Dark Age (Saxon and Viking) London, Pt. II – Building Works and Surviving Structures

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.

Building Works

Within the walls of the City, the first St Paul’s Cathedral was founded by Bishop Mellitus and the Kentish King Aethelburg in 604, a matter of a few short years after the arrival of the Gregorian mission under Augustine in 597.  Again as the  Venerable Bede put it:  “In the Year of our Lord 604, Augustine, Archbishop of Britain, ordained … Mellitus to preach to the province of the East Saxons … .  … [W]hen this province … received the word of truth, by the preaching of Mellitus, King Aethelbert built the church of St Paul the Apostle, in the city of London, where he and his successors should have their episcopal see … ”.  The   first cathedral  went on to be destroyed by fire in 675.  The second, “The Church of Paulesbyri”, was built during the  Bishopric of  Erkenwald, between 675-85,  and destroyed by the Vikings in 961.  The  third was built in 961, and destroyed by fire in 1087.

The church of All Hallows Barking was  originally built in  around 675, by Ethelburga, Abbess of Barking (the sister of Erkenwald, Bishop of London).  That of St Helen built as least as long ago as 1010, being recorded as being used for the safe keeping of the relics  of St Edmund in that year; and that of St Peter-upon-Cornhill was built at least as long ago as 1038, being  mentioned in the will of Bishop Aelfric, who died in that year.  And that of St Lawrence (Jewry) at least as long ago the late tenth to early eleventh centuries,  a large number of timbers  from coffins in the churchyard being  dendrochronologically dated to  that range, and indeed an admittedly  much smaller number even to the seventh to ninth centuries.   Many other churches are of probable or possible Saxon origin, the best substantiated being  St Benet Fink, where a grave-slab tentatively dated on stylistic grounds to  the late tenth or early eleventh century has been found.  The palace of the Mercian King Offa was originally built in the eighth century.  

What is now known as Queenhithe was first recorded, as “Aethered’s Hithe”, in 898; …

Surviving timber from arcaded “aisled hall” (Museum of London)

… and it is evident, from dendrochronologically-dated timbers re-used in a revetment on the river-front, that an arcaded “aisled hall” – in context most likely a royal palace or other high-status building – was built here between 956-79.  Evidently also in the vicinity in the time of Alfred in the late ninth century  were the London residences of the  Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Worcester, the latter a stone building  previously known as “Hwaetmunde’s Stan” – possibly a surviving part of the Roman bath-house on Huggin Hill.  Billingsgate was first recorded in around 1000.  

Without the walls, in Southwark, the Nunnery of St Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral) was purportedly originally founded in 606 (and subsequently refounded as an Augustinian Priory in 1106).  Between the City of London and Westminster, the church of St Andrew Holborn was built at least as long ago as 959, being referred to as an “old wooden church” in a Charter of that year.  And in  Westminster, the church of St Clement Danes on the Strand, “so called because Harold (surnamed Harefoot) King of England of the Danish line and other Danes were here buried”,  was at least purportedly originally  built in wood by Alfred in the late ninth century, and subsequently rebuilt in stone by Cnut in the early tenth.   

Saxon Westminster Abbey as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry.
The body of Edward the Confessor is being brought to the abbey for burial.

Also in Westminster, the Benedictine Monastery of St Peter was founded by Bishop Dunstan under  King Edgar the Peaceable in 960, on what was then Thorney Island (and, according to legend, the site of a church founded by Sebert in 604); and the Palace of Westminster, by Cnut, in 1016.  The Monastery was subsequently  rebuilt, as Westminster Abbey, under Edward “The Confessor”, in the years up to 1065.  A monk of St Bertin’s Abbey wrote in 1065: “Outside the walls of London … stood a monastery dedicated to St Peter, but insignificant in buildings … .  … The King [Edward the Confessor], therefore  … gave his attention to that place, for it both lay hard by the famous and rich town and also was a delightful spot, … [and] … decided to have his burial place there [he was to die in 1066].  Accordingly, he ordered that out of the tithes of all his revenues should be started the building of a noble edifice, worthy of the Prince of the Apostles … ”. 

The layout  of the streets in the Saxon City of Lundenburg  was essentially  longitudinal, such as to allow easy access  to Lundenwic to the west.  The principal streets were Eastcheap to the east and Cheapside to the west, with Leadenhall Street and Cornhill to the north, and Fenchurch Street and Lombard Street to the south, of the old Roman Basilica and Forum in the centre (note in this context that the Saxons appear to have held Roman ruins in superstitious awe, a line in an Old English poem entitled “The Ruin” referring to them as “enta geweorc” or “labours of giants”).  Saxon street names were characteristically blunt, often  referring simply to available goods or services (“c(h)eap” meant  “market”). 

Surviving Structures

Structures that survive from Saxon and Viking London  are extremely few and far between. 

Essentially nothing now  remains of the original Saxon fabric in St Paul’s Cathedral, St Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral),  or St Lawrence Jewry.  Nothing remains either of the palace of the Mercian King Offa, incorporated into the church of St Alban Wood Street, in turn severely damaged during  the Blitz of the Second World War, and substantially demolished in the post-war period.  Nor anything of  Queenhithe or Billingsgate, other than the names  (and the aforementioned timbers from Queenhithe, now in the Museum of London).  Nor of the folkmoot or husting.

However, there are surviving – seventh-century and later – Saxon remains and artefacts in the church of All Hallows Barking. 

These include, in the nave, a fine stone arch possibly as old as the late seventh century, c. 675, incorporating Roman bricks or tiles. 

They also include, in the crypt, two stone crosses: one, dating to the turn of the ninth and tenth centuries, plain and simple, and bearing  a Saxon Runic inscription featuring the personal name Delvar; …

… and the other, dating to the turn of the tenth and eleventh,   beautifully and intricately carved, and bearing  a symbolic depiction of Christ over beasts, a characteristic of “Dark Age” iconography. 

And,  in one of the chapels leading off the crypt,  a  so-called “Pluteus Stone” featuring two Peacocks drinking from the Fountain of Life, thought to have come from an Eastern Orthodox Church in the  Byzantine region, and tentatively dated to sometime in the late eleventh century   (the “East-West Schism” took place in 1054).  Incidentally, there is an almost identical “Pluteus Stone” in the iconostasis in the church of Santa Maria dell’Assunta, otherwise known as Torcello Cathedral, on the island of Torcello in the Veneto in Italy. There is also some surviving precisely-dated eleventh-century  and  imprecisely-dated pre-eleventh-century stone-work fabric  in  the church of St Bride, off Fleet Street, the latter of which has been postulated, although not proven, to date to the sixth century, the church’s purported founder Bride, or Bridget, the   Abbess of Kildare in Ireland, living  from c. 450-525.    And in Westminster Abbey, there is a surviving eleventh-century shrine to Edward “The Confessor”.  And an eleventh-century crypt, containing the Chapel of the Pyx.

Further  afield, there is an  altar-stone in St Pancras Old Church in Camden, arguably datable on stylistic grounds to the late sixth century, around  the time of the conversion of the Saxons by St Augustine in 597, and the construction of the first incarnation of St Paul’s Cathedral in 604 (interestingly, the land on which the church stands was granted to  St Paul’s in 604). The  altar-stone, inlaid into  a Georgian altar-table, depicts five crosses, whose unusual forms are remarkably  reminiscent of that on the tomb on a small island in the Firth of Lorne believed to be of Columba’s mother Eithne, who died in the late sixth century.   Note, though, that “unsporting scholars” have pointed out that similar altar-stones  are also known from the later Medieval period. 

There is an indisputably  Saxon rood (cross) in the church of St Dunstan and All Saints in Stepney  (the former Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury Dunstan died in 988, although he was not canonised until 1029). 

And five miles east of Epping, in a dappled clearing in the dark heart of the ancient  wild-wood that today bears its name, there is the extraordinary church  of St Andrew in Greensted.  Greensted Church, as it is more commonly known, is purportedly the oldest wooden church  in the world.  The original  church on the site was probably built at least as long ago as the middle of the seventh century, the   time that St Cedd set about converting the East Saxons to Christianity from his base at Bradwell-on-Sea  (incidentally, Cedd went on to attend the Synod of Whitby in 664, and to die of the plague in Northumbria later that same year).  Sadly, though, the only remaining physical evidence as to the existence of this structure  is in the form of post-holes discovered during an archaeological excavation in 1960.  Work began on the present church in the middle of the eleventh century  (dendrochronological evidence acquired in 1995 indicating  that the trees used in its  construction were felled between 1060-3).   Nearly a thousand years later, much  of the nave  still stands, incorporated into later extensions.  It  was evidently originally windowless, aside from some small “eag-thyrels” or eye-holes, and a single larger “niche”, known by many as  a lepers’ “squint”.  Rather wonderfully, scorch-marks can still be seen  on some of the wall timbers, suggesting that  the gloomy interior was once lit by wall-mounted lamps.   Adze-marks can also still be seen on some timbers.

Archaeological Finds

A series of Museum of London and other  publications deal with the finds from and reconstructions of Early Saxon sites in Lundenwic.  Another describes the remains of a number of Late Saxon “sunken-featured buildings”, also known as “grub-huts” (Grubenhauser) or “pit-houses”, in Lundenburg.  Yet another deals with 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.  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 more important archaeological finds  from Dark Age London are on exhibition in the City’s principal museums (Hackney Museum features a reconstruction of a Saxon dugout canoe found in Clapton on the River Lea). 

The Museum of London houses an extensive   collection of finds from Saxon and Viking London. 

The Saxon ones  consist mainly of  pottery, brooches and other items of personal adornment, locally-minted coins, and weapons. 

The Viking ones  consist mainly of items of militaria or cavalry paraphernalia, …

… but also include an eleventh-century  grave-stone found in St Paul’s Churchyard in 1852, and bearing “Ringerike-style” decorations and a  Viking Runic inscription to the effect that “Ginna and Toki had this stone set up”. 

The museum also features an archaeologically-based  reconstruction of a typical Saxon dwelling.  It is a single-storey building  with a wooden frame, wattle-and-daub walls and a thatch roof, with a wooden door, and without windows.  Externally, it has about  it something of the appearance of a large shed, but inside it is   really rather homely.  In the side-aisles, as it were, between the external walls and the internal pillars supporting the roof,  are  beds on raised platforms draped in woven blankets and animal skins, and wooden chests for storage and for seating.  And in the central open space  is a hearth over which a bubbling cauldron is suspended from  a chain attached to one of the beams in the roof-vault.  As in an Iron Age house, the smoke from the fire would have simply been allowed to drift away through gaps in the thatch in the roof (a chimney would have had the effect of drawing the fire, creating an increased safety hazard).

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