Category Archives: 11th Century London

Saint Olav(e)

On this day in 1030, the Norwegian King Olav II was killed fighting the Danish Vikings at the Battle of Stiklestad.  A year later, he was canonised by the  English Bishop of Selsey, Grimkell or Grimketel (the local canonisation was later confirmed by Pope Alexander III in 1164).

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In the later Middle Ages, Olav’s 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”.

5 - Relief of St Olav, church of St Olave Hart Street

Interestingly, a  number of churches in and around the City of London are  dedicated to St Olav(e),  including  St Olave Hart Street (pictured, above) …

5 - Memento mori, St Olave Silver Street.JPG

… St Nicholas Olave, St Olave Jewry and St Olave Silver Street (pictured, above) in the City …

4 - Mosaic of St Olave, site of former church of St Olave Southwark

… St Olave in Southwark …

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…  and St Olave in Rotherhithe.

This is because, in 1014, Olav Haraldsson, as he then was, was an ally of the Saxon English, under Ethelred “The Unready”, in their fight against the against the Viking Danish, under Cnut, and he helped relieve  Saxon London from Viking occupation  (albeit only temporarily).

According to the “Olaf Sagas”, he destroyed the Saxon incarnation of London Bridge, and the Viking army assembled on it poised to attack, by pulling it down with ropes tied to his long-boats.

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 to be the origin of the much-loved nursery-rhyme “London Bridge is falling down”.


The murder  of  Elfeah, Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury (1012)


On this day in 1012, Elfeah, the Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered by Vikings, who had held him hostage for some time and not received the ransom that they had demanded for his release. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “they overwhelmed him with bones of horns of oxen; and one of them smote him with an axe-iron on the head; so that he sunk downwards with the blow; and his holy blood fell on the earth, whilst his sacred soul was sent to the realm of God”.  His last words were “the gold I give you is the Word of God”.  Elfeah’s body was laid to rest in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, and later, in 1023, moved by the then-Viking King, Cnut, to Canterbury Cathedral.  He was canonised in 1078.

St Alfege Greenwich.jpg

A church dedicated to him – St Alfege – stands on the spot where he was killed in Greenwich.

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Another church dedicated to him – St Alphage – stands on London Wall.



Another in the occasional series on “Far-Flung Lost London” …

Greensted lies in rural Essex, a brisk hour-and-a-half’s walk east  of Epping, itself at the eastern extremity of the Central Line.   The name derives from the Old English for a clearing in a wild-wood (of which Epping and Hainault Forests are the tattered remnants).

Interestingly, in 1837, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, on their return from their unjust deportation to Australia, were granted farm tenancies in and around Greensted; and in 1839, one of them, James Brine, married the daughter of another, Thomas Standfield, in Greensted Church.   While in Greensted, the Martyrs founded a Chartist association.   This  did not go down well with the locals!  The vicar denounced  them from the pulpit, and reported them to the Home Office; and the “Essex Standard” derided them in the press, and wrote of them as “dabbling in the dirty waters of radicalism and publishing pamphlets to keep up the old game”.  Eventually the squirearchy evicted them from their land, and forced them to seek out new livelihoods and lives elsewhere (five out of the six of them in London in Ontario in Canada).

Greensted Church

“At the wild-wood’s heart

These  thrice-three hundred winters

This scant sanctuary”.

Greensted Church, the Church of St Andrew, purports to be  the oldest wooden building still standing in Europe, and the oldest wooden church anywhere in the world.

The original  church on the site was probably built at least as long ago as the middle of the seventh century, at which  time St Cedd set about converting the East Saxons to Christianity from his base at Bradwell.  Sadly, though, the only remaining physical evidence as to the existence of this church  is in the form of post-holes discovered during an archaeological excavation in 1960.

Work began on the present structure  in the middle of the eleventh century, in the Late Saxon period,  in wood (*); and continued into the Medieval and post-Medieval, in stone and brick (with  minor additions and restorations also in the nineteenth century, between 1837-48, and further restorations in the twentieth, between 1987-90).   Remarkably, much of the Saxon nave  still stands, incorporated into later extensions.  The wooden Saxon nave 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”.  Scorch-marks can still be seen  on some of the wall timbers, suggesting lighting  by wall-mounted lamps.   Adze-marks can also still be seen on some timbers.

(*) Dendrochronological evidence acquired in 1995 indicates that the trees used in the construction of the church were felled between 1060-63.  This would have  been  during the reign of the last-but-one Saxon King, Edward the Confessor (the last was the ill-fated Harold, who acceded to the throne on Edward’s death early in 1066, before being killed fighting the invading Normans at the Battle of Hastings later the same year).

“London Bridge is broken down”

Another in the occasional series on contemporary accounts of events in the history of London …

Mural on Site of church of St Olave, Southwark

In  1014, according to the “Olaf Sagas”, the Norwegian Olaf Haraldsson, an ally of the English King Ethelred II, “The Unready” in his fight against the Danish Vikings,  destroyed London Bridge and the Viking army assembled on it by pulling it down with ropes tied to his long-boats.

In 1225, Snorri Sturluson wrote an account of the event based on the “Olaf Sagas”, which reads (in translation) as follows:

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 Ethelred to be their king.  So says Ottar Svarte:

‘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!’

Stained glass window with St Olav(e) in left panel, church of St Olave Hart Street

Detail from stained glass window below

Olaf went on to become King Olaf II of Norway in 1015, and Saint Olaf or Olav(e), to whom a number of London churches were to be dedicated, after he was martyred at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030.

Stained glass window with St Olav(e) in left panel, church of St Olave Hart Street

Stained glass window with St Olav(e) in left panel, church of St Olave Hart Street

Mural on Site of church of St Olave, Southwark

Mural on Site of church of St Olave, Southwark


St Helen

The original parish church dates back to the eleventh century, possibly around 1010, the later Benedictine nunnery, built immediately alongside and to the left, and giving rise to an unusual  double nave, dates to around 1204, and still later embellishments to the fifteenth, sixteenth  and seventeenth centuries.

St Helen, Bishopsgate

St Helen, Bishopsgate

Porch repaired in 1633

Porch repaired in 1633

The church was undamaged by the Great Fire of 1666, although nonetheless requiring to be restored in 1893, only to be damaged by IRA bombs in 1992 and 1993,  and restored again in 1993-95.

It  is dubbed “The Westminster Abbey of the City” because of the beauty of its interior.  The alabaster effigies of Sir John de Oteswich and his wife, salvaged from the church of St Martin Outwich, date to the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, and numerous other monuments to the fifteenth to seventeenth, including that of Sir John Crosby (d. 1476), Sir Thomas Gresham (d. 1579), and Martin Bond (d. 1643), in his military  uniform.    

The exterior is substantially surviving thirteenth- to sixteenth- century.

Helen was the mother of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine.



Crosby memorial

Crosby memorial

Oteswich memorial

Oteswich memorial





The Alignments of St Paul’s

Recently quite a few of my walkers have asked me about the deviating alignments of the plans of new and “old” St Paul’s, as depicted in the Churchyard.

The alignment of the modern cathedral (built by Christopher Wren between 1675-1710 after the Medieval one was burnt down in the Great  Fire of 1666), picked out in grey Purbeck Marble, is toward  the direction of the sunrise on the Easter Sunday of the year in which the foundations were laid, April 14th, 1675, at  approximately 75deg, a full 15deg north of true geographic east.

In contrast, the alignment of the ancient, Medieval cathedral (itself far from the first, and indeed actually the fourth, on the site), picked out in black and white, is 10deg closer to true geographic east, at approximately 85deg, and may have been toward Medieval magnetic east, which may in turn have just  happened to more or less coincide with  modern magnetic east.

Plan showing alignment of old and new St Paul's

Plan of old and new St Paul’s – in the churchyard – showing deviating alignments

Plan of Old and New St Paul's alignments

Close up – Plans of old and new St Paul’s, showing deviating alignments

Note in this context that because of variations in the earth’s magnetic field, the locations of magnetic north, south, east and west with respect to true geographic north, south, east and west have actually varied considerably through time!  Measurements acquired in London indicate that the angle between magnetic and true north, or “magnetic declination”, here was +10deg (i.e., magnetic north was 10deg east of true north) in the mid-sixteenth century;  then fell to  -25deg (i.e., magnetic north was 25deg west of true north) at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth; and has since risen again to <-5deg, which is the present value.  There are no measurements from before the post-Medieval period.

To see a graph showing the variation over time of magnetic north in London, on a different website, click here