Dark Age (Saxon and Viking) London, Pt. I – History and Social History

Another in the series on the history of London up to the time of the Great Fire of 1666, largely taken from my book, “The Flower Of All Cities” (Amberley, 2019) …


Map 2.  Dark Age (Saxon and Viking) London.  1 – St Paul’s  Cathedral; 2 – (St) Paul’s Cross, St Paul’s Churchyard (site of folkmoot); 3 – Cheapside; 4 – St Alban Wood Street; 5 – Aldermanbury; 6 – Guildhall, Guildhall Yard (site of husting); 7 – St Lawrence Jewry, Gresham Street; 8 – St Olave Jewry, Ironmonger Lane; 9 – St Mary Aldermary, Watling Street; 10 – Queenhithe; 11 – Old London Bridge (and Port of London); 12 – St Magnus the Martyr, Thames Street; 13 – Eastcheap; 14 – St Dunstan-in-the-East, St Dunstan’s Hill (off Great Tower Street); 15 – All Hallows Barking, Byward Street; 16 – St Olave Hart Street.

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” (Map 2). 

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.  

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 Saxons arrived in numbers at the turn of the sixth and seventh.   Archaeological evidence points to a Saxon presence in the city, although not a full-scale occupation, from around 430-50.  Note, through, that the Old English “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” records  that in 457 the Saxons “Hengest and Esc fought with the Britons on the spot that is called Crayford, and there slew four thousand men” and that “the Britons then  forsook the land of Kent, and in great consternation fled to London”.

When the Saxons – from what is now Germany – did arrive, they chose for some reason to make  their principal  settlement about a mile to the west (upstream), and without the walls, of the  old Roman City of Londinium, around what is now Aldwych in the City of Westminster, and they named it Lundenwic. 

Lundenwic became  subject to increasingly frequent and savage raids by the Vikings – from Scandinavia – in the ninth century.  On the wings of dragons  they came in 839, axes agleam, and according to the “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”.  There is some archaeological evidence that the Saxons had essentially abandoned Lundenwic to the Vikings  by 867.  Northumbrian  stycas (coins) of this date have been found in an infilled defensive ditch surrounding the settlement.

Then in 878, Alfred the Great emerged from the marshy fastnesses of Athelney in Somerset 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).  

“Alfred Plaque”, Queenhithe

Eight years later, in 886, according to Asser, a monk and later Bishop of Sherborne, in his “Life of King Alfred”, he “restored the [Roman] city of London … splendidly … and  made it habitable again … ”; and moved the  Saxon settlement to within its perimeter and river walls, and renamed it Lundenburg.  In the process, he  set out the street plan that still in essence survives to this day.  He then “entrusted it  [and command of its burgwara or militia] to the care of [his son-in-law] Aethe(l)red, ealdorman of the Mercians”, to hold it under him.  Aethered died in 910/1, whereupon  Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder, King of Wessex, took control of the city until his death in 924/5, in turn to be  succeeded by his son Aethelstan, the first King of All England.    Interestingly, 7 out of just over 100, or 7%,   of the known names of moneyers  living and working in London between c. 973-1016, that is, while it was still – for the most part – at least nominally under Saxon rule, are Scandinavian.   This compares to  25 out of 62, or  40%,  in Lincoln, and 48 out of 74, or 65%,   in York, in the Danelaw. Gutter Lane off Cheapside takes its name from Godrun, Gudrun or Guthrun, an Old Norse name for a woman.   It was first recorded as Godrun Lane in the twelfth century.  On a more-or-less related note, Eastcheap, was first recorded – as Estcep – on a Harold I “Jewel Cross” penny  made  by the moneyer Eadwold most likely sometime between 1035-7.

The Viking raids resumed  in the late tenth century and continued into the early eleventh.  In 994, again according to the “Chronicle”, “Olaf [Trygvasson] and [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”.   And in 1012, another fleet overwintered in Greenwich, and there murdered the captured Archbishop of Canterbury, Aelfeah “with bones of …  oxen”, having failed to secure the ransom they had demanded for his release.  Aelfeah’s body was initially laid to rest in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, and subsequently  translated to Canterbury Cathedral in 1023 (by the then Christianised Viking King, Cnut).  He was made Saint Alfege or Alphage  in 1078, and the churches of St Alfege in Greenwich and St Alphage London Wall in the City of London are dedicated to him.

“London Bridge is broken down”. (C) Look and Learn.

In   1013, the city fell again to the Danish Vikings under Swein, albeit again only temporarily, being retaken in 1014 by the English King Aethelred “The Unready”.  According to one interpretation of events, at this time, Aethelred was in alliance with the Norwegian Viking Olaf, Olav or Olave  Haraldsson, who deliberately 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.   Snorri Sturluson  wrote, in the – embellished – Norse “Olaf’s Saga” of the thirteenth century, “Olaf, and the Northmen’s fleet with him, rowed … under the bridge, laid their cables around the piles which supported it, and then rowed off … as hard as they could down the stream.  … Now …  the piles being …  broken, the bridge gave way; and a great part of the men upon it fell into the river, and all the others … surrendered … , and took Aethelred to be their king.  So says Ottar Svarte [Olaf’s court-poet, writing in the eleventh century]: ‘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’“ (incidentally, many believe this ode to be the origin of the much-loved nursery-rhyme “London Bridge is falling down”).   Intriguingly,    there is no mention  in the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicles” of  such an event having taken place (although obviously this does not mean that it did not).  According to another  interpretation, Olaf actually destroyed  London Bridge  while fighting against rather than alongside the English, and possibly during Thorkell the Tall’s abortive assault of 1009 rather than in 1014.   We may never know exactly what happened.   We do know, though, that Olaf was especially revered in London, and that six churches were dedicated to him here in the Middle Ages, after his canonisation by the  English Bishop of Selsey, Grimkell or Grimketel in 1031.  

St Olave Hart Street

These were St Nicholas Olave, St Olave Broad Street, St Olave Hart Street, St Olave Jewry and St Olave Silver Street in the City, and St Olave in Southwark.  Olaf had converted to Christianity in Rouen in Normandy in the winter of 1014/15, and had,  as King Olaf II, introduced the religion to Norway in 1015; and  had gone  on to be martyred fighting heathen Danish Vikings at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030.   

Nidaros Cathedral

In the later Middle Ages, his tomb, in the most northerly cathedral in Christendom, in Nidaros [Trondheim] in Norway, became an important pilgrimage site, and the centre of a widespread “cult of Olav”. 

In  1016, the Viking Cnut, son of Swein Forkbeard, son of Harald Bluetooth, decisively defeated in battle the Saxon Edmund “Ironside”, son of Aethelred and Aelgifu of York,  to become King of England as well as Denmark; and London came to be known by some as Lundunir or Lundunaborg.   And in 1017, Cnut  married Aethelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, one of the more remarkable women of the age, wife of two Kings, mother of two more, and in her own right an influential political as well as an important dynastic figure, as described in the “Encomium Emmae Reginae”.  Cnut was in turn succeeded by Harold “Harefoot”, his son by Aelgifu of Northampton, in 1035, and  Harthacnut,  his son by Emma,  in  1040.   Harold Harefoot’s body was initially buried  in Westminster Abbey, but was subsequently dug up  and flung into a fen by his half-brother Harthacnut, and eventually  retrieved and reburied, possibly  in the church of St Clement Danes.

Finally, the Saxon Edward “The Confessor”, son of Aethelred and Emma,   became King when the Viking Harthacnut died, leaving no heir, in 1042; and the ill-fated Harold Godwin(e)son, Harold II, in 1066.

Social History

Everyday life in London in Saxon  times would have revolved around the requirement and search for sustenance for body and soul.   Recent research has shown that Saxon  women were granted some not inconsiderable freedoms in law, and although their principal responsibilities were household, they also held the rights to own land.


The early Saxons were pagan, but they later began to become Christianised from around the turn of the sixth and seventh centuries onwards. In 597, Pope Gregory I sent a mission from Rome to attempt their wholesale conversion to – Roman – Christianity, one of the members of which was Augustine, and another Mellitus, which latter went on to become the first Bishop of London in 604, and the third Archbishop of Canterbury in 615.  In 616, the previously converted East Saxons temporarily  reverted to paganism, after the death of their King. As the Venerable Bede put it in 731, in his “Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum” (“Ecclesiastical History of the English People”): “In the year of our Lord 616 … the death of Sabert [Sebert], King of the East Saxons … left three sons, still pagans, to inherit his … crown.  They immediately began openly to give themselves up to idolatry, … and … granted free licence to their subjects to serve idols.  And when they saw the bishop [Mellitus] … celebrating Mass … , filled, as they were, with folly and ignorance, they said unto him … ‘We will not enter into that font, because we … do not stand in need of it, and yet we will be refreshed by that bread’.  And being … earnestly admonished by him, that this could by no means be done, nor would any one be admitted to partake of the sacred Oblation without the holy cleansing, …  they said, filled with rage, ‘If you will not comply with us in so small a matter as that which we require, you shall not stay in our province’.  And they drove him out … and his company … from their Kingdom [Essex] … ”.  Among the many features of historical or archaeological note in Greenwich Park – a World Heritage Site – are approximately fifty  rather eroded burial mounds or barrows on Croom’s Hill, a little to the west of the line of the Prime Meridian.  Archaeological excavations on the burial mounds have unearthed swords, shields and other pagan grave goods dating to  the seventh century, i.e., the Saxon period.  It is possible, though,  that the barrows themselves were originally of Bronze Age construction, a number of instances of such re-use having been recorded elsewhere in England.

The early Vikings were pagan, but they later began to become Christianised from the ninth century onwards.

Food and Drink

Evidence from finds from Saxon rural occupation and riverside fish-trap sites in the Greater London region, within a 25 kilometre  (16 mile) radius of the City,  indicates that 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 in this context that plant- and animal- based remedies featured prominently in early Medieval medicine.  The Old English text in the mid tenth-century “Bald’s Leechbook” describes, among other things, how  salves  and potions were used to treat not only injuries and infections, but also, rather wonderfully, visitations from elves (aelfcynne), night goblins (nihtgehgan) and devils (deofol).   And the Old English and Latin text and accompanying illustrations in an anonymous early eleventh-century herbal indicate that both parsley (peterslilie) and sweet basil or “snake plant” (naedderwyrt) were used to treat snake bites.


The population of Saxon London is estimated to have been at the most several thousand (that is, significantly less than that of Roman London).

Administration and Governance

Saxon London was for the most part only a  regional rather than a national administrative centre, as the “Seven Kingdoms” only finally  united to become England under Alfred’s grandson Aethelstan, who was crowned in Kingston  in 924/5 (as, later, were Edmund in 939, Edred in 946, Edwig in 956, Edward the Martyr in 975 and Aethelred the Unready in 978/9).  The “Seven Kingdoms”, also known as the  “Heptarchy”,  comprised East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex.  Of these, Essex, Mercia and Wessex in turn held  sway over London. 

Nonetheless, London was the site of both the folkmoot, or outdoor assembly, thought to have been on a site near the Medieval (St) Paul’s Cross;  and the husting or indoor assembly, thought to have been on a site near the Medieval Guildhall.  Saxon society was comparatively democratic, and any free man  was entitled to voice his opinion at the folkmoot (and, as noted above, Saxon women were also granted some freedoms in law).  However, only a noble  ealdorman, or earl, appointed by the King could attend the husting,  and only Kings, greater nobles and bishops the peripatetic parliamentary assembly known as the  Witan.   Saxon Society was also comparatively meritocratic,  and permissive of a measure of mobility, albeit within an overall  hierarchy (note that although Kings were elected, they  were elected from  within the ranks  of the nobility).  The highest among the free men were the thanes, or knights, the lowest the various classes of ceorls, or peasants (whence Cerle-ton or Charlton in south-east London).  Below them were the theows, or slaves.

Perhaps the most famous law-giver of Saxon times was Alfred, who in the late 880s or early 890s established a new code of law, based on Christian principles, and enshrined in the so-called  “Domboc”.  The code established  folk-rights and privileges.  Judicial  courts ruled  on cases of alleged breaches, and meted  out such fines or corporal or capital punishments as were deemed appropriate.  Some of the punishments appear barbaric by modern standards, such as the judicial drowning of a Saxon woman at London Bridge, for witchcraft, in the tenth century, as documented in a charter dated to between 963-75; and the postulated judicial drowning of another, at Queenhithe, in or around the eighth, as indicated by radiometric dating of skeletal remains, staked out on the foreshore, to between 680-810.  That is not to mention the supposedly “oath-helping” Ordeals by Fire, Iron or Water!  Aethelstan passed laws relating specifically to the governance of London in the succeeding early tenth century (he reigned from 924/5-39).  His “Judicia Civitatis Londoniae” makes explicit reference to a governance structure comprising a single governor, or in effect a mayor (in place of a bishop and port-reeve), “eorlish” aldermen, and “ceorlish” commons.

Trade and Commerce

Foodstuffs continued to be brought into Saxon  London from the immediate hinterland.  Other goods continued to be  brought in    by boat from all around northern Europe, including the Low Countries and Scandinavia, and also, in the case of precious stones, gold, silk and other luxuries, even further afield.  Saxon London came to be  characterised by the Venerable Bede as “a great emporium for many nations that come to it by land and sea”.

2 thoughts on “Dark Age (Saxon and Viking) London, Pt. I – History and Social History

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