The Roman army departed from Britannia in the 5th century. There is only fragmentary evidence of any occupation of the old walled city of London during the following four centuries and we must assume it was largely deserted. A settlement known as Lundenwic developed around what is now Charing Cross under the early Saxons but was unprotected from Viking raids and abandoned. In the latter 9th century the area came under the control of King Alfred of Wessex. The old London was re-awakened and has remained continually inhabited since that time.
When he succeeded his father to the throne of Wessex in 871 at the age of 21 Alfred was already a battle-hardened young man, having spent much of his teenage years fighting the Vikings on land and sea. The first 20 years of his reign was a period of continuous rivalry between Alfred, King Ceolwulf of Mercia, and the Vikings. Wessex – the land of the West Saxons – was in the south-west of England, Mercia in the Midlands, and the Viking territory in the far north of England and down the east coast, but the borders were continually fluctuating.
London was in a strategically important location. Whoever had possession of the town controlled passage along the Thames. Occupation of London and the surrounding area by the three adversaries changed several times. Coins dated in 874-877 for Alfred and minted in London have been discovered while others dated from 877 for Ceowulf also exist.
In 879 King Alfred won a battle against the Vikings at Edington, in what is now Wiltshire. Ceowulf of Mercia died (or at least disappears from any records) in the same year. Faced with a resurgent Alfred, the Vikings retreated east to Essex and a separate army camped at Fulham departed to the Continent. The Viking leader, Guthrum, agreed a treaty with Alfred dividing territory between them. A border was created between the Kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons (in the south and south-west) and the territory of Danelaw (to the north, north-east and east). It formally recognised the area west of the River Lea, including London and the strategically important Watling Street to the north, as belonging to Alfred, and that to the east of the Lea as Guthrum’s land. Both Wessex and Mercia came under Alfred’s control, with his daughter, Aethelfaed, ruling most of the latter.
One of the few events to be contemporarily recorded about London during the entire period between the Romans and early Middle Ages is found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written during Alfred’s reign, for the year 886. “King Alfred occupied London [although in reality he had probably already done so for several years] and all the English people [‘all angelcyn’] that were not under the subjection of the Danes submitted to him. And he then entrusted the borough to the control of Ealdorman Aethelred”. Thus we can understand several points. First, Alfred clearly controlled London, which had become an important defensive as well as trading town on the border with Danelaw. Second, Alfred was the ruler of a Saxon kingdom that included Mercia and Wessex. And lastly (as Alfred had based himself at Winchester) he had delegated control of London to his future son-in-law Aethelred. As Mercia was then controlled by Alfred’s daughter (Aethelred’s wife) it is likely that London – and its income from taxes – had been given to Aethelred as a dowry.
Having taken control of London following his treaty with Guthrum in 879, it was then on the frontier of King Alfred’s Kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons and that of the neighbouring Danes. ‘Monogram’ coins were minted in London, Oxford and Gloucester for a short time in celebration of Alfred’s newly-enlarged kingdom and several have been discovered on the foreshore in the Queenhithe area, indicating that London was once again a Saxon trading town in the early 880s.
King Alfred set about strengthening London’s fortifications. At around the same time that Alfred took control of London he initiated a defensive system across his kingdom in which more than 30 towns were created or adapted, known as ‘burhs’. Each was fortified against attack and supported by a large area of land known as a ‘burghal district’. The inhabitants of the district formed a defensive militia in return for a grant of land measured in ‘hides’. One hide is equal to around 20 acres, being enough land to support a household. A document was produced, most probably at about the time of the creation of the earliest group, called the Burghal Hidage that listed 33 burhs, showing the amount of land within each district. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle describes London in 886 as “Lunden burg” implying it to be one of the fortified towns created by King Alfred, although it is not listed in the Burghal Hidage.
One burh that is listed in the Burghal Hidage is ‘Suthriganaweorg’, meaning ‘defensive work of the men of Surrey’, with a district of 1,800 hides, and this would seem to correspond with Southwark, which had been a former Roman community. As yet there is no further evidence of the existence of a Saxon settlement on the opposite side of the Thames to London. If it existed a further intriguing and unanswered question is whether the old Roman London Bridge still remained to link the two communities.
In order to encourage the town’s development, areas known as ‘sokes’ were granted to religious leaders, noblemen and members of Alfred’s family. Bishop Asser, in his Life of King Alfred of 893, wrote that Alfred “after all the burning of cities and slaughter of people rebuilt London in a splendid manner and made it habitable again”. Exactly how much rebuilding took place in the early years is not certain.