London – Saxon London

Above: Map representing the City about AD 700 – showing the extent of the early Saxon settlement called Lundenwic. The Strand runs near the Thames and further north is Holborn and High Holborn. The curved road entering the orange area is Drury Lane. Notice that the whole Roman Wall remains, including the wall along the riverside.

We know that the Romans left Londinium around AD 410 but exactly what happened to the old settlement is not clear. We also know that Saxons, who were essentially a farming community and not given to erecting imposing stone buildings, decided to leave their native homeland – in what would now be parts of southern Germany – and settle in England. They came over from the 6th century onwards and settled all over England.

Archaeologists often puzzled over the fact that when they excavated parts of the City of London they often found Roman artefacts and the remains of Roman buildings but they never found any evidence for Saxons. After the Second World War, large parts of the City of London lay in ruins and London archaeologists made many amazing discoveries in the bombed out buildings that were to be seen everywhere. Yet again, there was no evidence for Saxons. In fact, the mystery of the ‘missing Saxons’ was not solved until about 1985. In that year there was an archaeological dig taking place on a relatively small site in the Covent Garden area. The buildings were standing empty – after Covent Garden Market had relocated to Nine Elms – and several digs were conducted in demolished buildings. One sharp-eyed archaeologist noticed that the colour of clay under the foundations of a building was of one colour but, at regular intervals, there were small patches of discolouration. He concluded that the change in colour could be due to posts, driven into the ground to form a wooden house.

His hunch was correct, the timber posts had rotted away over time leaving just a discolouration in the ground. The history books on London now had to be re-written because the evidence was starting to be found showing that the Saxon settlers had chosen to live along the banks of the Thames to the west of old Londinium. From the late 1980s onwards more and more evidence for the Saxon settlement was found – extending approximately from today’s Trafalgar Square, around the Strand and east to where Drury Lane is today, possibly even further. The settlement is now called Lundenwic, a name that it is believed to have been used by those early Saxon settlers. Lundenwic probably flourished between about AD 600 and AD 800.

One other factor should be mentioned. From Roman times the Vikings had been attacking the eastern shores of Britain. They gradually settled in England and by about AD 800 they had settled inside the old Roman walls. There is a separate blog about the Vikings called ‘London – The Vikings‘.

Above: Map representing about 1000 – showing the Saxons having left Lundenwic and having established Lundenburgh. Streets, whose alignment still exist today, are seen on the map. Notice that the Roman Wall beside the Thames is shown having been removed in part.

Cutting a long story short, King Alfred the Great formed an army and, in AD 886, drove the Vikings out of the walled City and re-established it as what is now called Lundenburgh. While there was the early settlement of Lundenwic in and around the Strand, some people obviously settled within the old Roman walls. St Paul’s Cathedral was founded in AD 604 with the walls and it is believed that near the Thames there were ships bringing goods from overseas and trading with those who lived near the quays.

From AD 886 Lundenburgh was established as a centre of government. It is believed that Alfred the Great was responsible for the layout of many of the City’s streets and lanes. The only piece of stonework, from Saxon times, within the City of London is a stone arch inside the ancient church of All Hallows Barking.

As any school pupil knows, after the period of the Saxons came the Normans – in 1066 and all that! The streets of the City of London were starting to be formed as we know them today. From these early years until 1760 the City – bounded by the Roman Wall – was the only place that was called ‘London’. The use of the name ‘London’ only applied to the ‘Square Mile’ and that name continued in use until 1900. By that date, administrative changes meant that the name ‘London’ was also being applied to the large area of land around the City.

If you are wondering whether the Saxons left their mark on London, two important examples can be given. (1) It was the Saxons who created many of the counties of England. (2) Many of the place names that we take for granted today in the London area, all go back to the owner of a farm in Saxon times – like Lewisham, Eltham, Islington and many other place names in Inner London.

-ENDS-

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2 Responses to London – Saxon London

  1. Keir says:

    This is a great resource, thank you. I’m trying to find out when (approximately) the word Lundenburgh dropped out of use and London (or Lundin or whichever variant) took over. Any idea?

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    • Your question is a very interesting one. Every reference book which discusses the subject of Lundenburgh seeks to explain the origins but the writers never complete the story by effectively answering your very obvious question. I will attempt to set the record straight and try to answer it myself but I should add that the thoughts below are solely my own because I have never seen any reference which answers your question either.

      As far as we understand the early history of Lundenwic (which only came to light in 1985), the Saxons settled to the west of what had once been the old walled Roman settlement of Londinium – a name presumably created by the Romans. The name Lundenwic must have been used by the Saxons who found out that the nearby walled township was named Londinium. The Saxon settlement was therefore along the Strand but most of the port continued in what we would call the City – along the riverfront beside what is now Lower Thames Street and Upper Thames Street.

      In AD 886 Alfred the Great drove the Danes out of the City and re-established the township around St Paul’s Cathedral, creating docks at Queenhithe and Billingsgate. It must, therefore, have been from that time onwards that the name Lindenwic fell out of use. That settlement must have become the ‘Old Village’ – hence the name Aldwych. It is only since the 1980s that archaeologists have discovered that the City then became called Lundenburgh.

      After 1066 (and all that), the City lived in by Saxons was to become the City lived in by Normans. No doubt many of the Saxon residents remained but there was a change to the Norman way of life. We know that French then became an established language and, of course, there would have been little regard for the ‘old ways’ and the ‘old names’. Therefore, it is likely that ‘Lundenburgh’ as a name soon fell out of use and ‘London’ or something similar replaced it.

      I hope my archaeological friends at the Museum of London would agree with the above paragraphs.

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