London's Story

Saxon London

However, by AD 400 the Roman Empire was attacked by the barbarians across Europe and was in decline. Groups of Saxon invaders from across the Channel marched up the Thames valley. The last of the Roman troops were withdrawn in AD 410. With them went their servants, wives, families and possessions, and Londinium became a sparsely populated ghost town. The Romans kept written records, but the Saxon invaders apparently knew little about writing, and there is hardly any firm evidence about who occupied Londinium between AD 410 and AD 604. The period is part of what we now know as the” Dark Ages”. England (or at least the southern part of it) was ruled by a number of Saxon kings in charge of their own little bit of territory, with no overall ruler established over the whole of the country.

In AD 596 Pope Gregory sent a monk called Augustine from Rome to convert the people living in the country now known as England (“Angles Land” – from the tribe known as Angles living in Kent) to Christianity. Augustine succeeded in converting King Ethelbert, the Saxon King of Kent to Christianity, and missionaries were sent to Londonium in AD604. King Sebert of the East Saxons (now Essex) was the first to become a Christian, and he founded a wooden church dedicated to St Paul within the old city walls on the top of Ludgate Hill, the second highest point within the Roman walls.

Now known as “London”, the city continued to expand. As it grew in importance it attracted the attention of some unwelcome visitors - the Vikings from Denmark, who attacked the city in AD 841 and again in AD 851, burning and looting as they went. Once again the city was left in ruins, and it was not until the time of another Saxon king, Alfred the Great (who was the King of Wessex – the West Saxons – and whose capital city was Winchester), that the city was re-established, with the construction of new wharves at Billingsgate and Queenhithe, and repairs made to the Roman roads. Alfred let the revolt against the marauding Vikings and drove them out of Southern England in AD 886.

After this point London never looked back. It very quickly grew and prospered into a well-organised town, with 20 “wards” or districts, each with its own aldermen, and churches, parishes and markets. The word “ceap” is Anglo-Saxon for market and we are reminded of this when we see such street names in London as “Cheapside” and “Eastcheap”. However, in this period of history a city or country was only strong while it had a firm ruler and armies in place, and the Saxon hold on the rule of law was badly weakened after the death of King Alfred.

By AD 1016 London became the object of attacks by the Danes once more, and to avoid more harassment the Londoners agreed to accept a Danish King, Cnut (Canute) as their ruler. It was during his reign that London replaced Winchester as capital city of the kingdom. King Canute died in AD 1040, and was succeeded by King Edward the Confessor, a devout Christian, who founded an Abbey and palace at Westminster (the “Minster (or abbey church) in the west”) 3 kms. to the west of the City.

King Edward moved his Court to his new Palace at Westminster, and established the administration of his kingdom there, while the trading, mercantile and commercial activities of London continued in the City around London Bridge where the wharves and port grew. It was because of this that London continued to develop around two “hubs”, - The City and Westminster.



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