ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 44, May 1999


Saxon London in a tale of two cities

In his second article on London, John Schofield describes new evidence for the two Saxon towns

Of all the periods in London's history, the Saxon has produced the most surprises from excavations of recent years. Though the Dark Ages continue to be dark, there is increasing light on this formative period.

The most important advance has been the discovery over recent years of the 7th/8th century trading settlement of Lundenwic west of the Roman city walls. Within the city itself, however, evidence remains meagre from the collapse of the Roman administration in 410 until the late Saxon reoccupation under King Alfred in the 9th century.

The extent to which the city was occupied during these intervening centuries, with its great Roman buildings slowly crumbling, remains one of London's - as yet - great unsolved mysteries.

By 410, the built-up area within the town walls had already contracted greatly in size. Parts had been cleared of buildings and were already covered by a horizon of dark silts (often described as `dark earth') suggesting that land was converted to arable and pastoral use or abandoned entirely. The dark earth may have started forming in the 3rd century.

The protection afforded by the walls, however, suggests the town would have remained a centre of some importance, a place of refuge if not an urban centre. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 457 mentions the flight of the British to London after their defeat at Creaganford (Crayford, Kent) at the hands of Hengist and Horsa, leaders of the Saxon invaders.

The first documented building work in the walled area after the departure of the Romans was the foundation of the cathedral church of St Paul by King Aethelbert of Kent in or shortly after 604, as recorded by Bede. Its remains presumably underlie the present Wren church and churchyard, though any fragments beneath the cathedral would now be very badly damaged; and no Saxon remains of this period have been identified in excavations either here or elsewhere in the city.

The building of a cathedral does not necessarily imply the continuation of settlement, as it was papal policy to establish cathedrals in former Roman towns whatever their level of population. Outside the city, however, 5th and 6th century settlements have been traced in Hammersmith and Brentford.

Until the mid-1980s, nobody knew the location of Lundenwic, the London described in the 8th century by Bede as `a mart of many peoples coming by land and sea'. Then, the plotting of finds from many previous sites suggested that Lundenwic lay around Aldwych, west of the Roman city.

Subsequent excavations have produced evidence for a riverside settlement with buildings, lanes, pits, ditches, and much environmental material such as large amounts of butchered animal bone. Lundenwic was flourishing by 700, and was possibly earlier in origin than similar trading places at Ipswich and Hamwich (Southampton).

It extended from the west side of the Roman city round the river bank south and west to Westminster, and north to present-day Oxford Street. It was a point of entry from mainland Europe into the Mercian kingdom of central England - imported pottery includes pieces from France and the Rhineland. The largest site, now being analysed in post-excavation by the Museum of London Archaeology Service, is at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, just west of Aldwych, where a Saxon street, up to 60 buildings and a defensive ditch have been found.

Why Lundenwic was founded outside the city walls remains a matter of debate. Some say the surviving Roman buildings may have acted as an obstacle to town planning; others emphasise a Saxon `mistrust' of former Roman towns. There is contemporary documentary evidence of a possible Mercian palace in the Roman fort at Cripplegate, suggesting perhaps a royal and religious focus within the city with a trading settlement outside, but no hard evidence for the palace has come to light.

In the late 9th century the area within the Roman walls was extensively resettled and the extramural settlement apparently abandoned. This was perhaps as a result of Viking attack - a great slaughter at London is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 842.

With the notable exception of the town walls and associated gates, it seemed until recently that the development of the late Saxon town was little affected by the earlier Roman urban topography. But examples have come to light where substantial Roman buildings, or roads, survived to form points of continuity. One recent example was at Number 1, Poultry, where a late Saxon building was constructed against the wall of a ruined Roman building; and there have been several others.

The archaeological and documentary evidence suggest that in the late 9th and 10th centuries a series of north-south streets was laid out between the Thames and what later became the market streets of Eastcheap and Cheapside. It is possible that the new settlement was at first only on the western of London's two hills, Ludgate Hill. The first market and harbour was established at Queenhithe, upstream of the former London Bridge, as mentioned in charters of 889 and 899. Tree-ring dating of recently excavated waterfront structures at Bull Wharf immediately to the east is of this period.

The finds suggest vigorous trade with ports in Frisian and Viking spheres. They include the best collection of 9th to 10th century Carolingian and Scandinavian metalwork in the country outside of a hoard. Documentary evidence shows that by 1000 merchants from Rouen, Ponthieu in Normandy, Huy, Liège and Nivelles in Flanders, and from the Holy Roman Empire, were trading at a second, later harbour at Billingsgate, downstream of the bridge. Here, traces of a late 10th century timber structure have been found - possibly one of the earliest post-Roman jetties in Europe.

The imported objects, especially in the waterfront area, testify to a range of contacts: pottery from North France, the Low Countries and the Rhine; rings and other metal finery which may be from Viking lands; hones made from Norwegian ragstone, querns from Niedermendig in Germany, and coins from Belgium, Normandy, Norway and Scotland.

By 1000, if not before, London Bridge was rebuilt - possibly for the first time in 700 years - and recent excavations on the south end of the bridge have produced timber piles dendro-dated to 987-1032.

At the same time, many crafts were practised in London: working in metals including copper and silver, making and decorating bone and leather objects, and weaving. The city was probably already enjoying a reputation for luxuries and quality goods. Finds on 11th century properties, in buildings or in rubbish-pits, include shoes, scabbards, crucibles, inlaid knives and jewellery.

Wooden fragments of Saxon buildings, some of startling size such as aisle posts from a building originally over 35ft high, have been recovered from waterfront excavations, for example at Billingsgate and near Queen-hithe. It is unclear whether these massive aisled buildings were religious or secular. It is probable that some large town houses existed.

Elsewhere, away from the waterfront, remains are less substantial. Altogether, fragments of just under 100 buildings are known. However, it is not yet possible to distinguish between domestic buildings, shops and other commercial structures. The Guildhall was certainly established by the 12th century, and its relationship with the underlying Roman amphitheatre is now being examined following excavations in 1987-94.

Westminster lay at the south end of the Lundenwic settlement on a marshy island. It is thought, from documentary evidence, that the abbey had been founded by the 8th century. It was the place of royal burial in the 1040s, and a royal palace was built nearby in about the 1050s, now underlying the Houses of Parliament. Fragmentary but significant evidence of this palace - outbuildings, pits and ditches on the periphery of the palace area - have been seen in recent excavations, particularly those ahead of the Jubilee Line constructions.

After about 950, London's overseas trade, interrupted by the Vikings, was growing. The concomitant development of the bridge and nearby wharves was matched by timber buildings, some of innovative design, and a host of new churches (the only relic visible today being parts of All Hallows Barking near the Tower). London was an international port in a commercial network which stretched all round the North Sea and well into the Baltic.

By 1000, it was the largest and most important city in England, though not yet the capital. That would come in the next two centuries, fuelled in part by its rise as a place of business and as England's main gateway to Europe.

Dr John Schofield works in the Department of Early London History and Collections of the Museum of London. An exhibition on Alfred the Great, London's forgotten king, opens at the Museum in September

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