There was once a bath-house in Lower Thames Street which, in the early fifth century, was abandoned. The glass was shattered, and the wind destroyed the roof; then at a later date, after the collapse of the roof, the walls of the eastern range of buildings were systematically demolished. Found among the debris was a Saxon brooch, dropped by a woman while clambering over these alien ruins.
It was once assumed, however, that the arrival of the Saxons resulted in the destruction and desertion of the city itself. In fact there was no fiery carnage in the London area from which Rome retreated. There was, in other words, a continuous administrative tradition which no Saxon occupation had interrupted.
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The old chronicles assert that London remained the principal city and stronghold of the Britons. In the histories of Nennius and Gildas, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Bede, it is regularly cited as an independent town which is also the home of the British kings; it is the place where sovereigns were made and acclaimed, and it is the site where the citizens were called together in public assembly.
It is also the chief place of defence when, on various occasions, the Britons fled within the safety of the walls. It is the seat of the British and Roman nobility, as well as representing one of the great sees of the Christian realm. The ancient British kings-Vortigern, Vortimer and Uther among them-are depicted as reigning and living in London. Yet in these early chronicles the distance between factual interpretation and fanciful reconstruction is short. In these accounts, for example, Merlin makes many prophecies concerning the future of the city. Another great figure who exists somewhere within the interstices of myth and history is also to be found in London: King Arthur.
According to Matthew of Westminster, Arthur was crowned by the archbishop of London.
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Layamon adds that he entered London after his investiture. The less controversial documents of historians and chroniclers add detail to this picture of legendary munificence. Ecclesiastical records reveal that a synod was held, either in London or Verulamium, in ; since the assembly was called to denounce the heresies of a British monk, Pelagius, it is clear that there was still a thriving religious culture in the regions bordering upon London.
Some twelve years later, according to a contemporaneous chronicle, the provinces of Britain accepted Saxon domination. Although that source is silent on the fate of London, it seems to have retained its independence as a city-state. By the middle of the sixth century, however, the city can be assumed to have accepted Saxon rule. Large parts of the walled area were employed as pasture, and the great public buildings were no doubt used as marketplaces, or stockades for cattle, or as open spaces for the wooden houses and shops of a population living among the monumental ruins of what was already a distant age.
In the description of broken towers and empty halls, of fallen roofs and deserted bath-houses, there is a combination of sorrow and wonder. There are intimations here, also, of another truth. We can infer, in turn, the lineaments of Saxon London. A cathedral church was built here, and the palace of the king was maintained on a site now claimed by Wood Street and Aldermanbury. But there is even more striking evidence of continuity.
One of the most important archaeological discoveries of recent years has been that of a Roman amphitheatre upon the site of the present Guildhall; this is exactly the location where the Saxons were known to hold their folkmoots, in an area always specified as being to the north-east of the cathedral. It seems certain, therefore, that the Saxon citizens used the ancient Roman amphitheatre for their own deliberations; it throws a suggestive and curious light upon their relationship to a remote past, that they should sit and argue upon stone rows erected more than two centuries before.
It is no less suggestive, of course, that the modern Guildhall is erected upon the same site. There is evidence, at the least, for administrative permanence.
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It seems very likely, in turn, that the great walled city was known as the centre of authority and of power. A typical Saxon community, in other words, had grown up just beyond the walls of the powerful city. We may imagine several hundred people, living and working in an area from Covent Garden to the Thames. Their kilns and pottery have lately been found, together with dress pins and glass beakers, combs, stone tools and weights for their looms.
A butchery site has been excavated in Exeter Street, off the Strand, and farm buildings in Trafalgar Square. All the evidence suggests that a flourishing commercial area was, therefore, surrounded by small settlements of farmers and labourers. The names and sites of Saxon villages are still to be heard within the districts of a much greater London, Kensington, Paddington, Islington, Fulham, Lambeth and Stepney among them.
The very shape and irregular street line of Park Lane are determined by the old acre strips of the Saxon farmers. Long Acre, too, reflects that pastoral tradition. Documents dated are concerned with the trade regulations to be observed by the men of Kent when they barter in Lundenwic. Similarly a continual process of assimilation and absorption was maintained between erstwhile Britons and Saxon settlers, achieved by intermarriage and peaceful commerce.
It might almost be regarded as the commercial reward for any successful leader, together with the fact that the walled city was also the traditional seat of authority. Given this changing pattern of sovereignty, however, it is not perhaps surprising that the main source of continuity lay within the Christian Church. In , four years after the arrival of Augustine, Pope Gregory proclaimed London to be the principal bishopric in all Britain; three years later Ethelbert of Kent erected the cathedral church of St.
There follows a bare chronicle of ecclesiastical administration.
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In the year when St. The innate paganism of London, for a while, reasserted itself before being eventually restored to the Roman communion. And then came the Danes. They had plundered Lindisfarne and Jarrow before turning their attention to the south. Nine years later they returned and, having pillaged Canterbury, sailed up the Thames and with a fleet of ships fell upon London.
The city wall along the river may well have been already in ruinous condition but, even if the Saxons had been able to mend it, the defences were not enough to withstand the army of invaders. London was entered and pillaged. Many of the citizens may already have fled; those who remained were put to the sword, if Viking custom was followed, and their huts or shops consigned to the flame.
Indeed it has been defined throughout its history by such resurrections. The invaders returned sixteen years later. Their great army moved through Mercia and East Anglia intent upon capturing Wessex; in they built a camp near London, no doubt to protect their warships along the river, and it seems likely that their purpose was to control London and the Thames basin in order to exact tribute from neighbouring kingdoms. Certainly they occupied the city itself, which was used as a military garrison and storage base.
Here they remained for fourteen years.
This was not a bare ruined city, therefore, as some have suggested, but once more a busy centre of administration and supply. The Norse commander, Halfdere, minted his own silver coinage which, interestingly enough, is based upon Roman originals.
The tradition of literal money-making in London had been preserved since that distant period, testifying once again to the organic continuity of its financial life. Coins were minted in London for Alfred, in his role as client king of Wessex. The native inhabitants may not have been as fortunate as Alfred; from the evidence of coin hoards buried in the first year of Norse occupation, the richer citizens ran for their lives along with every other Englishman who was able to flee.
Then, in , Alfred engaged in some form of siege, mustering an English army outside the walls of the city.
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London was the great prize, and three years later Alfred obtained it. The Danes sued for peace and were allocated territory to the east of the River Lea. London became a frontier town, therefore, and Alfred initiated a scheme of resettlement and fortification. London had once more become new, since Alfred instituted a scheme of works which might qualify as an early attempt at city planning. He built a road, just within the walls, from Aldgate to Ludgate; the outline of it still exists in the streets of the modern City.
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The alignments of new streets were plotted close to the wharves of Queenhithe and Billingsgate. He re-established London and rendered it habitable. Certainly the city was powerful and formidable enough to withstand Viking assaults in succeeding years; the burgwara , or citizens, even marched out against them in and On that later occasion Londoners sallied forth to destroy or plunder the enemy ships. The fact that the Vikings were unable to retaliate against London suggests the effectiveness of its defences.
He had given lordship of London to his son-in-law, Ethelred, and had granted lands within the walls to religious and secular magnates. There then grew up that curious division or subdivision of land which is manifest today in the various wards and parishes of the City. An area of London ground might have been defined by streams, or by the course of Roman remains, but once apportioned to an English lord or bishop it became his especial soke or territory.
The early tenth century was a period of peace, although the citizen army of London assisted Alfred in his efforts to free those British regions still held under the Danelaw. The historical records describe only the succession of Mercian kings to the overlordship of London. In there was a great fire, succeeded by an outbreak of plague fever; the cathedral church of St.
There was another great fire twenty-one years later, and in the same year three Viking ships attacked the coast of Dorset.