Saxons and Vikings: Before the Norman Conquest

King Edward sits on his throne in the Palace of Westminster in this depiction from the Bayeux Tapestry. His decision to rebuild Cnut’s old palace and to create a magnificent new abbey transformed Westminster from a swampy island beside the Thames to a royal and religious place of national importance.

In the 10th century King Alfred the Great re-occupied what had been for the previous four centuries a largely abandoned town. Despite Alfred’s efforts, London continued to be under constant threat from Vikings until it eventually succumbed to the Danish King Cnut.

King Alfred took control of London from the Vikings in the 870s but thereafter the town stood on the border between the Kingdom of Wessex and the Viking territory of Danelaw. Edward the Elder continued to win territory from the Danes and expand his kingdom, Essex being captured in 913. Further gains were made by his son Athelstan, who was crowned at the ‘King’s Stone’ at Kingston-Upon-Thames in 925, and able to make the claim on his coins of being the ‘King of All Britain’.

Athelstan used London to hold royal councils and to issue laws. There was one fixed monetary system for the entire Anglo-Saxon kingdom, although coins were produced at many different places, with eight mints in London alone compared with Winchester’s six, indicating a greater level of trade in the former. In King Edgar’s Law of around 960 it stated that everyone should maintain “one standard of measurement and one standard weight…as is observed in London and Winchester”.

Without the threat of attack, London flourished as a port. Wine merchants from Rouen settled around the present Vintners Place and Germanic merchants at Dowgate, probably during the reign of Edgar. By then the town was divided into twenty wards, each headed by an ‘ealderman’, and with a ‘portreeve’, assisted by ‘bailiffs’, responsible for collecting taxes. In the countryside these officials were ‘shire reeves’, the origin of the word ‘sheriff’. The shire-reeve was the King’s representative to ensure payments were made, announce royal proclamations and ensure that any royal decisions were carried out. A court was held twice each year at every hundred (a division of a county), at which the tithingmen would report all misdeeds to the sheriff or presiding bailiff who would then make decisions on whether a trial should take place.

During the reign of Aethelred II (Aethelred the Unready) Viking attacks on London began again, although the defences remained strong enough to withstand the threats. In order to pacify the Danes Aethelred began to make payments to them in 991 known as ‘danegeld’. Despite this, in 994 there was a raid by a joint force of 94 Viking boats led by Sweyn Forkbeard, son of the Danish king, and the Norwegian Olaf Tryggvason, but London had created its own militia and was able to drive back a blockade.

At some point after the late Roman period the original London Bridge probably collapsed so for around 600 years there was no dry crossing of the river. It was some time in the late 10th century that a new wooden bridge was built. The purpose of the structure was probably less to do with crossing the river than to create a barrier beyond which invading ships were prevented from passing and this defence may have been a critical factor in saving London from the Viking raid by Sweyn Forkbeard’s ships in 994. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle records that the progress of a Danish fleet was halted by the bridge when it came up from Greenwich in 1013, although only with partial success as they managed to dig a channel around its southern end to drag their ships beyond.

The bridge perhaps also created an obstacle to trading ships, which had previously berthed at Queenhithe, upstream of its position, and a new dock was opened immediately downstream at Billingsgate. The bridge once again created a dry crossing point over the river and thus the town was firmly established as a nucleus of roads for any north-south land travel. These points planted the seeds for the continuous growth and importance of London throughout the Middle Ages.

At the beginning of the 11th century London was under constant threat from attack. In 1013 Sweyn Forkbeard, then King of Denmark, and his son Cnut Sveynsson led an army that attacked London, although part of the Viking forces drowned attempting to cross the Thames. Aethelred and the town’s inhabitants were caught inside a blockade, together with the Viking Thorkell the Tall who had apparently changed sides after witnessing the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury Alphege by his comrades at Greenwich the previous year. After a long siege Aethelred fled to Normandy and the remaining inhabitants surrendered to Sweyn, who briefly became the King of England.

Aethelred formed an alliance with Olaf Haraldsson, King of Norway and an enemy of Sweyn, and returned the following year in an attempt to recapture London and the English Crown. One of London’s most famous legends is recorded in the Heimskringla Sagas, written by the early-13th century Icelandic poet and historian Snorri Sturluson. He recounted that Olaf’s army reached London and found Southwark and the bridge were heavily defended. They therefore tied their ships to the wooden piles and, using the tide, dislodged and destroyed the bridge, with many of its defenders drowned. With little further evidence of the event it is impossible to know of its truth but it is possible that this is the origin of the rhyme London Bridge is Falling Down. The town was recaptured and became Aelfred’s base thereafter. While in England Olaf converted to Christianity. Shortly after his death in 1030 Olaf was canonised for bringing Christianity to his kingdom of Norway and is now the patron saint of that country. Six churches were built in London and Southwark in his memory during the Middle Ages, of which St. Olave in Hart Street remains. (It was badly damaged during the Second World War. King Haakon of Norway laid a refoundation stone when it was rebuilt).