Tag Archives: Alfred the Great

DARK AGE (SAXON AND VIKING) LONDON  

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

History

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”.  One of the reasons we know so little is that the 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 430-450).

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When the Saxons 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.

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Lundenwic 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”.

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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 Asser, a monk and later Bishop of Sherborne, in his “Life of King Alfred”, written in 893, he “restored the [Roman] city of London [Londinium] … 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] Ethe(l)red, ealdorman of the Mercians”, to hold it under him.

The raids continued, though.  In 994, again according to the “Chronicle”, “[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”.

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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.  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.

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Then, in 1016, the Viking Cnut, son of Swein Forkbeard, son of Harald Bluetooth, decisively defeated in battle the Saxon Edmund “Ironside”, son of Ethelred and Aelgifu of York,  to become King of England as well as Denmark; and in 1017 he married Ethelred’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  Hardicanute, his son by Emma,  in  1040.

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