Anglo-Saxon London

The immigrants we call Anglo-Saxons belonged to three Germanic peoples – the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes – who migrated into Britain in the centuries following the Romans’ departure.

Anglo-Saxon helmet

Thirty years after the departure of the Roman legions in 410 AD, a British king called Vortigern asked the Anglo-Saxon chieftains to come over, offering them tribute in return for protection from marauding Scots and Picts. Unfortunately they fell out, and in 457 AD, an Anglo-Saxon force defeated Vortigern’s army at Crecganford (probably Crayford); the British survivors fled to London, presumably for the protection of its walls, while the invaders set up their own kingdom in Kent.

settlement c600AD
map by Hel-hama
(CC BY 3.0)

A wave of Anglo-Saxon settlers followed, but it was a gradual process, over at least a couple of centuries. Though often called an “invasion”, it does not seem for the most part to have been carried out by force. The Anglo-Saxons set up their own kingdoms in the areas they settled, however. At this end of Britain they were mostly Saxon rather than Angle, as reflected by their names: Essex (the East Saxons), Wessex (the West Saxons), Sussex (the South Saxons) and Middlesex (the Middle Saxons). Kent was unusual in being a Jutish kingdom, although its name is Celtic. London lay between them, just as its location had lain between the pre-Roman Celtic tribes, with the River Lea forming the border between Essex and Middlesex, and the Thames separating those from Sussex and Kent.

River Lea, traditional Essex–Middlesex border

With political domination came cultural domination. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes all spoke a Germanic language that evolved into Old English. As rulers, related to the Germanic peoples (Huns, Goths, Franks and the like) who now dominated most of the Continent, their culture and language gradually took over. This does not seem to have been done by force but it wasn’t entirely voluntary either: there was institutional discrimination against the Celts, and that must have been a big factor behind them giving up their Brittonic culture and assimilating into that of the Anglo-Saxons.

Germanic peoples in 5th-century Europe
map by Varoon Arya (CC BY 3.0)

Arguments still rage over this, but it seems that most ethnically White English people have a roughly 2:1 ratio of Brittonic to Anglo-Saxon ancestry, although that ratio may be slightly lower in London and southeast England, and London of course has always been much more ethnically diverse than the rest of England, going back long before modern immigration, so White English Londoners will often have some other ancestry mixed in too.

St Peter's upon Cornhill in 1599, burnt down
in the Great Fire of 1666, replaced by Wren

In London, the Anglo-Saxons set up their own town, Lundenwic, along the Strand in what’s now Covent Garden, calling the walled Roman City Lundenburh – a wic being a trading town while a burh was a fortified town. It’s been suggested that within Lundenburh, the Brittonic and Anglo-Saxon quarters were separate, on the two hills flanking the Walbrook, with Ludgate Hill, on the west side, being Anglo-Saxon, while Cornhill, on the east side, was Brittonic. When the Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity, around 604 AD, they built St Paul’s Cathedral at the top of Ludgate Hill, while Cornhill had a possibly older church at the top, dedicated to St Peter.

The venerable Bede

Writing in 731, England’s venerable chronicler Bede described London as “the mart of many nations resorting to it by sea and land”. So London, a cosmopolitan city under the Romans, remained so under the Anglo-Saxons. Many of London’s outer neighbourhoods, including Croydon, Wembley and Walthamstow, also date back as villages to Anglo-Saxon times, as shown by Londonist’s Anglo-Saxon map.

Alfred the Great (1790)
by Samuel Woodforde

The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms vied for control of London. From the mid-sixth century it was held by Essex, but at the beginning of the seventh, Essex came under the domination of Kent’s king Ethelbert (Æthelberht). From around 670, it was the kingdom of Mercia that held London, with Wessex moving in to contest that at the end of the eighth century. By that time, however, all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were in retreat from a new set of invaders, the Viking Danes. In 851, during a war against Wessex and Mercia, 350 Danish ships sailed up the Thames and sacked London. In 886, Wessex’s cake-burning king Alfred the Great retook the city, and set about getting it rebuilt, not only in the old wic (the Aldwych, as we now say), but in the walled burh too, which had increasingly become seen as a place of greater safety from Danish raids.

Battle of London Bridge
(woodcut by Morris
Meredith Williams)

When Alfred’s grandson Athelstan finally united the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to form the Kingdom of England in 927, London was not its capital (it’s debatable whether England really had a fixed capital, but if it did, it was Winchester). Meanwhile the Danes tried to retake London in 1009 and 1013, and succeeded in 1014. England’s king Ethelred the Unready came back with Norwegian allies (Vikings vs Vikings) but they couldn’t sail up the river because the city’s defenders were showering missiles down on them from London Bridge. Using roof tiles as shields however, the English and Norwegians managed to tie ropes around the bridge’s piers and pull it down, supposedly the origin of the rhyme “London Bridge is falling down”.

Westminster Abbey

England’s last Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor had a new palace and Abbey built upstream, by the ancient ford at Westminster, then an island, but by the time the Abbey was consecrated in 1065, Anglo-Saxon rule was near its end. When the Normans got to London the following year and demanded recognition of their takeover, the city demanded acceptance of its autonomy in return. That recognition was given to the walled city, which is why the City of London still has so many anachronistic rights. But of course London has since expanded well beyond the bounds of old Lundenburh, so surely it’s now time that London’s ancient rights were extended to the whole of the modern city within the orbital motorway wall that encloses it today.