The birth of the City of London


The Saxon race which harassed the Slavic tribes in Europe had also caused problems to Celtic Britons after departure of the last Roman legions from the British Isles in 410 CE. Already in Roman times the Saxons were used by the Roman generals as auxiliary forces. Contrary to the popular belief that the Angles and Saxons invaded British Isles, they were in fact invited by the Britons. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says clearly that in “449. In this year Mauricius and Valentian obtained the kingdom and reigned seven years. In their days, Hengest and Horsa, invited by Vortigern, King of Britons, came to Britain at a place which is called Ypwines fleot [Ebbsfleet] at first to help Britons, but later they fought against them. They then sent to Angeln, ordered [them] to send more aid and to be told of the worthlessness of the Brittons and of the excellence of the land. They then sent them more aid. These men came from three nations: from the Old Saxons, from the Angles, [and] from the Jutes.”21 According to Historia Brittonum ('History of the Britons'), written in 830 and attributed to a Welsh monk called Nennius, a heroic Romano-British warrior by name of Arthur fought against the Saxons “with all the kings and military men in Britain” giving later rise to a legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.22

By 500, the whole of eastern England, including Londinium, was under Anglo-Saxon control. With the influx of German barbarians, the Roman culture with its laws, administration and language was slowly extinguishing on the British Isles although attempts to live a form of Roman civic life persisted around early Christian churches such as those at St Albans, Lincoln, and Cornhill in Londinium. As the Anglo-Saxons were not familiar with cities, they left Londinium virtually half-abandoned. An Anglo-Saxon poet wrote at a time: “Wondrous is this wall-stone, Broken by fate, the castles have decayed, The work of giants is crumbling.”23 The Popes in Rome sent missionaries to the British Isles to spread the word of God and extend ecclesiastical authority. In 431, a deacon from Gaul by name of Palladius was sent by Pope Celestine to Ireland. He was the “first bishop to the Scotti believing in Christ",24 yet his name was overshadowed by the life and mission of a famous Romano-British missionary by name of Patrick. Born in 385, a son of decurion and deacon, Patrick was, according to his autobiographical Confessio, captured by Irish pirates when he was 16 from his home in Britain. He spent six years as a slave to Ireland, developing strong relationship with God, before fleeing back to Britain. Few years later he received a vision of a man called Victoricus who delivered him a letter headed “The Voice of the Irish.” As he read it, he seemed to hear a certain company of Irish beseeching him to walk once more among them. Patrick had thus returned to Ireland as a Christian missionary, and claimed to have "baptised thousands of people".25 By the seventh century, he would be revered as the patron saint of Ireland. In 597, Pope Gregory I sent another missionary from Rome, a Benedictine monk named Augustine. When he landed on the south coast of Britain with his companions including Mellitus he was welcomed by Bertha, the Frankish Christian princess married to Ethelbert, King of Kent. Ethelbert was converted to Christianity by Augustine at Canterbury and afterwards Augustine remained there; thus it was that Canterbury became the seat of the archbishopric. Mellitus was then consecrated bishop by Augustine and left Canterbury for Londinium in 604 where he established a cathedral dedicated to St Paul.26 The cathedral was built on a site of a former Roman Temple dedicated to Diana, goddess of the moon, the hunt and the wilderness, and twin sister of Apollo, God of archery, music and divination, and patron saint of seafearing people. A monk and scholar from Northumbria named Bede spent many years recording the history of conversion of the Anglo-Saxon tribal kings and warriors into Christianity. He wrote about 40 books on theology and history but he also had special interest in science and numbers. Not only did he define for the future the Church's method for the calculation of Easter, but he also popularised the practice of dating forward from the birth of Christ (Anno Domini – in the year of our Lord), invented by a Scythian monk, Dionysius Exiguus, a practice which eventually became commonplace in medieval Europe. His major work Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) was completed in 731 and became a major source of social and political history of Anglo-Saxon Britain, making Bede “Father of English History”.

Steadily, seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms emerged in the British Isles: Kent, East Anglia, Sussex, Mercia, Northumbria, Essex, and Wessex. By the end of the eighth century, these kingdoms faced a new threat, the Vikings. They were the pirates who came from Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Known as Ascomanni ("ashmen") by the Germans for the ash wood of their boats, Dubgail and Finngail ("dark and fair foreigners") by the Irish, Lochlannach ("lake person") by the Gaels and Dene (Dane) by the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings were raiding the European shores often penetrating deep into the interior through the rivers, plundering the land or trading their iron for furs, wax or women. They eventually reached such far flung places as Greenland, North America or Byzantium. To the north of Britain, the Vikings took over and settled Iceland, the Faroes and Orkney, and in Ireland they founded the cities of Dublin, Cork and Limerick. Those Norsemen were also probably responsible for the disappearance of the Picts, who inhabited northern parts of the British Isles. In their place came the Scots, who were the descendants of immigrants from Ireland in the fifth and sixth centuries. Under King Cináed mac Alpín (Kenneth MacAlpine), they promoted themselves as the kings of all those in northern Britain. In England, the Vikings took over Northumbria, East Anglia and parts of Mercia. In 866, they captured the previous Roman settlement, Eboracum and changed its name to Jorvik (today's York), making it their capital and then continued to press south and west. The Vikings managed to conquer most of the Anglo-Saxon territory except for the the Kingdom of Wessex with its capital in Winchester, which was in the south part of the river Thames and which was defended by Alfred and his brother Aethelred, king of Wessex. In 886, after many battles, Alfred, who succeeded his brother as king of Wessex, wrestled London back from the Vikings and negotiated a peace treaty. England was to be divided with the north and the east, between the Rivers Thames and Tees, declared to be Danish territory, later known as the 'Danelaw', with the rest of the country under Alfred's rule. In view of the persistent Viking threat, Alfred, later known as Alfred the Great, ordered reoccupation and re-fortification of London and started unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into the kingdom of England with its capital in London. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that at this point "all of the English people (all Angelcyn) not subject to the Danes submitted themselves to King Alfred.”

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21 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Eeveryman edn., London 1953); quoted in Davies, The Isles, p. 165 »

22 Nennius, History of the Britons (Historia Brittonum), Translated by J.A. Giles (Publications Medieval Latin Series, Cambridge, Ontario, 2000), p. 23 »

23 Webb, Life in Roman London, p. 134 »

24 Entry for AD 431, Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine »

25 Confession of St Patrick, Part 50, Christian Classics Ethereal Library of St Patrick, Part 50, Christian Classics Ethereal Library »

26 Ann Saunders, St Paul's. The Story of The Cathedral (London: Collins & Brown, 2001), p. 13 »