a messy tangle of houses. Lundenwic looks quite different to the Roman city: it is unplanned, spontaneous and messy. Expect bendy and confusing sideroads, and mud underfoot.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the city is how low density it is. The Anglo-Saxons pretty much never built houses of multiple stories. Most of the houses would be small, low, wooden buildings which were widely spread out, each house in the middle of a large and spacious plot.
Even in their urban setting Londoners would have maintained large and generous gardens with farm animals and some crops – archaeologists have found many pig, sheep and cow bones throughout London. Pigs would have been ideally suited to the urban environment – able to eat any refuse and rubbish. They probably broke out and ran loose regularly. Expect to see dogs, pigs, and small children in the messy, muddy street!
Above: The Museum of London’s recreation of an Anglo-Saxon London house. https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/application/files/3114/5615/2159/med-saxon-house.jpg
For the ordinary Anglo-Saxons in these small houses, there would be a great variety of trades. The women probably gather in a hall to spin wool and make cloths – this appears to have been considered distinctive women’s work at the time.
For the men, their jobs are more various. There are boats to be made, and pots to be shaped, which were probably two major industries. Other craftsmen would have worked metal. Some particularly fine Anglo-Saxon metalwork and jewellery survives. It is likely that they were similarly skilled in more perishable materials such as ivory, bone and wood. Others would have worked leather, hides or fur.
More surprising to modern people might be the range of rural professions: gardens needed to be tended and livestock looked after. There were still large forests close to London so forestry and hunting would have been significant employers.
Anglo-Saxon craftsmen were not the poorest or worst off in society. Instead they were the middle. At the bottom were the slaves. Anglo-Saxon slaves were, for the most part, war captives. Some were kept in personal service by the big men of London. Many however would have reached their highest prices by being exported. We should expect to find a slave market and many chained humans on the dockside of London, awaiting export.
At least one of these exported slaves made it into the pages of history. He was a blond haired and blue-eyed boy of a fair and striking beauty who was sold to Italian slavers. Pope Gregory the Great encountered him in the street in the year 595AD and asked what sort of a boy this was. His owner replied that the slave was an Angle, that is an Englishman. ‘He is not an Angle’, the pope replied, ‘but an Angel’. It was apparently at this moment that Pope Gregory resolved that he had to bring the English to Christianity.
Image: Pope Gregory meets the blond slave boy. A mosaic of Westminster Abbey. Public domain
Imma the Slave
A rather different London slave shows up in another anecdote from Bede, (Ecclesiastical History, IV, Ch. 22, see here). It is however a story which may stretch the credulity of a modern reader.
There once was a noble boy called Imma, who was a personal servant to King Egfrid of the Northumbrians. In 679 he was sent to fight for his king in a great battle with the Mercians. The Northumbrians lost.
Cowering in fear, Imma hid amongst the slain corpses for a day and a night. Eventually he sat up, and bound his wounds as best as he could. He tried to sneak off to find shelter but on the way, he was rumbled by a Mercian Earl. The earl demanded to know who he was.
Facing a powerful Mercian and his fearsome army, Imma’s courage failed him. He did not admit who he was but instead cried out: “I am a peasant, poor and married, and I came to the army with others to bring provisions to the soldiers”. The Earl seemed convinced that he Imma was not worth killing, and instead took him into slavery.
Imma was bound in heavy iron chains, but around 9am on the next day something remarkable happened: the chains fell off of their own accord. The Earl had Imma bound again. Yet the next day at 9am, the lock popped open once more. And the next day, and the next day. The Earl was perplexed. What was this, magic? A cunning trick?
Above: A deed concerning the sale of a roman slave named Fortunata, ‘healthy and not liable to run away’, worth 600 denarii. From Roman London, 80-120AD. Museum of London, see https://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/523294.html
Back in the north, news of Imma’s death reached his brother, Tunna, the abbot of Tunnachester. Tunna fell into deep mourning and resolved to say a mass for the soul of his dear departed brother, every day around 9am. And every day, just as he said mass, Imma’s chains popped open.
Back in the south, the Earl was perplexed. What was going on? Was it magic? Or some sort of a trick? Imma informed him that he knew the cause: his brother’s monastery was praying for him. The Earl was furious! This meant that Imma was not a peasant but a noble! He had deserved to die on the battlefield! But now that the Earl had taken Imma under his protection, he could hardly kill him now! Yet as his chains kept falling off, he couldn’t even keep him as a slave.
The Earl decided to cut his losses and brought Imma to the London slave mart. There he was sold to a rich man named Freson. Freson soon discovered, no doubt to his horror, that he had purchased the only slave in all of England who could not be bound. Freson made the best of it that he could and ransomed Imma back to his relatives.
And so the story ended happily, for almost everyone. Unlike, sadly, the stories of most slaves in reality.
We have looked at the world of the slave and the craftsman; but what about Freson and his ilk, the rich men of London. What was their lives like?
Freson probably lived in a great hall. Halls were the biggest sort of Anglo-Saxon home, but they were also more than that: they were hubs for the community, centres of hospitality and hubs for the economy. Halls were wooden structures built on a grand scale: one at Mucking, 30 miles from London was about 50 feet (15m) long and 25 feet (7.5m) wide.
Below: West Stow Anglo-Saxon village. This is an attempt to re-create early Anglo-Saxon halls and houses, and gives a good introduction to domestic architecture:
To understand the hall, you really need to understand how the economy works. In the early Saxon economy, there was not a lot of money. By that I don’t mean that everyone was poor, but rather that there weren’t many coins. In particular there was a lack of small change. Small transactions were very hard to do. It made much more sense for people to exchange goods, and only use coins for big things like long distance trade or taxation.
Our local big man comes in here: local craftsmen and farmers will give him their produce. Beneath his wooden floor there are storage containers full of cloth, leather, hides and jewels – all of the things that the community makes. He is hoarding them, ready for his next voyage. When he comes back, he’ll have traded them for things in demand – better cloth, foreign jewels, wine, silks, spices and other exotic items.
In return for taking these goods, he has to throw open his house to his dependents. Wine, ale, mead, pork, grain, pottage – he provides it to them. So don’t be surprised as you enter the hall – through the doorway in the middle of the long side – to find that it is packed with people. The hall is the centre of the social life of the area!
Above: Museum of London: A garnet broach of the mid 7th century, discovered in a grave at Covent garden. See https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/application/files/3914/5615/2459/med-golden-garnet-brooch.jpg
The atmosphere is thick and heavy in the hall. That isn’t just because of the crush of people and the sweet-smelling food. It is also because the hall is poorly ventilated. A hearth burns in the middle and the smoke rises into the thatch above. There is no chimney, only some vents in the gable ends. Even more puzzling to modern eyes, a section of the hall is often devoted to the animals, adding a whole new range of smells to the palette.
The people in the hall have finished eating. As the dark night sets in, an elder stand up and offers to recite some poetry. The Anglo-Saxons were great tale tellers and I would like to end this tour with a section from a real Anglo-Saxon poem.
Above: A drinking horn of about 800AD. Museum of London, see https://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/136202.html
This poem is called ‘The Ruin’ and it is pretty much the only poem from this period about a city. In it, the poet wanders in a ruined city and laments its destruction. He tries to imagine what it was once like to live there when it was a thriving town.
Whilst we don’t think that this poem is about London – more likely it is about Bath or Chester – but I think it can give us an idea of what the city was like. When he describes the crumbling ruin, it gives us an idea what it was like to stand in the ruins of Londinium. And when he imagines a city filled with life and treasure, maybe we can find an echo of thriving Lundenwic.
I’ve rearranged the pieces of the poem to try and make it a bit easier to understand:
Bright were the castle buildings, many the bathing-halls,The Ruin, translation sourced from here
high the abundance of gables, great the noise of the multitude,
many a meadhall full of festivity,
until Fate the mighty changed that.
Far and wide the slain perished, days of pestilence came,
death took all the brave men away;
their places of war became deserted places,
the city decayed. The rebuilders perished,
the armies to earth. And so these buildings grow desolate,
and this red-curved roof parts from its tiles
of the ceiling-vault. The ruin has fallen to the ground
broken into mounds, where at one time many a warrior,
joyous and ornamented with gold-bright splendour,
proud and flushed with wine shone in war-trappings;
looked at treasure, at silver, at precious stones,
at wealth, at prosperity, at jewellery,
at this bright castle of a broad kingdom.
But, we must sigh, he doesn’t any more. The ruin is an empty shell. There is however life in Lundenwic yet.