Dark Age London – Lundenburg

Alfred Plaque - Copy

The Saxon settlement of Lundenwic, between present-day Aldwych and Westminster, became  subject to increasingly frequent and savage raids by the Vikings in the ninth century.  On the wings of dragons  they came in 839, axes agleam, and according to the Old English “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”, went  only after “great slaughter”.  And back they came in 851 “and stormed … London”, and again in 872 “and there chose their winter-quarters”.

Then in 878, Alfred the Great emerged from the fastnesses of Athelney to defeat the Vikings at the Battle of Edington in Wiltshire, and subsequently to force them to withdraw into what became known as the Danelaw in the  north and east of the country  (east of the River Lea in London).   Eight years later, in 886, according to the “Chronicle”, he  “fortified the [Roman] city of London [Londinium]”, and moved the  Saxon settlement to within its perimeter and river walls, and renamed it Lundenburg (Asser, a monk and later Bishop of Sherborne, in his “Life of King Alfred”, written in 893, added that he “restored the city … splendidly – after so many towns had been burned and so many people slaughtered – and  made it habitable again”). In the process, he also set out the street plan that still in essence survives to this day.  He then “committed the city [and command of its burgwara or militia] to the care of [his son-in-law] Alderman Ethered [also the Earl of Mercia], to hold it under him”.

The raids continued, though.  In 994, “[the Danish King] Swein [Forkbeard] came into London …  with 94 ships, and they proceeded to attack the city stoutly and wished also to set it on fire … .  But the holy Mother of God showed her mercy to the citizens on that day and saved them from their enemies”.

In   1013, the city fell again to the Danish Vikings, albeit again only temporarily, being retaken in 1014 by the English King Ethelred “The Unready”, in alliance with the Norwegian Viking Olaf, Olav or Olave  Haraldsson.  According to the Norse “Olaf Sagas”, Olaf  destroyed the Saxon incarnation of London Bridge and the Danish  Viking army assembled on it by pulling it down with ropes tied to his long-boats (Matthews, 2008).  The  court poet Ottar Svarte wrote, in the eleventh century, and Snorri Sturluson rewrote, in the thirteenth: “London Bridge is broken down.|Gold is won, and bright renown.|Shields resounding, war-horns sounding,|Hild is shouting in the din!|Arrows singing, mail-coats ringing-|Odin makes our Olaf win” (many believe this ode to be the origin of the much-loved nursery-rhyme “London Bridge is falling down”).   Olaf later converted to Christianity, and, as King Olaf II, introduced the religion to Norway in 1015.  He went on to be martyred fighting heathen Danish Vikings at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030, and to be canonised by the  English Bishop of Selsey, Grimkell or Grimketel in 1031 (the local canonisation was later confirmed by Pope Alexander III in 1164).  In the later Middle Ages, his tomb, in the most northerly cathedral in Christendom, in Nidaros [Trondheim], became an important pilgrimage site, and the centre of a widespread “cult of Olav”.  Interestingly, a  number of churches in and around the City of London are  or were dedicated to him,   including  St Nicholas Olave, St Olave Broad Street, St Olave Hart Street, St Olave Jewry and St Olave Silver Street in the City, St Olave in Southwark, and St Olave in Rotherhithe.

Then, in 1016, the Viking Cnut, son of Swein Forkbeard, son of Harald Bluetooth, decisively defeated in battle the Saxon Edmund “Ironside”,  to become King of England as well as Denmark.  Cnut was in turn succeeded by his sons Harold “Harefoot”, in 1035, and  Hardicanute, in  1040.

Finally, the Saxon Edward “The Confessor”, son of Ethelred “The Unready”, became King when the Viking Hardicanute died, leaving no heir, in 1042; and the ill-fated Harold II, in 1066.

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