1902 Encyclopedia > London > Saxon Period (449-1066)

(Part 34)


London History (cont.) - Saxon Period (449-1066)

At the beginning of he 5th century the Roman legions left Britain. From this period to the arrival of the Saxons there was a space of time when the Briton was left alone, and there is no reason to believe that London ceased to be the important commercial town which it had grown to be. After the Saxon invasion we do n to hear of the city being ravaged, and it possibly held its own under the various vicissitudes it had to pass through, although Dr Guest writes that "good reason may be given for the belief that even London itself for a while lay desolate and uninhabited" (Archaeological Journal, xix. 219). About 449 or 450 the invaders first settled in Britain, and in 457 Hengist and Aesc fought against the Britons at Caryford, driving them out6 of Kent. The vanquish fled to London in great terror, and apparently found a shelter there. The Saxons disliked walled towns, and in many instances they destroyed those which they conquered. This was not done in London, and it is just possible that the Britons may have been able to purchase their freedom from destruction. We have, however, little or no data upon which we can form an opinion. Mr Kemble wrote of towns generally that the Saxons neither cared to take possession of them nor took the trouble to destroy them. they enslaved the inhabitants or expelled them, as a mere necessary precaution and preliminary to their own peaceable possession (Saxons in England, ii. 296). The only question is whether London, being an exceptional city, had an exceptional fate. Along the banks of the Thames are several small havens whose names have remained to us, such as Rotherhith, Lambhith (Lambeth), Chelchith (Chelsea), and it is not unlikely that the Saxon who would not settle in the city itself associated himself with these small open spots. Places were thus founded over a large space which otherwise might have remained unsettled. At what time the Saxons got over their repugnance and settled in London we cannot say, but the city is described by Bede as being in 604 the metropolis of the east Saxons, and an emporium of many peoples who came to it by sea and land. The relics of Roman London are, as we have already seen, very numerous; but we know nothing of the inhabitants. There is little human interest in the history. When we come to Saxon London this position is reversed. There are no remains worthy of notice, but there is abundance of life. London appears to have held a very exceptional position, and to have been somewhat like a German free city. The Londoner within his strong walls defied the invader, and the Dane frequently attempted to conquer the city in vain. Mr Freeman does justice to the stout heart of the Londoner, and calls London during this period "the stronghold of English freedom." The Saxon Chronicle has little to tell of London between the 5th and 9th centuries. The great change accomplished by Augustine, in converting the Jutes and the Saxons to Christianity, is recorded in a few short lines; and we are told that in the year 604 Augustine consecrated two bishops, Mellitus and Justus, and that Ethelbert, king of Kent, gave Mellitus a bishop’s see at London, then a part of the kingdom of the East Saxons, whose king, Siebert, was a tributary of his uncle the king of Kent. What became of the cathedral which we may suppose to have existed in London during the later Roman period we cannot tell, but we may guess that it was destroyed by the heathen Saxons. Bede records that the church of St Paul was built by Ethelbert, and from that time to this a cathedral dedicated to St Pail has stood upon the hill looking down on Ludgate. Mellitus became archbishop of Canterbury, and was succeeded in the see of London by Cedda, who was succeeded by Wina. Then came Theodore, archbishop of Canterbury, better known as the sainted Erkenwald, whose shrine was one of the chief glories of old St Paul’s. He died on April 30, 693, a day which was kept in memory in his cathedral by special offices. We must now pass over nearly a century and a half to the time when the Danes were harassing the country after the death of Egbert. The chronicler records that in the year 839 there was a great slaughter at London, but he gives no particulars. In 851 the Danes plundered the city and made themselves masters of it. Sharon Turner quotes a conveyance of a place in London dated 857, which gives a slight piece of local information (Anglo-Saxons, ii. 575). The name of the place was Ceolmandingehaga, and it was situated not far from the West Gate. We cannot tell whether Ludgate was meant or some other gate which marked the extent of the liberties on the west. In 871 the chronicler affirms that Alfred fought nine great battles against the Danes in the kingdom south of the Thames, and that the West Saxons made peace with them. In the next year the Danes went from Reading to London, and there took up their winter quarters. Then the Mercians made peace with them. In 886 Alfred overcame the Danes, restored London to its inhabitants, rebuilt its walls, reannexed the city to Mercia, and committed it to Ethelred, alderman of Mercia. Then, as the chronicler writes, "all the Angle race turned to him (Alfed) that were not in bondage of the Danish men." In 896 the Londoners came off victorious in their encounters with the Danes. The king obstructed the river so that the enemy could not bring up their ships, and they therefore abandoned them. the Londoners broke up some, and brought the strongest and best to London. In 912 Ethelred, the alderman of the Mercians, who had been placed in authority by Alfred died, and Edward the Elder took possession of London and Oxford, "and all the lands which thereto belonged." Again we find a break in the continuity of the history, and pass on to the year 959, when King Edgar gave Dunstan the bishopric of Worcester, and afterwards that of London. In 962 there was a great fever and mortality in London, and St Paul’s was burnt. It was however, founded again in the same year. In the reign of Ethelred II. the Danes were more successful in their operations against London, but the inhabitants resisted stoutly. Snorre the Icelander tells us that the Danes fortified Southwark with ditch and rampart, which the English assailed in vain. In 982 London was burnt, and in 994 Olaf and Swein (the father of Canute) came with ninety-four ships to besiege it. They tried to set the city on fire, but the townsmen did then more harm than they "ever weened." The chronicler piously adds that "the holy Mother of God on that day manifested her mercy to the townsmen, and delivered them from their foes." The Danes went from the town and ravaged the neighborhood, so that in the end the king and his witan agreed to give sixteen thousand pounds to be relieved of the presence of the enemy. In the year 1009 the Danes frequently attacked London, but they had no success, and fared ill in their attempts. The Londoners withstood Swein in 1013, but in the end they submitted and gave him hostages. Three years after this, Ethelred died in London, and such of the witan as were there and the townsmen chose Edmund ironside for king, although the witan outside London had elected Canute. Canute’s ships were then at Greenwich on their way to London, where they soon afterwards arrives. The Danes at once set to work to dig a great ditch by Southwark, and then dragged their ships through to the west side of the bridge. They were able after this to keep the inhabitants from either going in or out of the town. In spite of all this, after fighting obstinately both by land and by water, the Danes had to raise the siege of London, and take the ships to the river Orwell. After a glorious reign of seven months Edmund died in London, and Canute became master of England. The tribute which the townsmen of London had to pay was 10,500, about one-seventh of the amount which was paid by all the rest of the English nation. This shows the growing importance of the town. From this time there appears to have been a permanent Danish settlement in London. There s but little more to be said of the history of Saxon London than that Edward the Confessor held his witanagemot there, and built and consecrated the Abbey of Westminster. During the later part of the Saxon period Westminstr (originally Thorney Island) had been growing into some importance. Tradition affirmed that on the site of Westminster Abbey a temple of Apollo once stood, which was destroyed by an earthquake in the reign of the emperor Antoninus Pius. Out of the ruins King Lucius founded a church, 170 A.D. Sir Christopher Wren imagined that the monks, finding that the Londoners pretended to a temple of Diana where St Paul’s now stands, did not wish to be behind hand in antiquity (Parentalia, p. 296). The figment respecting King Lucius is of a about equal authority. There is more reason for believing that Siebert king of the East Saxons, may have built, as Stow says he did, "a church to the honor of God and St Peter, on the west side of the city of London." His sons relapsed into idolatry, and left the church to the mercy of the Danes. In a charter of King Edgar, dated 951, the original boundary of Westminster is clearly defined. This charter is marked by kemble as doubtful (Codex Dipl. Dlxix); but, if not of the date given, it is believed by competent authorities to be of great antiquity. Edward the Confessor took a particular interest in Wesminster, and occupied much time in superintending the erection of a new church there. On Childermas Day (December 28) 1065 the monastery was consecrated, and on the following "twelfth mass eve" the king died, being buried on the next day in the new church. The abbot of Westminster’s manor is fully described in Domesday, but there is no mention of a palace, so that it has been conjectured that the Confessor lived in the monastery itself. With regard to the buildings of London we are left to conjecture. As several of the Saxon kings lived in the city, we must conclude that they possessed a palace of some kind, and around this other buildings would arise. A port such as London naturally drew foreigners from all parts, and various communities of these strangers are believed to have settled here as early as the 8th century. With regard to the government of the city it is generally supposed that many of its institutions are due to Alfred the Great, although Mr Coote with great ingenuity traces them back to the ordinances of the Roman municipium. The famous dooms of the city of London (Athelstan) are stated in the preamble to be the ordinance of "the bishops and the reeves belonging to London." William the Conqueror’s charter, which he granted soon after his accession, is addressed to William the bishop and Godfrey the portreeve. The office of portreeve had then been long established, although we know but little of its origin. It was usually an office of popular election, but the king often interfered in the appointment. Considerably more than a century had elapsed after the Conquest before the title of portreeve gave way to that of mayor, as the designation of the chief officer of the city of London.

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