Another in the series of posts taken from my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” …
Within the walls of the City, the first St Paul’s Cathedral was founded by Bishop Mellitus and the Kentish King Ethelburg in 604, a matter of a few short years after the arrival of the Gregorian mission 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 Ethelbert 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. 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 as 1046, wood from a coffin in the churchyard being dendrochronologically dated to that year. 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 “Ethered’s Hithe”, in 898; 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. And Billingsgate was first recorded in around 1000.
Without the walls, in Southwark, the nunnery of St Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral) was founded in 606. In Westminster, the parish 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; and in Camden, the church of St Andrew Holborn, in wood, at least as long ago as 951, being referred to as an “old wooden church” in a Charter of that year. Also in Westminster, the Benedictine Monastery of St Peter was founded by Bishop Dunstan and King Edgar 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; and the Palace was also rebuilt at this time. A monk of St Bertin’s Abbey wrote in 1065: “Outside the walls of London … stood a monastery [founded by Bishop Dunstan under King Edgar the Peaceable and] 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”).
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 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 in the church of All Hallows Barking. These include a fine stone arch possibly as old as the late seventh century, c. 675, incorporating Roman tiles; and, in the crypt, two stone crosses, one of 900 and the other of 1000, the former plain and simple, and bearing a Saxon Runic inscription, and the latter beautifully and intricately carved, and bearing a symbolic depiction of Christ over beasts, a characteristic of “Dark Age” iconography.
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 late fifth or early sixth century, the church’s purported founder Bride, or Bridget, the Abbess of Kildare in Ireland, living from 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 a Saxon altar-stone in St Pancras Old Church in Camden, tentatively dated 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. There is also a Saxon rood (cross) in the church of St Dunstan and All Saints in Stepney, of the tenth.
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 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.