The City of London in Saxon Times

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Above: Map of Alfred the Great’s London, produced for an exhibition at the Museum of London, marking the 1,100th anniversary of his death in 1999.

“A Mini Lecture”

The Romans founded Londonium beside the Thames. That is now land we call the City of London. In the 1980s archaeologists discovered that the Saxons did not live on the same land — within the Roman Wall — but they had a settlement in the Strand which archaeologists now called Lundenwic. In AD 886 the Vikings were driven out of the City by Alfred the Great and a late Saxon settlement was established within the Roman Walls, probably around today’s Cheapside. Archaeologists call this late settlement Lundenburg.

In AD 886 Alfred had parts of the City restored and rebuilt, moving the focus of commercial and other activity into the ancient fortified Roman city. This was part of his well-known plan for building a network of fortified boroughs to defend the kingdom against any further threat from the Viking armies. As such his plan was very successful.

So, what do we mean by the Saxon settlement within the Roman Walls? Did it occupy all the space? What kind of a settlement was it? Not all the answers are known, even the archaeologists are still discovering new facts about this interesting time in the City’s history. In this article we shall take a look at the City between the years of AD 886 and into times after the Norman conquest of 1066. It was during the years when Lundenburg was established which helped to shape the City that we know today.

As we see on the map, the City was surrounded by the Roman Wall. In Roman times that had extended along the riverfront as well but by the 9th century the riverside wall had either fallen down or been taken down to provide easier moorings for ships. To the west of the Roman Wall was the River Fleet and running through the Saxon City was the River Walbrook. St Paul’s Cathedral had been founded in AD 604. It is believed that the grid pattern of the streets south of today’s Cheapside and extending further east were the result of Alfred the Great’s new planning in the City. The area to the west of the Walbrook is coloured orange and to the east it is coloured white. In a sense the Walbrook created to separate trading areas.

Although surrounded by the Roman Wall, the City of London developed in two ‘halves’ — with a street formation related to the two main City markets of Westcheap and Eastcheap. Westcheap later became called Cheapside and the original market on the west side of the City developed into the larger of the two street markets. Eastcheap gave its name to the street still bearing that name today and, since Eastcheap is shorter than Cheapside, it is assumed that Eastcheap was a smaller market area.

Quite when the two markets came into existence is not known for certain. It is possible that Westcheap as a market goes back to the 9th century — at the time of Alfred the Great — and perhaps Eastcheap may date from the late 10th century.

It is generally accepted by archaeologists that the street plan between Westcheap and the Thames was probably laid out after AD 886, the date when Alfred the Great attacked the Danes and drove them out of the City, so that he could establish Saxon rule within its ancient walls.

Not only have the two market areas existed since before the Norman Conquest of 1066 but they have also affected the street plan around them. The areas of land in which the two markets were situated are divided by the River Walbrook which probably had an effect on how the residents related to each market area.

Listed below are outline notes relating to (1) Westcheap; (2) Eastcheap; (3) City Street Plans, where the rest of the City streets are considered; and (4) Noblility in the City, considering possible areas in the City where the nobility lived.

Westcheap

Westcheap, now called Cheapside, was a long market running on an east-west axis, from the precinct of St Paul’s Cathedral to the street known as Poultry. To the west of Cheapside is Newgate Street in which was held the butchers’ market, selling slaughtered meat. The street was known as ‘The Shambles’ with a nearby church known as ‘St Nicholas Shambles’. The word ‘shambles’ was a common name for a meat market and, in the City of York, there is still a street by this name which was once used for the same purpose. Whether the meat market grew up in Newgate Street because the live-stock market was conveniently close at Smithfield is not known.

In the main, Westcheap sold produce that was made on the premises — like bread — but other produce — like fresh vegetables and fruit — was brought in from the countryside around the City. As well as selling many commodities, Westcheap had what would today be called ‘take-away’ cook-shops that sold food ready to eat — like pasties. In addition to food there were also plenty of ale-houses. A visitor to England, walking through Westcheap in the late 16th century, commented that ‘there appear so many and such diverse varieties of wares on whatever side one turns so that it is a wonderful thing to behold, for it seems that not only Europe but also all parts of the world have attempted to try to make themselves known in London’.

Just south of Westcheap was Old Fish Street where fish landed at Queenhithe was stored and gutted. The fish was then sold — mainly on Fridays — to the public in shops lining Friday Street. Only a very short, disjointed, piece of Friday Street remains today and Old Fish Street was swept away mainly due to the building of Queen Victoria Street.

Working further east, we come to the area of the bakers and dairymen. Bread Street still remains as a turning off the south side of Cheapside and Milk Street runs north. Honey Lane, partly pedestrianised, is a reminder of the honey market. Poultry is really the eastern continuation of Westcheap, with a name reminding the visitor that chickens, ducks, geese and possibly eggs were sold as market commodies.

There was also a rabbit market — hence Coneyhope Lane. Harben states that ‘Coneyhope Lane’ ran north off Poultry in the Parish of St Mildred. Its earliest mention was a ‘Conohop Lane’ in 1292. The chapel of St Mary de Coneyhope was in the lane and also the Grocers’ Hall. The site is now occupied by Grocers’ Hall Court which is a gated turning off the north side of Poultry. The word ‘coney’ is a Middle English word for a rabbit or its skin which comes from Old French ‘conin’, deriving originally from the Latin ‘cuniculus’.

Running south from Westcheap was also Cordwainer Street, now renamed Bow Lane. Cordwainers (men who worked in fine leather, not cobblers) were in this street in the 12th century.

On the north side of the road, at the junction of Westcheap with Poultry, was the Mercery. On part of that land the Mercers’ Company still have their hall today. Mercery included linen, silk, worsted (a fine cloth originally made in the village of Worsted, in Norfolk) and small manufactured items including what is now called haberdashery. It is from the ancient name of ‘Mercery’ that the Mercers’ Company derive their name.

On the south side of Westcheap in the 16th century, almost opposite the junction with Wood Street, was a frame of houses where goldsmiths worked in their shops and lived on the upper floors of the houses.

Further south of Westcheap, beside the Thames, were several specialist quays with associated warehouses. At the Steelyard, now the site of Cannon Street Station, many imports from northern Europe was brought into the City. Vintry, now a City Ward, was land where wine was imported from France, particularly Bordeaux. Slightly west was Garlickhithe, near today’s Garlick Hill, where herbs were imported, particularly garlic but also many rare spices.

One last river location is Queenhithe Dock which dates from at least late Saxon times. The plaque says it was established in AD 899. That is a date from which its documented history starts. It may well have been in use earlier than that, possibly by the Romans but that has not been possible to establish so far.

In later times trade from up river brought the City a wider variety of goods, so that it soon ceased to be primarily a food market, and its wares came to comprise textiles, iron, leather, and luxury goods, spices and goldsmiths’ ware. By the middle of the 13th century the fishmongers had transferred their trade further east.

The information provided so far is just a ‘snap-shot’ of the principal commodities being traded in and around Westcheap. Many others could also be mentioned. Both to the north and to the south of Westcheap there is a strong grid pattern of streets and lanes. With the laying out of Queen Victoria Street in Victorian times and the upgrading of Upper Thames Street to a dual carriageway in the 20th century the grid has taken a battering to the extent that it is not so obvious as it once appeared on old maps of the City.

Eastcheap

Eastcheap lay close to the Thames and London Bridge. It came to be the market for goods coming by sea as well as from the east by land. As well as Westcheap, this market on the east side of the City had important markets for fish and meat.

Running north from Eastcheap is Gracechurch Street. Its name derived from being known as ‘Grass Church Street’. The church in question was St Benet which stood on the south side of the junction of Fenchurch Street with Gracechurch Street. Sadly neither the church nor its churchyard remain today. The ‘grass’ sold in the street was a nickname for herbs, in the form of plants.

To the south of Eastcheap was the inlet called Billingsgate. It, like Queenhithe, was established in AD 899. Contrary to popular opinion, the early market at this dock handled corn and coal. It was not until later times that there was a fish market on the quay.

Large sea-going ships could come up-river as far as London Bridge which meant that they could moor in the Thames if they were not able to moor beside a City quay. Cargoes from these vessels were then brought ashore and stored in warehouses on land just south of Eastcheap.

The last item to mention, related to the immediate area around Eastcheap, is the site of London Bridge. It is known that the Romans established a bridge at this point on the Thames. The bridge was constructed from timber. Whether the bridge was still standing when the Romans left is not known and whether the bridge continued to be used over the following centuries is also ‘shrouded in the mists of time’. All we known for certain is that a City priest called Peter of Colechurch was responsible for building a bridge in stone between the years 1176-1209. He died in 1205 a few years before its completion. It was admired by all who saw it and was to last for about six hundred years before it was replaced in the early 1800s.

It will be seen that although Eastcheap was not as large a market as Westcheap, it was in a strategic position and, in its day, it was just as important as its Westcheap counterpart.

City Street Layout

The grid pattern of City Streets, on the north and south sides of Westcheap and on the south side of Eastcheap, are most noticeably. However, the rest of the City inside the Roman Wall does not appear to have the same grid layout. North of Lothbury, for instance, there is no grid pattern, leading to a possible conclusion that this part of the City was least inhabited in Saxon and Norman times.

Outside the Roman Wall, on the north side, the land was known as ‘Moor Fields’ by the 16th century because it had become rather wet and marshy. This was due to the Roman Wall restricting the flow of the River Walbrook and therefore creating marshy land. It may also explain why those who lived inside the wall were content to have no more than a postern gate until the 15th century. It was only then that Moorgate was built. If the land was marshy outside the wall it may also have been marshy inside as well. Several large gardens are shown along its course inside the Roman Wall on the Agas map of c1561, indicating that the land was too unstable to build houses.

Land around and to the north of the street called Cornhill also appears quite open in early times. It could be that the street name ‘Cornhill’ meant that corn was being grown on that land, meaning that the area was actually a farm.

Nobility in the City

Above: Part of John Rocque’s map of the City, 1746, showing the position of the streets mentioned in the section below entitled ‘Nobility in the City’. No clear street map for the City exists for an earlier date so this map has been used to show the Saxon street layout which hardly changed from the 10th to the 18th century. Some of the streets shown on the above map no longer exist today.

Nobility in the City

Some of the streets to the north of Westcheap, at its western end, are of particular interest because they give a few clues as to where some of the men of substance and influence may have lived.

The first two streets to look at are Staining Lane and Basinghall Street. In the case of Staining Lane, it took its name from the church of St Mary Staining and not the other way round. Maitland talks about the ‘haws of the men of Staines’. A ‘haw’ or haga’ was a boundary in the form of a hedge or fence, enclosing land. It is therefore just possible that important land-owners from Staines once lived there. In the case of Basinghall Street the ‘Basing Hall’ could also have been owned by a wealthy owner, in this case maybe from Basing. There is the village of ‘Old Basing’ in the County of Hampshire.

Addle Street is another interesting name. It is often said that it derives from King Adelstan but there are no records of the street name being in this form. A more likely explanation is that it comes from the Saxon word ‘Atheling’, meaning ‘noble’ which could imply that an ‘Atheling’ or ‘Saxon prince’ lived on the land. While on the subject of being ‘noble’ the nearby Noble Street is not thought to be related to this line of thought.

The street called Aldermanbury means literally ‘site of the Alderman’s fortified Hall’. The ‘Alderman’ is perhaps more likely to have been an ‘ealdorman’ or lord of a shire or even of Mercia, than head man of a ward or alderman in the City in the 11th century. Bearing in mind that there is the church of St Alban, in nearby Wood Street, there may be some link between him and a story about St Albans. The tradition, which is well known but which has little substantial evidence, claimed that the Mercian King Offa built the church of St Alban, Wood Street, near his royal palace. This one tenuous fact may provide a hint to one of the unanswered questions of early London topography ‘Where did the kings live before the Royal Palace was established at Westminster by Edward the Confessor?’

Finally, it should be pointed out that the precinct of St Paul’s Cathedral also lies at the western end of Westcheap. It is therefore clear that this was an important area of the City where some of the more influential members of Saxon society used to live, maybe even Saxon royalty.

-ENDS-

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7 Responses to The City of London in Saxon Times

  1. Penelope Tay says:

    I was interested to read where a royal palace could have been situated, near St. Alban, Wood Street, before Westminster was established by Edward the Confessor.

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    • Yes, its a subject that has always interested me, ever since I found a reference to s ‘palace’ in the area of Wood Street. There is so little information. Hopefully, one day more archaeological evidence will come to light.

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  2. clavdivs26 says:

    People queuing up to see excavated Temple of Mithra in 1954 (newsclippinng) https://walbrookdiscovery.wordpress.com/2014/04/28/history-is-old-news/

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  3. clavdivs26 says:

    Was curious when the Walbrook ceased to be a ‘brook’. Wikipedia says 1440: “When St. Margaret Lothbury was rebuilt in 1440, the Lord Mayor Robert Large paid for the lower Walbrook to be covered over. By the time of the first maps of the area, the “copperplate” map of the 1550s and the derivative “Woodcut” map of c.1561, the whole Walbrook within the city walls was culverted. John Stow, the historian of London, wrote about the Walbrook in 1598, saying that the watercourse, having several bridges, was afterwards vaulted over with brick and paved level with the streets and lanes where it passed and that houses had been built so that the stream was hidden as it is now.” And evidently there are a host of rivers/brook in London that are underground (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subterranean_rivers_of_London) Do they still have a function or are they dried up for the most part?

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  4. The rivers are very much functioning and the Walbrook still flows under St Margaret, Lothbury, – that is under the church and under the foundations as well.

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