Category Archives: Prehistoric London


The first in a series of posts taken from  my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” …

There is  archaeological evidence from a number of localities around London for at least transient settlement and associated activity, by Ancient Britons or Celts, in  the Bronze Age, in the  third and second millennia BC/BCE, and in  the Iron Age, in  the first millennium BC/BCE.



Bronze Age timbers still survive at Plumstead, together with a number of Bronze Age burial mounds, including  the so-called “Boudicca’s Grave” on Parliament Hill, and the “Shrewsbury Tumulus” on Shooters Hill.



And a number of   hill-forts or  enclosures survive from the Iron Age, including   “Caesar’s Camp” on Wimbledon Common, and Ambresbury Banks and Loughton Camp, both in the timeless wilds of   Epping Forest.


“Grim’s Dyke”, an intermittently-preserved bank-and-ditch earthwork running  for a distance  of some miles through North-West London, from Pinner Green, or possibly Ruislip, to Harrow Weald Common, or possibly Stanmore, also survives from the Iron Age. It is thought to have  marked the  boundary of the territory occupied by a tribe of Ancient Britons or Celts known as the  Catuvellauni, which had its heartland on the north side of the Thames, in and around London and the northern Home Counties, and its capital at Verlamion (modern St Albans in Hertfordshire).   The Catuvellaunian tribal territory was bordered to the north and east by those of the Corieltauvi, Iceni and Trinovantes, to the south by those of the Cantiaci and Atrebates, and to the west by that of the Dobunii.

Incidentally, it is not known for certain what the Ancient Britons called London.  Coates has suggested “Lowonidonjon”, meaning something like “settlement on the Thames”, and deriving in part from a pre-Celtic name for the  London section of the Thames, “Plowonida” (“river too wide to ford”).

According to the antiquarian John Stow, in his magisterial “Survay of London, written in the Year 1598”: “ …   Geoffrey of Monmouth … reporteth that Brute [Brutus of Troy], lineally descended from the demi-god Aeneas, the son of Venus, daughter of Jupiter, about the year of the world 2855, and 1108 before the nativity of Christ, built this city near unto the river now called Thames, and named it Troynovant [New Troy] … ”.   And: “King Lud … afterwards … increased the same with fair buildings, towers and walls, and after his own name  called it Caire-Lud … .  This Lud has issue two sons, Androgeus and Theomantius, who being not of an age to govern at the death of their father, their uncle  Cassibelan took upon him the crown:  about the eighth year of whose reign, Julius Caesar arrived in this land with a great power of Romans to conquer it … ”.

Sadly, Geoffrey of Monmouth has since been thoroughly discredited, not least for “interlacing divine matters with human, to make the first foundation …  more  … sacred … ”.  Cassibelan, or Cassivelaunus, though, was an actual historical figure, and most likely belonged to the Catuvellauni (see above).   The Catuvellauni are  documented as having resisted the Roman invasion under Caesar in 55-4BC/BCE, and are speculated to have engaged them in battle at  Brentford as they attempted to cross the Thames from south to north.

Equally sadly, the only actual archaeological features  from the Bronze or Iron Ages still surviving  in Central London are  some  enigmatic pits and post-holes interpreted as representing the sites of former homesteads or farmsteads,  in Leicester Square in the West End, near the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, and south of the Thames in Southwark, and the remains of a bridge or jetty at Vauxhall.  There are no features  at all  in the City of London, perhaps at least in part because, again as Stow put it, “ … the Britons call that a town … when they have fortified a cumbersome wood with a ditch and rampart … ”.  This period of the city’s history remains shrouded in mist and mystery.

Important archaeological finds  from the Bronze or Iron Ages include much equipment associated with horses and chariots, a horned helmet recovered from the Thames at Waterloo, and an ornate shield recovered from the Thames at Battersea (possibly  offered as a plea to the gods of the river at the time of the Roman invasion),  as well as more or less everyday items such as worked flints, pot-sherds, and coins, some of them from Cannon Street in the City.


“Boudicca’s Grave”

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Another in the occasional series on Prehistoric London …

“Boudicca’s Grave” is an interpreted Bronze Age round barrow near  the high point of Parliament Hill on windswept Hampstead Heath, consisting of circular mound some 36m (120’) in diameter and 3m (10’) in height, enclosed by a quarry ditch (*).  Elsewhere in the country, as in Wessex, such features typically contain buried bodies or cremated remains, accompanied by grave goods.  However, none have been found in archaeological excavations at this particular site, possibly on account of the acidity of the heathland soil.

E.O. Gordon, in his somewhat fanciful “Prehistoric London – Its Mounds and Circles”,  of  1932, alludes to the existence at that time of further barrows – “of the leaders of pre-Roman times” – on Primrose Hill and on the neighbouring  suggestively-named Barrow Hill (“the site to-day of a reservoir”).  He also refers to the levelling and loss of still others.

(*) Despite its name, it almost certainly has nothing to do with Boudicca, who was the Queen of the  Ancient British tribe  known as the Iceni in the – much later – Iron Age to Roman period.

Ambresbury Banks and Loughton Camp, Epping Forest (Iron Age enclosures)

In the timeless wilds of Epping Forest lie the remains of two partially-preserved prehistoric earthworks:

Ambresbury Banks, a little over a mile north-west of Theydon  Bois;



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and Loughton Camp, a mile north-north-west of Loughton – at the end of a muddy slalom!




Both are banked and ditched enclosures with areas of around 4 hectares.  When they were built, the banks would have been 3m high and the ditches 3m deep.  They are believed to have been built by Ancient Britons during  the Iron Age, circa 500BC.  They are further believed to have built to mark the boundary between the tribal areas of the Catuvellauni to the west and Trinovantes to the east, or as lookout posts, or defensive positions, or livestock pens, or some combination of any or all of the aforementioned.

They remained in use at least until the Roman period.  According to local legend, Ambresbury Banks was where the Iceni  Queen Boudicca made her final stand against the Romans in 61AD.

The notorious highwayman Dick Turpin is rumoured to have had a hideout in Loughton Camp in the eighteenth century.

Buried Treasures of Greenwich Park

Greenwich was first recorded in 964 as Grenewic, from the Old English grene, meaning green, in context grassy or vegetated, and wic, meaning trading settlement or harbour.

Bronze Age and or Saxon burial mounds

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 (as in Howard William’s “Death and Memory in early Medieval Britain”).   Note in this context that there is a demonstrably Bronze Age barrow known as the “Shrewsbury Tumulus”  on nearby Shooters Hill.

Romano-Celtic temple

Also in Greenwich Park, near the junction between  Bower Avenue and Great Cross Avenue, are the remains of a second- to third- (or fourth-) century Romano-Celtic pagan temple.  A dig on the site by Channel 4’s “Time Team”, in collaboration with Birkbeck College, in 1999, turned up a number of interesting finds, including part of a statue, and a stone bearing an inscription to the god Jupiter and to the spirits of the Emperors.

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Temple reconstruction

The dig also revealed enough of the foundation of the temple, in the form of a central principal building or cella and surrounding covered walkway or ambulatory, and  outer  walled precinct or temenos,   to enable it to be reconstructed.  The cella clearly had a tessellated floor and painted plaster walls.

Watling Street

The temple would have stood at a strategically important high point adjacent to the principal Roman road from Kent into London, Watling Street, possible stretches  of which have also been recorded nearby.



Prehistoric London – “Caesar’s Camp”, Wimbledon Common (Iron Age Hill Fort)

Wimbledon was first recorded in c. 950  as Wunemannedune, from the  Old English personal mane Wynnmann and  “dun”, “hill”.

However, the area was first settled in prehistory, as evidenced by the hill fort at the heart of the Common, variously known as “Bensbury”, “Warren Bulwarks”, “The Rounds” and, most widely, “Caesar’s Camp”.    The fort appears to have been built in the Iron Age, at least as long ago as the third century BC, and pottery evidence indicates that it remained occupied until the first century AD.  An  urn containing a first-century Roman coin hoard has also been found here.

The fort itself is in the form of a circle approximately 300m in diameter (*), with an entrance to the west 20m across (**),  and the surrounding ditch is 9m wide and 3.5m deep (***).

LIDAR image

The earthwork is clearly visible on topographic maps, on aerial photographs, and on satellite and – especially – LIDAR images.


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Sadly, much of it lies within the grounds of a private golf club, and the only public access is by way of a narrow footpath running ENE-WSW through its middle.

(*)  Slightly flattened to the NNW so as to conform to the natural contours of a spur of land overlooking the Beverley Brook.

(**) Possibly approached by way of a road with a metalled surface.

(***) Post-holes indicate that the inner and outer faces would once have been revetted with timbers.

Grim’s Dyke (Iron Age Earthwork)

Grim’s Dyke is an intermittently-preserved bank-and-ditch earthwork that runs for a distance  of some miles through North-West London, from Pinner Green, or possibly Ruislip, in the south-west, to Harrow Weald Common, or possibly Stanmore, in  the north-east.  Recent archaeological evidence indicates that it probably dates to the Iron Age, rather than to the Dark Ages, as had long been thought (apparently associated Iron Age pottery having been unearthed at an excavation in Montesole Park in Pinner Green in 1957, and a first-century – or earlier – hearth in the grounds of the Grim’s Dyke Hotel on  Harrow Weald Common in 1979).   Note in this context that there are further   Iron Age sites in Stanmore, believed to have then been home to a tribe of Ancient Britons known as the Catuvellauni.

I chose a perfect timeless winter’s day today to track it …


… from Montesole Park in Pinner Green …

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… and past Grimsdyke Road, Saddlers Mead and  Grimsdyke Golf Club in Hatch End …


… to a high-point on Harrow Weald Common, with commanding views in all directions.

A Latter-Day Pilgrimage from London to Canterbury contd. – Shooters Hill to Dartford

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas (a) Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on Tuesday 29th December, 1170 (by knights acting on what they had interpreted as an instruction from the  King, Henry II).  The site became an important one of pilgrimage throughout the later Middle Ages (the penitent Henry making the journey barefoot in 1174, the year after Thomas was made a saint).  The practice of pilgrimage ceased after the Reformation and Dissolution under Henry VIII in the sixteenth century, but may be said to have resumed in later  centuries.  Research published by the Chaucer Society in the nineteenth century suggests that the route taken by pilgrims from London to Canterbury ran more less along the line of the old Roman road of Watling Street – or its modern equivalent, the A2 – through Dartford, Rochester and Faversham (note in this context that Rochester is mentioned in the Monk’s prologue, Sittingbourne in the Wife of Bath’s prologue, and Boughton-under-Blean, which is near Faversham, in the Canon Yeoman’s prologue, in “The Canterbury Tales”).  Further research from this time suggests that the journey along this – sixty-mile or so – route would probably have taken four days, with overnight stops at each of the three aforementioned towns (where suitable accommodation was available).  I follow in the pilgrims’  tracks …

Shrewsbury Tumulus


On the brow of Shooters Hill, just under half a mile north of the water tower, and accessed by way of Shrewsbury Lane and Plum Lane,  is a Bronze Age burial mound known as the Shrewsbury Tumulus.  It is the only  one of a number of tumuli discovered in the 1930s to survive.

Watling Street



From Shooters Hill, the old Roman road of Watling Street runs essentially due ESE through Welling, Bexleyheath and Crayford to Dartford (and beyond).

Lesnes Abbey



A couple of miles north of the road as it approaches Welling, and accessed by way of the Green Chain Walk,  are the ruins of Lesnes Abbey.

Lesnes Abbey  was founded by one Richard de Luci, Chief Justiciar to Henry II, in 1178, and dedicated by him to St Mary and St Thomas the Martyr, possibly as penance for his, Richard’s – indirect – involvement in Thomas Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.  The first abbot, William, was consecrated in 1179, the by-then canon Richard de Luci dying that same year and being buried in the Chapter House.  The abbey was originally an Augustinian foundation, but under the second abbot, Fulc’s incumbency between 1187-1208 adopted the Rule of Arrouaise.  It always struggled financially to meet its running costs, which included those of maintaining its  river walls and draining its marshy  land-holdings, and, in consequence, its  buildings  began to fall into disrepair in the fourteenth century.  The abbey was eventually closed down by Cardinal Wolsey  in 1524, in other words some years before the Dissolution of the Monasteries beginning in 1536.  Most of its buildings were at least partially pulled down in the sixteenth century (some of the salvaged stone being used in the construction of Hall Place in Bexley), although the former Abbot’s Lodgings survived intact and in use until the nineteenth.  Only picturesque ruins remain today.


Welling was first recorded in 1361 as Wellyngs, alluding  either to the Willing family, who owned land here in the fourteenth century, or to the presence of springs here.

East Wickham

Around half a mile north of the road as it passes through Welling, and accessed by way of Upper Wickham Lane, is East Wickham, first recorded in 1240 as Wikam, meaning, in Old English, homestead (ham) associated with a vicus, or  earlier Romano-British settlement (wic).


What is now the Greek Orthodox Church of Christ the Saviour was formerly a chapel of ease attached to the church of St Nicholas in Plumstead.  It is believed to have been built in the thirteenth century.


Around  a mile south of the road as it passes between Bexleyheath and Crayford, and accessed by way of the A220, is Bexley, first recorded in an Anglo-Saxon charter of 814 as Byxlea, from the  Old English byxe, meaning box tree,  and leah, meaning clearing.  From the ninth century until the Reformation of the sixteenth, it was a manor of the Archbishop of Canterbury.  In the “Domesday Book” of 1086, Bexley Village was recorded as home to three (?water) mills (?on the River Cray, a tributary of the Thames), as well as a church.


The church, St Mary, with its striking octagonal shingled  tower, was originally built at least as long ago as the eleventh  century, although “each generation since has left its visible mark on the fabric”. The present nave, chancel and west tower were built toward the  end of the twelfth century.  The north aisle was added in the thirteenth century, and extended to accommodate a Lady Chapel at the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth.  The whole fabric of the church was  restored in the late nineteenth century.


Among the many memorials in the church are them are an unusual “Hunting Horn” brass one, believed  to be to Henry Castilayn (d. 1407); another brass  one,  to John Shelley of Hall Place (d. 1441) and his wife Joan; and a highly decorated carved stone  one,   to Sir John Champneys (d. 1556) of Hall Place, a successful member of the Skinners’ Company and sometime Lord Mayor of the City of London, and his second  wife Meriell.

Hall Place, on the eastern outskirts of the village, was originally built in stone – salvaged from Lesnes Abbey – in 1537 by  the aforementioned Sir John Champneys (probably on the site of earlier, thirteenth- and fourteenth- houses respectively owned by the de Aula and Shelley families).    It was subsequently extended in brick in 1649-66 by Sir Robert Austen, who had bought  it from Sir John Champneys grand-son Richard in 1649.



Crayford was first recorded as Crecganford in the  Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, as the site of  a battle that took place in 457 between Germanic invaders and native Britons.  The name alludes to a crossing-point on the River Cray (a tributary of the Thames), which had been in existence since earlier  times (the “lost” Roman settlement of Noviomagus may have been here). The early settlement grew   in the Medieval period, and began to become industrialised in the post-Medieval.



The church of St Paulinus was probably originally built in timber in the Saxon period, being mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 (”the archbishop himself holds Erhede and there is a church”).   It was subsequently rebuilt in stone in the Norman period and style at the turn of the eleventh and twelfth centuries (nave and chancel).  And extended in the later Medieval English Gothic style in the early thirteenth century (south aisle); in the Decorated style at the turn of the thirteenth and fourteenth (second nave); and in the Perpendicular style in the fifteenth (tower).


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Dartford takes its name from a ford over the River Darent, present at least as long ago as Roman times (there was also extensive settlement along the Darent in Roman times).  The present town is thought to have been founded in Saxon times, and is mentioned in the Norman Domesday Book, compiled in 1086, as belonging to the King (though by the twelfth century it had entered the possession of the Knights Templar).


It became an important waypoint for pilgrims en route to Canterbury and the continent in the later Middle Ages.   Pilgrims stayed in The Bell (One Bell Corner), The Bull (Royal Victoria and Bull) or  The Bull’s Head (Bull’s Head Yard) on the High Street.




Holy Trinity Church was originally built in the ninth century, and  rebuilt in the late eleventh, around 1080, by Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester.  It was then extended in the late twelfth to early thirteenth centuries, and in 1235 hosted the proxy wedding of King Henry III’s sister Isabella and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.  Later, Henry V gave thanks here for his victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.


The fine painting of St George and the Dragon dates to 1470.


Dartford Priory, England’s only Dominican convent, was founded here in 1346.  After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, the site became that of a Tudor manor house, where King Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, lived for a while after her divorce, and where Queen Elizabeth I stayed twice.   The  gate-house to the manor still survives.


Dominican and Franciscan hospitals were also founded here in the fourteenth century.