Asection of the original London Wall, with medieval additions, can still be seen by Trinity Place just north of the Tower of London; part of the Tower itself was incorporated within the fabric of the wall, demonstrating in material form William Dunbar’s claim that “Stony be thy wallys that about thee standis.” It was almost ten feet wide at its base, and more than twenty feet in height; besides these relics of the wall by Trinity Place can be seen the stone outline of an inner tower which contained a wooden staircase leading to a parapet which looked east across the marshes.
From here the spectral wall, the wall as once it was, can be traversed in the imagination. It proceeds north to Cooper’s Row, where a section can still be seen in the courtyard of an empty building; it rises from a car park in the basement. It goes through the concrete and marble of the building, then on through the brick and iron of the Fenchurch Street Station viaduct until an extant section rises again in America Square. It is concealed within the basement of a modern building which itself has parapets, turrets and square towers; a strip of glazed red tiling bears more than a passing resemblance to the courses of flat red tiles placed in the ancient Roman structure. For a moment it is known as Crosswall and passes through the headquarters of a company named Equitas. It moves through Vine Street (in the car park at No. 35 is a security camera on the ancient line of the now invisible wall), towards Jewry Street, which itself follows the line of the wall almost exactly until it meets Aldgate; all the buildings here can be said to comprise a new wall, separating west from east. We find Centurion House and Boots, the chemist.
The steps of the subway at Aldgate lead down to a level which was once that of late medieval London but we follow the wall down Duke’s Place and into Bevis Marks; near the intersection of these two thoroughfares there is now part of that “ring of steel” which is designed once more to protect the city. On a sixteenth-century map Bevis Marks was aligned to the course of the wall, and it is so still; the pattern of the streets here has been unchanged for many hundreds of years. Even the lanes, such as Heneage Lane, remain. At the corner of Bevis Marks and St. Mary Axe rises a building of white marble with massive vertical windows; a great golden eagle can be seen above its entrance, as if it were part of some imperial standard. Security cameras once more trace the line of the wall, as it leads down Camomile Street towards Bishopsgate and Wormwood Street.
It drops beneath the churchyard of St. Botolph’s, behind a building faced with white stone and curtain-walling of dark glass, but then fragments of it arise beside the church of All Hallows-on-the-Wall, which has been built, in the ancient fashion, to protect and bless these defences. The modern thoroughfare here becomes known, at last, as London Wall. A tower like a postern of brown stone rises above 85 London Wall, very close to the spot where a fourth-century bastion was only recently found, but the line of the wall from Blomfield Street to Moorgate largely comprises late nineteenth-century office accommodation. Bethlehem Hospital, or Bedlam, was once built against the north side of the wall; but that, too, has disappeared. Yet it is impossible not to feel the presence or force of the wall as you walk down this straightened thoroughfare which can be dated to the later period of the Roman occupation. A new London Wall then opens up after Moorgate, built over the ruins of the Second World War. The bombs themselves effectively uncovered long-buried remnants of the ancient wall, and stretches both of Roman and medieval origin can still be seen covered with grass and moss. But these old stones are flanked by the glittering marble and polished stone of the new buildings that dominate the city.
Around the site of the great Roman fort, at the north-west angle of the wall, there now arise these new fortresses and towers: Roman House, Britannic Tower, City Tower, Alban Gate (which by the slightest substitution might be renamed Albion Gate) and the concrete and granite towers of the Barbican which have once more brought a sublime bareness and brutality to that area where the Roman legions were sequestered. Even the walkways of this great expanse are approximately the same height as the parapets of the old city wall.
The wall then turns south, and long sections of it can still be seen on the western side sloping down towards Aldersgate. For most of its course from Aldersgate to Newgate and then to Ludgate, it remains invisible, but there are suggestive tokens of its progress. The great beast of classical antiquity, the Minotaur, has been sculpted just to its north in Postman’s Park. The mottled and darkened blocks of the Sessions House beside the Old Bailey still mark the outer perimeter of the wall’s defences, and in Amen Court a later wall looking on the back of the Old Bailey is like some revenant of brick and mortar. From the rear of St. Martin’s Ludgate we cross Ludgate Hill, enter Pilgrim Street and walk beside Pageantmaster Court, where now the lines of the City Thames Link parallel those once made by the swiftly moving River Fleet, until we reach the edge of the water where the wall once abruptly stopped.
The wall enclosed an area of some 330 acres. To walk its perimeter would have taken approximately one hour, and the modern pedestrian will be able to cover the route in the same time. The streets beside it are still navigable and, in fact, the larger part of the wall itself was not demolished until 1760. Until that time the city had the appearance of a fortress, and in the sagas of Iceland it was known as Lundunaborg, “London Fort.” It was continually being rebuilt, as if the integrity and identity of the city itself depended upon the survival of this ancient stone fabric; churches were erected beside it, and hermits guarded its gates. Those with more secular preoccupations built houses, or wooden huts, against it so that everywhere you could see (and perhaps smell) the peculiar combination of rotten wood and mildewed stone. A contemporary equivalent may be seen in the old brick arches of nineteenth-century railways being used as shops and garages.
Even after its demolition the wall still lived; its stone sides were incorporated into churches or other public buildings. One section in Cooper’s Row was used to line the vaults of a bonded warehouse while, above ground, its course was used as a foundation for houses. The late eighteenth-century Crescent by America Square, designed by George Dance the Younger in the 1770s, for example, is established upon the ancient line of the wall. So later houses dance upon the ruins of the old city. Fragments and remnants of the wall were continually being rediscovered in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the succeeding phases of its existence were first seen steadily and as a whole. On the eastern side of the wall were found in 1989, for example, eight skeletons of late Roman date turned in different directions; there were also unearthed the skeletons of several dogs. This is the area known as Houndsditch.
It is often believed that the Roman wall first defined Roman London, but the invaders were in command of London for 150 years before walls were built and, during that long stretch of time, the city itself evolved in particular— sometimes bloody, sometimes fiery—stages.
In 55 BC a military force under the command of Caesar invaded Britain, and within a short time compelled the tribes around London to accept Roman hegemony. Almost a hundred years later the Romans returned with a more settled policy of invasion and conquest. The troops may have crossed the river at Westminster, or Southwark, or Wallingford; temporary encampments may have been established in Mayfair, or at the Elephant and Castle. It is important for this account only that the administrators and commanders finally chose London as their principal place of settlement because of the strategic advantages of the terrain, and the commercial benefits of this riverine location. Whether the Romans occupied an abandoned settlement, its tribal occupants having fled on wooden trackways into the swamps and forests, is not known. It seems likely, in any event, that the invaders understood the significance of the site from the beginning of their occupation. Here was an estuary, served by a double tide. So it became the central point for seaborne trade in the south of Britain, and the focus for a network of roads which have survived for almost two thousand years.
The outlines of that first city have been revealed by excavation, with two principal streets of gravel running parallel to the river on the eastern hill. One of these streets skirted the bank of the Thames, and can still be traced in the alignment of Cannon Street and Eastcheap; the second road, some hundred yards to the north, comprises the eastern stretch of Lombard Street as it approaches Fenchurch Street. Here are the true origins of the modern city.
And then there was the bridge. The wooden Roman bridge was located approximately one hundred yards east of the first stone London Bridge, spanning the area west of St. Olav’s Church in Southwark and the foot of Rederes (Pudding) Lane upon the northern bank; the exact date of its foundation cannot now be known but it would have seemed a majestic and even miraculous construction, not least to the native peoples who had settled under the Romans. Half the legends of London arose upon its foundations; miracles were performed, and visions seen, upon the new wooden thoroughfare. Since its sole purpose was to tame the river, it may then have harnessed the power of a god. Yet that god may have been enraged at the stripping of its riverine authority; thus all the intimations of vengeance and destruction invoked by the famous rhyme “London Bridge is broken down.”
It is not clear whether Londinium was first used as a Roman military camp. Certainly it soon became a centre of supplies. In its first stages we must imagine a cluster of small dwellings with clay walls, thatched roofs and earthen floors; narrow alleys ran between them, with a series of streets connecting the two main thoroughfares, filled with the smells and noises of a busy community. There were workshops, taverns, shops and smithies crowded together while, beside the river, warehouses and workshops were grouped around a square timber harbour. Evidence for such a harbour has been found in Billingsgate. Along the thoroughfares, which every traveller to London used, there were taverns and tradesmen. Just beyond the city were round huts, in the old British style, which were used as places for storage, while on the perimeter of the city were wooden enclosures for cattle.
Only a few years after its foundation, which can be approximately dated between AD 43 and 50, the Roman historian, Tacitus, could already write of London as filled with negotiatores and as a place well known for its commercial prosperity. So in less than a decade it had progressed from a supply base into a flourishing town.
Negotiatores are not necessarily merchants but men of negotium; business and negotiation. They can be described as traders and brokers. Thus the line of continuity—it might almost be called the line of harmony—can still be traced. The shining buildings which now stand upon the Roman wall contain brokers and dealers who are the descendants, direct or indirect, of those who came to London in the first century. The City has always been established upon the imperatives of money and of trade. That is why the headquarters of the procurator, the high Roman official who controlled the finances of the province, were erected here.
London is based upon power, therefore. It is a place of execution and oppression, where the poor have always outnumbered the rich. Many terrible judgements of fire and death have visited it. Barely a decade after its foundation a great fire of London utterly destroyed its buildings. In AD 60 Boudicca and her tribal army laid waste the city with flame and sword, wreaking vengeance upon those who were trying to sell the women and children of the Iceni as slaves. It is the first token of the city’s appetite for human lives. The evidence of Boudicca’s destruction is to be found in a red level of oxidised iron among a layer of burnt clay, wood and ash. Red is London’s colour, a sign of fire and devastation.
There was at least one other tribal attack upon the Roman city, at the end of the third century, but by that time the city and its defences were strong. Immediately after the Boudiccan assault the work of rebuilding was begun. If you were to stand now at the great crossroads in the City, where Gracechurch Street divides Lombard Street from Fenchurch Street, you would be facing the main entrance of the Romans’ public forum, with shops and stalls and workshops on either side. The new forum was constructed of ragstone from Kent, carried by boat up the Medway, and, with its plastered surfaces and its roofs of red tiles, was a small fragment of Rome placed upon an alien soil.
Yet the influence of Roman civilisation was enduring in more than one respect. The chief cashier’s office in the eighteenth-century Bank of England was based upon the design of a Roman temple, very like the basilica situated to the left of the early forum. Throughout the centuries London has been celebrated or denounced as a new Rome—corrupt or mighty, according to taste—and it can safely be said that part of its identity was created by its first builders.
London began to grow and flourish. A greater forum, and a greater basilica, were built upon the same site in the late first century; the basilica itself was larger than St. Paul’s, Wren’s seventeenth-century cathedral on Ludgate Hill. A great fort was built to the north-west, where the Barbican now stands. There were public baths, and temples, and shops, and stalls; there was an amphitheatre where the Guildhall now rests, and just south of St. Paul’s a racing arena: by the strange alchemy of the city a name, Knightrider Street, has survived for almost two thousand years.
We can find evidence of further survival in the line, if not the name, of other streets. At the corner of Ironmonger Lane and Prudent Passage, traces of a Roman road passing from east to west have been uncovered together with the alignment of structures against it; at least seven successive buildings, all apparently engaged in the same kind of industrial activity, were erected upon that same alignment. There was an interval of destruction caused by fire, and then a gap of some five hundred years, until new buildings were erected upon the base of the old Roman road in the early ninth century. By the twelfth century, when the name of Ironmonger Lane enters recorded history, the buildings still followed the northern edge of the street laid out more than a thousand years before. The same buildings were in use until the seventeenth century, providing evidence of perhaps unequalled continuity in the life of the city.
We can cite many of the ancient streets in this vicinity—Milk Street, Wood Street, Aldermanbury among them—as the visible remnants of a Roman street horizon. It is suggestive, also, that the great markets of London at Cheapside and East Cheap lay until recent years on the thoroughfares established by the Romans on their first arrival. In the space of fifty years, by the end of the first century, London had acquired its destiny. It became the administrative and political capital of the country as well as its trading centre. The focus of communication and commercial activity, it was governed by imperial laws concerning trade, marriage and defence, laws that survived the passing of the Romans themselves. It was in all essentials a city-state with its own independent government, albeit in direct relationship to Rome; that independence, and autonomy, will be found to mark much of its subsequent history.
During the strongest period of its growth, at the end of the first century, the city would have possessed some thirty thousand inhabitants. There were soldiers, and merchants, and businessmen, artisans and artists, Celts and Romans, all mingled together. There were grand houses for the wealthier merchants and administrators, but the standard house of most Londoners was a form of cubicle or bed-sitting-room, its walls painted or decorated with mosaic. Sometimes, we can even hear the people speak.
There are surviving letters dealing with matters of finance and of trade, as might be expected, but there are also less formal communications. “Primus has made ten tiles. Enough! … Austalis has been taking off on his own every day for the last fortnight … for shame! … London, next door to the temple of Isis … Clementinus fashioned this tile.” These are the earliest known words of a Londoner, scratched upon pieces of tile or pottery and fortuitously preserved among all the ruins that have been heaped over the city’s earth. More pious memorials have also been found, with inscriptions for the dead and invocations to the gods. The stamps for the labels of an optician have been uncovered, proffering remedies for running eyes, for inflammation and for dim sight.
Our own sight of the past may be cleared a little if we are able to reconstruct the scattered evidence of the remains. A great hand of bronze, thirteen inches long, was found beneath Thames Street; a head of the Emperor Hadrian, again more than life-size, in the waters of the Thames itself. So we may imagine a city adorned with great statues. Fragments of a triumphal arch have been recovered, together with stone frescoes of goddesses and gods. This is a city of temples and monumental architecture. There were public baths also, and one lay in North Audley Street quite a long way outside the City. When workmen of the late nineteenth century discovered it in an underground arched chamber, it was still half-filled with water. Votive statues and daggers, sacred urns and silver ingots, swords and coins and altars, all express the spirit of a city in which trade and violence were not divorced from a genuine religious spirit. But there is significance, also, in the smallest detail. More than a hundred styli have been found at the bottom of the Walbrook River, where countless busy clerks simply threw used pens out of the window. It is an image of bustling life which would not be inappropriate in any period of London’s history.
Yet the security and prosperity of London are not at this early date so certain. Like an organic being London grew and developed outwards, always seeking to incorporate new territory, but it also suffered periods of weariness and enervation when the spirit of the place hid its head. We may find tokens of just such a change by those same eastern banks of the Walbrook where the clerks of the empire tossed their pens into the water. Here was discovered, in 1954, the remains of a temple devoted to Mithras and subsequently to other pagan deities. It was not uncommon for Roman Londoners to embrace a variety of faiths; there is good evidence, for example, that the beliefs of the original Celtic tribes were incorporated into a peculiar Romano-Celtic form of worship. But the Mithraic mystery cult, with its rites of initiation and the secrets of its arcane ritual, seems at least in theory to presage a more disturbed and anxious city.
The most resourceful period of Roman London lay in the years spanning the first and second centuries, but these were followed by an uneven period combining development and decline. That decline was in part associated with the two great titular spirits of London, fire and plague, but there was also a steady alteration of imperial rule as the empire itself weakened and decayed. In approximately AD 200, some fifty years before the temple of Mithras was erected, the great wall was constructed around London. It speaks of an age of anxiety, but the very fact of its erection suggests that the city still had formidable resources of its own. Large areas within the wall were unoccupied, or used for pasture, but there were fine temples and houses in the more fashionable district close to the river. The first London mint was established in the third century, testifying once again to the city’s true nature. In that century, too, a riverine wall was constructed to complete the city’s defences.
What, then, was the nature and activity of the citizens themselves in the last decades of Roman London? They would be largely of Romano-British descent, and there were occasions when they were ruled by a British “king.” But London has from its inception always been a mixed city, and the streets would have been filled with the inhabitants of many nations including the native Celtic tribes who, over three hundred years, had naturally grown accustomed to the new order. This Roman city spanned a period as long as that from the late Tudors to the present day, but we have in general only the silent evidence of scattered cups and dice, bath scrapers and bells, writing tablets and millstones, brooches and sandals. How can we make these objects live again?
There were of course, in the passages of this long history, periods of turbulence and warfare. Many have gone unrecorded, but one or two powerful incidents survive. The darkness breaks and a scene presents itself, frozen for a moment, throwing into further confusion and mystery the historical process of which it is a part. A Roman leader named Allectus sailed to Britain in order to put down a local rebellion; having defeated the rebels he set up his headquarters in London. A Celtic chieftain, Asclepiodotus, in turn marched against the imperial victor; outside the city there was a great battle in which the British were successful. The remaining Roman troops, fearing massacre, fled within the walls and closed the gates. Siege engines were brought, and a breach was made in the defences; the Celts poured in and the leader of the last legion begged for mercy. It was agreed that the Romans could withdraw and take to their ships but one tribe or group of tribesmen reneged on the agreement: they fell upon the Roman soldiers, decapitated them in ritual Celtic style and, according to the narrative of Geoffrey of Monmouth, threw their heads into “a brook in the city … in Saxon, Galobroc.” Many skulls were, in the 1860s, found in the bed of the long-buried Walbrook River. The rest is silence.
But we cannot from the evidence of this single anecdote assume that the history of London is one of warring tribes against a common Roman enemy. All the evidence suggests otherwise and instead intimates a degree of mingling, maintained by mutual trade, that encouraged an almost unbroken continuity of commerce and administration. There would by now be something of a London type, perhaps with that particular “muddy” complexion which became characteristic in later years. No doubt the citizens spoke a Latin patois which included native elements, and their religious beliefs would have been equally mixed and idiosyncratic. The Mithraic temple is only one example of a mystery religion—predominantly the reserve of merchants and professional administrators—but the Christian faith was not unknown. In AD 313 a certain Restitus attended the Council of Arles in his capacity as Bishop of London.
The city’s economic activity was equally mixed and practical; the commercial and military quarters were still in active operation, but the archaeological evidence suggests that many public buildings were allowed to fall into disuse and earth was laid over once inhabited sites for the purposes of farming. It may seem odd to have farms and vineyards within the walls of the city but, even as late as the time of Henry II, half of London was open ground with fields, orchards and gardens adorning it. There is also evidence, in the third and fourth centuries, of quite large stone buildings which were conceivably farm-houses. We might then have the paradox of rural landowners within the city itself. Certainly the city was still formidable enough to withstand the attentions of marauding tribes; in AD 368 the Attacotti laid waste to much of Kent without daring to make an onslaught upon London itself.
But in 410 Rome withdrew its protecting hand; like the hand found beneath Thames Street, it was of bronze rather than of gold. There are reports of raids against the city by Angles and Saxons, but there is no record of any great collapse or transition. There is, however, some evidence of decay. 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.
The arrival of the Saxons has been dated to the beginning of the fifth century when, according to the historian Gildas, the land of Britain was licked by a “red and savage tongue.” Within certain cities “in the midst of the streets lay the tops of lofty towers, tumbled to the ground, stones of high walls, holy altars, fragments of human bodies.” But in fact the Angles and the Saxons were already living in the London region, and it is clear from the archaeological evidence that by the late fourth century troops of Germanic origin were guarding London as legionnaires under the imperial banner.
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. On several sites has been found a layer of “dark earth” which was believed to indicate dereliction and decay, but contemporary experts have suggested that levels of dark soil may point to occupation rather than destruction. There is other evidence of the continuous habitation of London during that period once known as the “dark ages.” In one of those extraordinary instances of historical survival, it has been shown that the provisions of London law in the Roman period— particularly in terms of testamentary provisions and property rights—were still being applied throughout the medieval period. There was, in other words, a continuous administrative tradition which no Saxon occupation had interrupted.
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. Layamon adds that he entered London after his investiture. The mark of this urban civilisation was its sophistication; Geoffrey of Monmouth, for example, celebrates the affluence and courtesy of Arthur’s subjects as well as the “richness” of decorative art everywhere apparent. In Malory’s great prose epic, derived from several original sources, known as Le Morte d’Arthur, there are many references to London as the principal city of the realm. At a time of foreboding after the death of Uther Pendragon, “Merlyn wente to the Archebisshop of Caunterbury and counceilled hym for to sende for all the lordes of the reame and alle the gentilmen of armes that they shold to London come” and gather “in the grettest chirch of London—whether it were Powlis or not the Frensshe booke maketh no mencyon.” In later books the Feir Maiden of Astolat is laid beside the Thames, Sir Launcelot rides from Westminster to Lambeth across the same river, and Guenevere “cam to London” and “toke the Towre of London.”
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 429; 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. There is a wonderful Saxon poem on the material remnants of just such a British city; they are enta geweorc, the “works of giants,” the shattered memorials to a great race which passed away hund cnect—a hundred generations ago. 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. The stone fabric of this ancient city has been dissolved by wyrde or “destiny,” and age; it has not been violently attacked or pillaged by marauders. The Saxons were not necessarily destroyers, therefore, and this poem displays a genuine reverence for antiquity and for a beohrtan burg, “bright city,” where heroes once dwelled.
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. Seventh-century records mention a “king’s hall” in London, and two centuries later it was still known as “that illustrious place and royal city”; the location of the royal palace beside the old Roman fort in the north-west of the city suggests that its fortifications had also been maintained. 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. It seems very likely, in turn, that the great walled city was known as the centre of authority and of power.
This would help to explain the location of the thriving Saxon town, Lundenwic—wic meaning “marketplace”—in the area now known as Covent Garden. 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. It was an extended community, therefore, and it may have been of Lundenwic—rather than of London—that Bede spoke when he described it as situated “on the banks of the Thames … a trading centre for many nations who visit it by land and sea.”
Documents dated 673–85 are concerned with the trade regulations to be observed by the men of Kent when they barter in Lundenwic. Gold coins stamped “LONDUNIU” were being used in the same period, so that there was no necessary disparity between administrative London and commercial Lundenwic. Similarly a continual process of assimilation and absorption was maintained between erstwhile Britons and Saxon settlers, achieved by intermarriage and peaceful commerce. The evidence for this lies in the most reliable of sources, language itself, since many old British words are to be found in “Saxon” English. Among them are “basket,” “button,” “coat,” “gown,” “wicket” and “wire,” so it can be surmised that skill in textile and wicker-work can best be attributed to the Britons. Another English word testifies to the mixed nature of London: the name Walbrook is derived from Weala broc, “brook of the Welsh,” which suggests that there was still a defined quarter for the “old Britons” in their ancient city.
Bede had said that “Londuniu” was the capital of the East Saxons, but over the period of middle Saxon rule the city seems to have accepted the authority of any king who was dominant within the region—among them kings of Kent, Wessex and Mercia. 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 601, 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. Paul’s. There follows a bare chronicle of ecclesiastical administration. In the year when St. Paul’s was erected Augustine, Archbishop of Britain, consecrated Mellitus as bishop of London; the citizens then formally became Christian but, thirteen years later, Mellitus was expelled after a change of royal rule. 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. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in 842 there was “great slaughter in London,” a battle in which the Vikings were beaten back. Nine years later they returned and, having pillaged Canterbury, sailed up the Thames and with a fleet of 350 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. Some historians have considered that the events of 851 marked a decisive moment in London’s history, but this is perhaps to misunderstand the nature of a city which is perpetually rising from flame and ruin. 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 872 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 883, Alfred engaged in some form of siege, mustering an English army outside the walls of the city. London was the great prize, and three years later Alfred obtained it. It was, in fact, in the city itself that his sovereignty over the whole region was formally advertised, when “all the English people that were not under subjection to the Danes submitted to him.” London was still the emblem of power, in other words, even after its occupation by the Norsemen. 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. The walls were restored, the quays rebuilt, and all the activities of Lundenwic brought within the defences of the revived city; it is at this point that Lundenwic passes into history as Aldwych, or “old market-town.”
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. 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 893 and 895. 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.
The restoration of London’s life and power might not have been all of Alfred’s doing, although his native genius as a planner of cities suggests that he played a prominent role. 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. Churches, of wood or of limestone and sandstone, were erected to bless and protect each well-defined area of London’s earth; these sacred edifices in turn became the focal point for small communities of tradesmen, artificers and others.
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 961 there was a great fire, succeeded by an outbreak of plague fever; the cathedral church of St. Paul’s was destroyed in the conflagration, and once more we witness the periodic fate and fatality of the city. There was another great fire twenty-one years later, and in the same year three Viking ships attacked the coast of Dorset. The succeeding years were marked by a series of Viking attacks upon the prosperous city; no doubt the London Mint, with its reserves of silver, was a particular attraction. But the defences, restored by Alfred, were strong enough to withstand a number of incursions; in 994 the Danes sent a force of ninety-five ships into the Thames in order to blockade and assault the city, but they were driven back by London’s army. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle these citizens visited upon the Danes “more slaughter and harm than they ever supposed that townsmen could inflict.” It is important to recognise, in the course of these battles and sieges, that London itself had acquired its own army and therefore a measure of independent power; it possessed the characteristics of a kingdom or a sovereign state which, for many centuries, it never wholly lost.
So the soldiers of London continually resisted the Danes, and there are records of them seizing the alien ships and rowing them back to the city. They marched to Oxford to assist their countrymen and, although the Viking raids occasionally swept within the vicinity of their walls, the city stood firm. Indeed London still maintained its position as a flourishing port, and in 1001 an Icelandic poet recorded his impressions of the quayside where merchants from Rouen, Flanders, Normandy, Liège and other regions paid a fixed toll upon their goods; they brought in wool, and cloth, and planks, and fish, and melted fat; a small ship paid a toll of one halfpenny, and in turn the mariners bought pigs and sheep for their journey homewards.
In 1013 the Danish leader, Sweyn, commanded a full invasion force of Scandinavian warriors and marched upon London “because therein was King Aethelred.” The “citizens would not yield,” according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “but resisted with full battle.” It was not enough, however, and after a long siege they surrendered their city to the Danes. The reigning monarch fled but in the following year he returned with a most unlikely ally, Olaf of Norway. Olaf’s Norsemen manoeuvred their ships close to London Bridge, tied them to its wooden piles with ropes and cables, then, assisted by the tide, strained at the wooden supports until they were dislodged and the bridge itself fell into the Thames: a notorious episode in the history of that great thoroughfare. In recent years iron axes and swords have been found at this point in the river. An Icelandic saga suggests that “the citizens, seeing their river occupied by the enemy’s navy so as to cut off all intercourse that way with the interior provinces, were seized with fear.” Since they were being relieved of a temporary and alien king this is perhaps open to debate, but the loss of the bridge was indeed a serious impediment to commerce and communications. Yet the saga ends happily, or at least with an encomium—“And thou hast overthrown their bridges, oh! thou storm of the sons of Odin! skilful and foremost in the battle. For thee it was happily reserved to possess the land of London’s winding city.” Olaf himself was eventually beatified, and in London were erected six churches to venerate his memory, one by the southeastern corner of the bridge which he had once destroyed. St. Olave in Hart Street, where Samuel Pepys worshipped, still stands.
During the next three years the English and the Norse were engaged in a series of sieges and battles and assaults; in this protracted warfare London remained the single most important site of power and authority. After the death of Aethelred in 1016, “all the councillors who were in London and the citizens chose Edmund as king,” again according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which suggests that there was some kind of folkmoot where the king was chosen and saluted. When Cnut eventually won the crown in 1016 he extracted tribute from the whole nation, but London was obliged to render one-eighth of the entire amount.
Meanwhile, a Danish population, trading peacefully, settled outside the walls in the area once occupied by the Saxons. The church of St. Clement Danes, at the mouth of the Strand, marks the site of their occupation; it is even possible that a tribal community of Danes had lived and worked here for several generations, but it was in the time of Cnut that the wooden church was turned to stone. It is also believed to be the burial place of Harold Harefoot, the son of Cnut, and there is a runic monument which proclaims the fact that three Danish leaders also “lie in Luntunum.” So once more we have evidence of a flourishing market-centre dependent upon the walled city. William of Malmesbury suggests that “the citizens of London,” after long familiarity with the Danes, “had almost entirely adopted their customs”; this suggests a renewed history of assimilation.
One custom was thoroughly absorbed. There was once a stone cross close by the church of St. Clement Danes, which marked a place of power and ritual. Here an open court assembled, and it was “at the Stone Cross” that manorial dues were paid; for one piece of land in the vicinity, payment was given in horseshoes and iron nails. It is sometimes believed that this is an obscure remembrance of a pagan rite, but it has also become a modern one. In the early twenty-first century there is still a ritual of presenting six horseshoes and sixty-one hobnails in the Court of Exchequer, within the Law Courts close to the site of the old cross itself, as part of rent due to the Crown.
So the Danes, and the Londoners, flourished during a period in which the historical narratives record only the actions of “the citizens of London” or “the army of London” as an independent and effectively self-governing community. When the pale-skinned and devout Edward (afterwards “the Confessor”) was anointed, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that “all men chose him for king in London.” A legal statute in fact defined London “qui caput est regni et legum, semper curia domini regis” as the source of law and royal rule.