London Walks pen & Daily Constitutional Special Correspondent David writes…
It’s over half a millennium of London’s history, thirty percent of the total – and yet most people are completely at, er, sea with it.
It’s the dark ages.
Everybody knows about the Romans. And the Normans and Plantagenets and Tudors and so on.
But the Anglo-Saxons? They’re just not there.
But they are here.
Here because so much of our London is erected on Anglo-Saxon foundations. The Anglo-Saxons are the skull beneath the face so to speak.
Much of London’s street pattern, for example. Its social and local organisational structures – wards, parishes, etc.
Even the guilds – their DNA is Anglo-Saxon. Take the word weregild, for example.
Don’t know what it means, do you? Except you do. Because you know what a werewolf is. A man-wolf. So were means man. And gild? Well, it’s cognate with gold and gild and gilded and guild. It meant worth or price. Weregild. Manprice.
Went back to the Anglo-Saxon justice system. Everybody – man, woman and child – had a weregild. The king’s was the highest. A slave’s the lowest. And it was adjustable. An 18-year-old had a higher weregild than an eight year old.
If grievous – seriously grievous – bodily harm was done – if one Anglo-Saxon killed another Anglo-Saxon, the assailant had to pay the victim’s family the weregild of the victim. It was a bid to nip in the bud any developing McCoy-Hatfield feuds. I kill him. His brother kills me. My brother kills his brother. And on it goes.
Weregild. But there, in essence, you have social cooperation and justice and value and price and commodity valuation. That’s the mediaeval guilds in embryo. And on from that right down to our London.
Now what’s this have to do with the naughty boys in the long ships?
They’re Vikings of course. The most terrifying warriors in the world – well, in this part of the world, anyway – for hundreds of years. They came across the North Sea, down the Channel, up the Thames. They’d anchor at Greenwich Reach. And wait for the tide to turn. And then when it did they’d come down on (well, up on) London like the wolf on the fold. Imagine being out for a walk beside the river on an autumn day and seeing a couple of hundred of those vessels powering up your river. That’s the most terrifying sight you’ll ever see. And it’ll be close enough to the last thing you’ll ever see. Because in a matter of minutes they’re going to be ashore. Going to kill you. After they’ve raped you, if you’re a woman.
The Vikings weren’t just ferocious warriors. They were also far and away the best sea-farers of the age. Their long ships were things of terrifying beauty. So skilfully built and sailed they’d all but come right up out of the water – skim along the surface. They came so fast they’d be on you – you’d smell them – almost before you saw them.
The London they came to was the London of our Covent Garden and the Strand. It was called Lundenwich. Wich or wych means harbour or port or market. The foreshore there was a long, gently sloping affair. A perfect place for the Anglo-Saxons – who in any case weren’t city dwellers – to hold a river market. It was easy for them to drag their flat bottomed vessels up that gently sloping foreshore.
And easy for the Vikings to ram their long ships ashore, jump out, rape, pillage, plunder, murder.
Finally, in the 9th century, Alfred the Great – the only English monarch to have that appellation – said, “do we really need to play host to these visitors from Stockholm every 20 years?” (That’s a very rough paraphrase but you get the idea.)
In any case it was a rhetorical question. He asked it. And he answered it. Answered it with a resounding “no.”
And thereupon took the decision to relocate London. To move Lundenwich from the Strand-Covent Garden area downstream to the site of the old Roman city, Londinium.
Relocate it and rename it: Lundenburgh. Lundenburgh means: fortified London.
Remember, the Romans had built a wall around London. And they’d built it on hills – two hills, Cornhill and Ludhill – because a hill is a militarily defensible proposition. And there was a river to the west – the Fleet river. That provided a natural defensive barrier to the west – just as the Thames did to the south – and into the bargain a harbour. There was a small stream to the east. No more than a stream, but it was a barrier of sorts. And to the north was ground that was marshy, it came to be known as moorfields. That too had defensive characteristics. It’s difficult to march an attacking army through a swamp. Finally, the Thames in Londinium – in marked contrast to Lundenwich – had steep, vertical banks. Steep vertical banks that amounted to a wall. Difficult – more than difficult, impossible – to ram a long ship ashore.
There’s one other feature that was equally important but is very little known. The rule of thumb with rivers is they get narrower the further upstream you go. That wasn’t true at Londinium (or Lundenburg) though. The Thames had a kind of waist there. It was narrower there than it was further upstream. That waist provided a natural choke point on the main invasion route – the river. Fortify both sides and you could choke off an invasion. And what’s the ancient name of the district directly across the river from The City, from Lundenburg? The Borough. Borough…Burg (or Burgh)…Londonburg. Same word. Fortified place.
So London, which had migrated upstream to the Covent Garden district was back where the Romans had originally founded it.
And those guys in the long ships were the reason.
That’s why in my teaser – the Tweet I sent out about this post a couple of days ago – I said, “Our London just ahead. These guys ‘made it.’ Extraordinary to think. Piece coming up this weekend on our blog that explains how so.”
I meant, “yeah, they’re just a few miles from London – and they’ve ‘made it’ all the way from Norway and Sweden.” But “our London just ahead” also meant our London “stems from” this event. Or series of events. The Vikings “made it” by forcing Alfred’s hand. Forcing him to relocate London.
Here endeth the history lesson.
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