Vikings Attack! The Story of A Refugee in 1010

And so, I return after an unannounced absence: since I last wrote, I have written, submitted and passed my doctoral thesis. Hooray! I can now return to writing things that are (relatively) short, manageable and fun!

So, to the topic today: the Vikings.

Image: A Viking-age picture-stone depicting warriors in a ship, from Gotland, Sweden. Wikimedia, commons licence,,_Gotland.jpg

Scandinavian Warriors washed over England in several waves, from 793 through to the 1060s. At times they went in for smash-and-grab raids, at other times they got organized and took control over large parts of the British Isles.

The Vikings sometimes controlled and lived in London. On other occasions, they sacked and burned the city. For all of the dry facts that we know about the movements of armies and the rise and fall of individual kings, there is remarkably little detail or drama concerning what it was like to live through this period in our sources.

This begins to change in the later Viking attacks that started from 1002 and lasted for the next decade and a half. Several sources, both Viking and English, recount vivid stories in this period. In this blog and the next few, I am going to retell some of these stories.

Today it is the story of Aelwine of Bury, an English monk who made an epic journey through war-torn England to reach safety in London in 1010. His mission inspired two monks, Herman and Goscelin, to write accounts of his journey. Both were writing shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066 – close enough that this account is probably not pure fiction, but far enough away for many of the details to become hazy.

Aelwine and the Corpse

In some ways, the story starts much earlier. In 869, an army of pagan Vikings tore through East Anglia. They captured the Saxon ruler of that area, King Edmund, and killed him. Because he was killed by heathens when defending a Christian realm, Edmund was soon acclaimed as a martyr. The church in which he was buried became a pilgrimage site, and later a monastery. The place where they buried St Edmund is today the fittingly-named town of Bury St Edmunds.

A twelfth-century depiction of the martyrdom of King Edmund, from the Morgan Library and Museum. Public domain,

In the 1000s, there lived a layman in Bury named Aelwine. This was a time in which most monks would have been oblates, which meant that they had been donated to the monastery as a small boy by their parents. Aelwine had a particular devotion to St Edmund, which caused him to distain ‘worldly pomp’ and join the monastery as an adult, (Herman, Miracles of St Edmund p. 19).

Herman seems to have been employed as the personal keeper of the body of St Edmund. Many medieval people venerated relics – the holy bodies and body-parts of saints – in ways that we find quite strange today. In Aelwine’s case, this involved living with the body and acting as a ‘devoted servant’: ‘indeed, he often poured pure water over the incorrupt body and combed its hair, and he lovingly kept any hairs, drawn out of the comb, in a box, as relics’, (Herman, Miracles of St Edmund, p. 19).

Aelwine met with pilgrims and heard their problems. He would then go to the corpse of Edmund and ‘discuss various problems with the saint as one friend does with another, through the stillness of the night’, (Herman, Miracles of St Edmund, p. 19).

A Victorian Artistic depiction of St Edmund’s shrine at Bury, from Rev. Richard Yates, History and Antiquities of the Abbey of St Edmund’s Bury, (London, 1843). Public domain:

If he was alive today, the fact that Aelwine’s closest friendship was with a corpse may be considered concerning. By the standards of the day, he was showing piety, reverence and treating Edmund in a suitable way for a king or lord.

Enter the Vikings

A new wave of Viking invasions began in the early 1000s. In 1010, a Dane named Thorkell the Tall led an invasion that put Bury St Edmunds at risk. The Vikings had a habit of raiding wealthy monasteries and stealing their goods. And in Aelwine’s eyes, the greatest treasure at Bury was the body of St Edmund. Edmund was not just a valuable prize: he was also a resource of great spiritual power and the enemy absolutely could not be allowed to take him.

A Rune stone (U-344) that was erected at Uppland, Sweden, by a soldier who served under Thorkell the Tall in England. Commons Licence,,_Orkesta.JPG

Aelwine placed the corpse in a casket and hoisted it onto a cart. He disguised himself as a pedlar and set off on a journey: he would take the relics to London, where they would be safe and their miraculous power could support the English against the invaders. Aelwine’s journey was tense:

Impelled by this fearful anxiety, he proceeded with extreme caution, wheeling the shafts as boldly as he dared, avoiding the highways wherever possible; keeping away from built-up areas; content at any humble lodgings. He was not unlike those pedlars who frequent markets to sell their goods, in that their homeward path is a road of dread: for they constantly watch their backs, nor are they less apprehensive of the road ahead of them’ (Herman, Miracles of Edmund, p. 29)

Aelwine thought he might have found a safe port of call in Essex. He called in with an old friend, a priest named Eadbriht, and asked to stay. Eadbriht, ‘frightened by the talk of the enemy all around’, said that they could not come in (Herman, Miracles of St Edmund, p. 31). He even denied them the shelter of his yard.

An example of a reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon house, from West Stow. Commons licence,

Aelwine was not disheartened. He crawled into the coffin for shelter and reflected on his holy mission. Above him, divine lights appeared: ‘the monk reclined under the martyr, the martyr under the open sky, glittering under a radiant pillar of flowing light. O happy man!… Even the most eloquent orator would struggle to describe how delightful slumber and sweet repose relieved your sorrow and weariness alike’ (Goscelin, Miracles of St Edmund, p. 161).

St Edmund is crowned in glory in heaven, from New York, Morgan Library MS 736. Public domain,

Aelwine was jolted awake – the cart was moving! The spirit of St Edmund, ‘who had foreseen his enemies’ manoeuvres, preferred to get back on the road (Herman, Life of St Edmund, p. 31)’. As they rolled past the house where they had been denied shelter, Aelwine saw that it was ‘engulfed in avenging flames’, (Goscelin, Miracles of St Edmund, p. 163). Medieval religion was often a harsh and unforgiving one: Eadbriht had broken the rules of hospitality and for that crime, he had lost everything. Things weren’t all bad for him though, because he survived and later his son, would become an important abbot, (Herman, Life of St Edmund, p. 31).

Angels cause a building to burn down; an image of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in New York, Morgan Library MS M.212. Copyright, Morgan Library,

And so, the pilgrims rolled on towards London.

The Miracle of the Bridge

Aelwine had reached Stratford, which is now in East London (site of the Olympic park) and then was a village on the edge of things. It was just three miles to the city walls. He could see the cathedral. But there was an obstacle. The river Lea laid before him. And the bridge was ravished by war.

The River Lea at Clapton. Commons licence,

Goscelin’s Miracles of St Edmund captures the tension of the situation best, (p. 163)

‘A narrow bridge lay across it, broken in many places and safe for none to tread, especially soldiers. He starts to cross, but the boards, being narrower than the cart, will not support it and prevent him. He wades into the water; the swollen torrent threatens shipwreck. What could he do; where could he go? The poor man has no idea. The bridge’s narrowness halts his advance; there is no solid path amid the waves, and no boat. The Dane is at his heels…’

For any of us, it would be a bleak moment. But Aelwine was a man of faith, indeed, blind faith. He drove the cart forward onto the bridge. I’d imagine in this situation that I’d be hiding my eyes behind my hands. Aelwine did not hide his eyes and so was able to see an incredible sight: one wheel of the cart was in contact with the bridge. The other hung over the edge, where it made contact with the surface of the river and – remarkably – continued it found a purchase and continued to move as if the water was solid. Jesus had walked on water – St Edmund could drive on water. Thus, they drove on forwards, Aelwine singing praises to St Edmund as he passed.

Entering London

Finally, they had arrived! Aelwine had brought his precious cargo to London. (Or, given how much of the heavy lifting has been done by miracles, perhaps it is more accurate to say that Edmund had brought Aelwine to London).

They pulled through Aldgate and entered the walled city. Goscelin says of London: ‘Whoever has entered its gates, however grand, will appreciate all the more that he was entering a city of wonders. Sick folk afflicted with various ailments congregate; the streets throng with a multitude of the infirm’. (Goscelin, Miracles of St Edmund, p. 165).

An Illustration of Aldgate, from around 1600. Public domain,

Soon, Edmund’s miraculous effects were working: the blind could see, the dumb could talk, the deaf could hear! A paralysed woman who had for all of her life been carried in a basket suddenly leapt free! ‘Edmund’s name, Edmund’s praise, Edmund’s glory resounds from everyone’s lips…the ringing air grew thick with the shouts of people amazed at the stream of miracles’, (Goscelin, Miracles of St Edmund, p. 165).

There was one person who was left out. A crippled woman, lying in bed, heard the shouts. She desperately wanted to join the crowd, but she was unable to stand. She wailed out ‘Woe is me!’, convinced in her heart that one touch of the holy relic would be enough. And because of her faith, suddenly her legs became straight. She took a step, tentatively at first, and then ran forward, crying Edmund’s praises! She was the eighteenth person to be cured on that day, (Goscelin, Miracles of St Edmund, pp. 165-9).

A procession of clergy, lay elites and magnates gathered and lifted the holy relics onto their shoulders and bore him up to the Church of St Gregory, which was the parish church attached to the Cathedral.

A funeral procession at a medieval procession at Old St Paul’s, from a fifteenth-century Book of Hours, from British Library Additional MS 27697; pubic domain, see

In the crowd was one wealthy Dane who was ‘inflexible and swollen with pride’. He pressed himself forward and found that the Cathedral priests were drawing a curtain around the holy relics. He demanded to see for himself what the fuss was about and so rudely yanked at the curtain. Yet, try as he might, he couldn’t see the coffin behind. He was quickly struck blind. He threw himself on the ground, wailing and begging forgiveness: his tears, Goscelin cruelly notes, became his baptismal waters, and soon the man became a Christian (Miracles of St Edmund, pp. 169-171).

Edmund’s coffin had been installed. A respectful curtain was pulled around. The people of London showed due reverence and respect. They had arrived. Aelwine had achieved his mission. Edmund was safe.

A crowd thronged around it. They had arrived.

The Punishment of Sweyn

This wasn’t the end of Aelwine’s story. Edmund was safe, but the land was still being ravished by Vikings. King Sweyn of Denmark invaded in August 1013 and declared himself to be King of England on Christmas day of that year.

Aelwine met with pilgrims coming to the shrine of Edmund and heard from them the great exactions, taxes and violence of Sweyn’s rule. He talked all night about their problems with Edmund’s corpse in the macabre way that was his habit.

In his dreams, Aelwine heard Edmund’s voice. He had a message for Sweyn: ‘Why do you rage against my people? Why do you make them pay tribute?… If you do not stop this trouble, you will quickly learn that God and I, the champions of our people, are displeased with you’, (Herman, Life of St Edmund, p. 19). Aelwine new that it was his dangerous task to deliver this confrontational message to the Viking King.

Sweyn, depicted as king of England, in a thirteenth century miniature in Cambridge University Library MS Ee.3.59. Public domain, see

When he arrived at Sweyn’s court, ‘the place was packed with Danish and wretched English courtiers’, (Herman, Life of St Edmund, p. 21). Aelwine laid out in eloquent the martyr’s demands: Sweyn must cease oppressions, or face Edmund’s wrath.

‘Fierce Sweyn…started like a lion’, and scorned both Aelwine and the martyr Edmund. (Herman, Life of St Edmund, p. 21). Aelwine was scorned, insulted and exiled from the court.

A vision of Edmund appeared, telling Aelwine that he had nothing to fear from earthly kings. This didn’t comfort Aelwine as much as you might expect. He still lived in fear that Sweyn’s wrath would fall upon him and the monk fled into the night.

On the road one night, he found a band of soldiers ahead of him. Aelwine turned back but found another behind him. Worse still, they were speaking in Danish! There was no way out – he had to walk past them. The soldiers shouted out his name – they recognized him from court! He feared that the time of his death had arrived.

A fanciful depiction of the death of Sweyn Forkbeard, from Cambridge University Library MS Ee.3.59. Public domain,

And then they told him the news: Sweyn was dead, struck down by divine providence shortly after he had banished Aelwine. Edmund had saved the day! Aelwine was safe!

There is obviously a lot of embellishment in this story, but in reality, Sweyn’s reign was short and troubled: it lasted only from December 1013 to February 1014.


Safety was returning to the land at last. It was time for Aelwine to bring Edmund’s body home. There was, however, a problem. Edmund’s cult was too popular in London. The masses were devoted to their new saint and the Bishop of London loved that his city was now the centre of a cult. It would be very difficult to extract the body.

Aelwine asked for permission to take the relics home. The bishop gathered twelve men and brought them to the shrine of Edmund: they planned to take the relics into protective custody, to stop the monks of Bury taking them back. But as they tried to lift the coffin, suddenly they found that it was heavy – impossibly heavy. They simply couldn’t lift it.

Aelwine entered the church and laid a hand on the coffin. Suddenly, it was light as a feather and he carried it back to his cart. Edmund had spoken. His time in London was over. A sad crowd of pilgrims gathered and followed him well beyond the walls.

The natural home of St Edmund – St Edmundsbury Cathedral as it appears today. Commons licence,,_Suffolk,_UK_-_Diliff.jpg

This time, Aelwine did not need to hide or use back routes. He rode proudly through the countryside and the pious Christians of each village received him gladly. At Bury, the townsmen and monks received them in procession. Finally, Edmund was at home

What do we make of it?

You may be able to tell from how much detail I have gone into on this tale that I really enjoyed reading and rewriting the tale of Aelwine and Edmund. Both Herman and Goscelin have a knack for vivid storytelling and capturing small and interesting details. Aelwine faces genuine adversity, although the fact that he has some all-powerful saints’ relics in his back pocket at all times prevents any of these situations from becoming properly tense.

St Edmund’s church in Lombard Street, London: this church was dedicated to St Edmund as part of a continuing relationship between the city and the saint after Edmund’s relics left. Public Domain,,_London.jpg

We probably shouldn’t take these stories as being very accurate descriptions of the time period. Edmund’s relics really were seconded to safety in London, and Aelwine is probably based on a real person. Beyond this, most of the story is sketchy – the ability of our authors to put national events in the right order can be quite hit and miss.

What we perhaps can get from these stories is something of how it feels to live in a medieval kingdom during an invasion or civil war. Goscelin and Herman were both of the generation who had come over in the Norman conquest. They lived through the frequent revolts and civil wars of the post-Conquest generation. They knew what it was like to live in a land ravaged by war.

Whilst I wouldn’t trust most of the facts in these accounts, some of the most vivid and memorable experiences ring true: fleeing before a powerful army, important men disguising themselves as nobodies in order to avoid detection, fear and apprehension upon meeting soldiers, or making your way to the nearest large city to find safety. Many of the refugees who were in this situation must have wished for a divine protector: in this story at least, the relics of St Edmund answered that call.

References: Herman the Archdeacon and Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, Miracles of St Edmund, Ed./trans. Tom Licence, Oxford Medieval Texts, (Oxford, 2014).


Exploring everyday life in early Anglo-Saxon London

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.

  1. A history of London to circa 800 A.D.
  2. The Battle for London, 296
  3. Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon London
  4. 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.

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.

Slave Life

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

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.

Elite Life

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

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

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,
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.

The Ruin, translation sourced from here

But, we must sigh, he doesn’t any more. The ruin is an empty shell. There is however life in Lundenwic yet.

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.