Anglo-Saxon – and Viking – London


Reconstruction of  Saxon dwelling, Museum of London

Considerably less is known about this period of history than either the succeeding or indeed even the preceding one, such that it is often referred to as the “Dark Ages” (*).  What is known is that there was essentially a hiatus in the occupation of London between when the Romans left, in the  fifth century, and when the Anglo-Saxons arrived, in numbers, at the turn of the sixth and seventh.  By the time the Anglo-Saxons did arrive,  the Thames had become tidal and as such navigable well  to the west of the  Roman city, indeed as far west as Aldwych in Westminster, such that that was where they established their main settlement, called Lundenwic.

Anglo-Saxon London became  subject to increasingly frequent and savage raids by the Vikings by the ninth century.  According to the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”, in 839, “… there was great slaughter in London … ”, and in 851, “ … came three hundred and fifty ships came into the mouth of the Thames; the crew of which went upon land, and stormed … London … ”.   Then, in or around 867, the city was actually captured and occupied by the Norsemen under Halfdere, who installed a garrison there (and a mint).  It was recaptured by the Anglo-Saxons, under   Alfred the Great, in 886, when the Vikings were forced to withdraw to the  east of the River Lea.  Again according to the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”: “In the same year, Alfred, King of the Anglo-Saxons … honourably rebuilt the city of London, and made it again habitable”.  He rebuilt it within the walls of the old Roman City of Londinium, renovating not only the walls but also the waterfront, and incidentally also setting out the street plan that still in essence survives to this day, and he renamed it Lundenburg.  He then gave his custody of the City, and command of its militia or burgwara, to his son-in-law Ethelred, Earl of Mercia.

Alfred plaque, Queenhithe

Alfred plaque, Queenhithe

The raids continued, though.  In 994, “ … [the Norwegian] Olaf [Haraldsson] and [the Danish King] Swein [Sweyn Forkbeard] came into London on the Nativity of St Mary with 94 ships, and they proceeded to attack the city stoutly and wished also to set it on fire; but there they suffered more harm and injury than they ever thought any citizens would do to them.  But the holy Mother of God showed her mercy to the citizens on that day and saved them from their enemies”.  And in 1009, “  … they …  took up winter quarters on the Thames, and lived off … the shires which were nearest, on both sides … , and …  attacked the borough of London”.  Then, in  1013, the city fell again to the Vikings, albeit again only temporarily, being retaken the following year by the English King Ethelred II, “the Unready”, in alliance with Olaf, who had previously sided with Sweyn (when, according to the “Olaf Sagas”, Olaf  destroyed London Bridge and the Viking army assembled on it by pulling it down with ropes tied to his long-boats).  Incidentally, Olaf went on to become King Olaf II of Norway in 1015, and Saint Olaf or Olave, to whom a number of London churches were to be dedicated, after he was martyred at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030.

Finally, in 1016, the Viking Cnut, son of Sweyn Forkbeard, son of Harald Bluetooth, decisively defeated in battle Edmund II, “Ironside”,  to become King of England as well as Denmark.  Cnut was in turn succeeded by his sons Harold I, “Harefoot”, in 1035, and  Hardicanute, in  1040.   The Anglo-Saxon Edward “the Confessor”, the son of Ethelred II, “The Unready”, became King when the Viking Hardicanute died, leaving no heir, in 1043; and the ill-fated Harold II, in 1066.

(*) One of the reasons we know so little is that the Anglo-Saxons appear to have built almost exclusively using perishable materials such as timber, wattle-and-daub, and thatch, which typically leave very little archaeological record.

Building Works

St Paul’s Cathedral was founded in 604, by the Kentish King Ethelburg, and the nunnery and later church of   St Mary Overie, now incorporated into Southwark Cathedral,  in 606 – shortly after Christian missionaries under St Augustine came to England  to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons in 597. The church of All Hallows Barking was originally built in the Anglo-Saxon period, around 675, and St Lawrence Jewry around 1046, and many others are of probable or possible Anglo-Saxon origin.  The palace of the Mercian King Offa was originally built in the eighth  century.   What is now known as Queenhithe was first recorded in 898, as “Ethelred’s Hithe”, and it appears from dendrochronologically-dated timbers reused in a revetment on the river-front that an arcaded “aisled hall” was built here between 956-79.  And Billingsgate was first recorded in around 1000.

Further afield, the church of St Clement Danes – “So called because Harold (surnamed Harefoot) King of England of the Danish line and other Danes were here buried” – was originally founded in the Anglo-Saxon period (according to legend, by Alfred the Great in the ninth century).  And what is now known as Westminster Abbey was originally founded by the Bishop of London, Dunstan, under Edgar, in 960 (according to legend, on the site of a church founded by Sebert in around 604 – the same year that St Paul’s was founded). 

The early Anglo-Saxon street plan, modified after the Roman one, was essentially  longitudinal, to allow ready access  to the main settlement to the west. The later plan had at its centre   Cheapside and Eastcheap.  Anglo-Saxon street names were characteristically blunt, often  referring simply to available goods or services (“cheap” referring to a market).  

Surviving Structures

Essentially nothing now  remains of the original Anglo-Saxon fabric in St Paul’s CathedralSt Mary Overie or St Lawrence Jewry (the first St Paul’s having been lost in the seventh century; the second,  the Church of Paulesbyri, having been destroyed by the Vikings  in 962; and the third having been destroyed by fire in 1087).  Nothing remains either of the palace of the Mercian King Offa, incorporated into St Alban Wood Street, in turn severely damaged by bombing during  the Blitz of 1940, and substantially demolished in 1955.  Nor anything of  Queenhithe or Billingsgate, other than the names (and the aforementioned reused timbers from the “aisled hall” in Queenhithe, now in the Museum of London).

Saxon arch, All Hallows Barking

Saxon arch dated to 675, All Hallows Barking

There are surviving – seventh-century and later – Anglo-Saxon remains in the church of All Hallows Barking or All Hallows by the Tower.  These include a fine stone arch of 675, incorporating Roman tiles; and, in the crypt, two stone crosses, one of 900 and the other of 1000 (the former plain and simple, and bearing  a Runic inscription; and the latter  beautifully and intricately carved, and bearing  a symbolic depiction of Christ over beasts).

Saxon cross, All Hallows Barking

Wheel-head cross dated to 900, All Hallows Barking

Saxon cross, All Hallows Barking (2)

Head of cross dated to 1000, All Hallows Barking 

Saxon stonework, All Hallows Barking

Head and body of cross dated to 1000, All Hallows Barking

Further afield, there is a – late sixth- to early seventh- century – Anglo-Saxon altar-stone in St Pancras Old Church in Camden, and a – tenth-century – Anglo-Saxon rood (cross) in the church of St Dunstan and All Saints in Stepney (see blog posting here).

Archaeological Finds

The more important archaeological finds  from Anglo-Saxon London are on exhibition in the City’s principal museums.

The Museum of London on London Wall features a reconstruction of a typical Anglo-Saxon dwelling of timber, wattle-and-daub, and thatch.  It’s really rather cosy inside.

Reconstruction of  Saxon dwelling, Museum of London

Reconstruction of Saxon dwelling, Museum of London

 A “Museum of London Archaeology Service” monograph  deals with the finds from and reconstruction of the Saxon site at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in the West End.  Another deals with finds from Early to Middle Saxon rural occupation and riverside fish-trap sites in the Greater London region, within a 16 mile radius of the City.  As in preceding times, preferred sites for occupation were on well-drained land on gravel terraces close to rivers.  Settlements consisted mainly of small isolated farms and hamlets, with only occasional larger and wealthier estates.  The agricultural economy centred on the production of cereal crops, including  wheat, barley, oats and rye, and of cattle, presumably for milk as well as meat. Pulses, nuts, fruit and berries were also produced and consumed.

Note also that a major exhibition on  “Viking life and legend” opened today (6th March 2014) at the British Museum.

Anglo-Saxon London on our Walks

“Dark Age [Anglo-Saxon and Viking] London” is the theme of one of our special walks.  Also, the church of All Hallows Barking  is visited on our “London Wall – A Story of Survival” and “Tower to Temple – The Heart of the City”  standard walks, and on our – one-hour – “Lost City Highlights” themed special – as well as on our aforementioned “Dark Age [Anglo-Saxon and Viking] London” one.

Further details of all our walks are available in the “Our Guided Walks” section of our web-site.  Bookings may be made through the “Contact/Booking” section of the web-site, by e-mail (, or by phone (020-8998-3051).

2 thoughts on “Anglo-Saxon – and Viking – London

  1. rafterd1972

    Wonderful informative post. Nice to be able to add some dates and additional knowledge to a period we know little about. Thanks.


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