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Following the virtual abandonment of the Roman city, the area's strategic location on the River Thames meant that the site was not deserted for long. From the late 5th century, Anglo-Saxons began to inhabit the area.
There is almost no reliable evidence about what happened in the London area during the Sub-Roman or so-called "Dark Ages" period from around 450 to 600. Although early Anglo-Saxon settlement avoided the area immediately around Londinium, there was occupation on a small scale of much of the hinterland on both sides of the river. There is no contemporary literary evidence, but the area must for some time have been an active frontier between the Anglo-Saxons and the Britons.
Early Anglo-Saxon settlement in the London area was not on the site of the abandoned Roman city, although the Roman city walls remained intact. Instead, by the 7th century a village and trading centre named Lundenwic was established approximately 1 mile (1.6 km) to the west of Londinium (named Lundenburh, or 'London Fort', by the Anglo-Saxons), probably using the mouth of the River Fleet as a trading ship and fishing boat harbour.
In the early 8th century, Lundenwic was described by the Venerable Bede as "a trading centre for many nations who visit it by land and sea." The Old English term wic or 'trading town' ultimately derived from the Latin word vicus, so Lundenwic meant 'London trading town'.
Archaeologists were for many years puzzled as to where early Anglo-Saxon London was located, as they could find little evidence of occupation within the Roman city walls from this period. However in the 1980s, London was 'rediscovered', after extensive independent excavations by archaeologists Alan Vince and Martin Biddle were reinterpreted as being of an urban character. Recent excavations in the Covent Garden area have uncovered an extensive Anglo-Saxon settlement that dates back to the 7th century. The excavations show that the settlement covered about 600,000 square metres (6,500,000 sq ft), stretching from the present-day National Gallery site in the west to Aldwych in the east.
By about 600, Anglo-Saxon England had become divided into a number of small kingdoms within what eventually became known as the Heptarchy. From the mid-6th century, London was incorporated into the Kingdom of Essex, which extended as far west as St Albans and for a period included Middlesex and Surrey.
In 604, Sæbert of Essex was converted to Christianity and London received Mellitus, its first post-Roman bishop. At this time Essex owed allegiance to Æthelberht of Kent and it was under Æthelberht that Mellitus founded the first cathedral of the East Saxons, which is traditionally said to be on the site of an old Roman Temple of Diana, although the 17th century architect Sir Christopher Wren found no evidence of this. The original building would have only been a modest church at first and it may well have been destroyed after Mellitus was expelled from the city by Saeberht's pagan successors in 616. Christianity did not return to London until around 675, when the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus, installed Eorconweald as bishop.
London suffered attacks from Vikings, which became increasingly common from around 830 onwards. It was attacked in 842 in a raid that was described by a chronicler as "the great slaughter". In 851, another raiding party, reputedly involving 350 ships, came to plunder the city.
In 865, the Viking Great Heathen Army launched a large scale invasion of the small kingdom of East Anglia. They overran East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria and came close to controlling most of Anglo-Saxon England. By 871 they had reached London and they are believed to have camped within the old Roman walls during the winter of that year. Although it is unclear what happened during this time, London may have come under Viking control for a period.
In 878, West Saxon forces led by Alfred the Great defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Ethandun and forced their leader Guthrum to sue for peace. The Treaty of Wedmore and the later Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum divided England and created the Danish controlled Danelaw.
English rule in London was restored by 886. Alfred quickly set about establishing fortified towns or burhs across southern England to improve his kingdom's defences: London was no exception. Within ten years, the settlement within the old Roman walls was re-established, now known as Lundenburh. The old Roman walls were repaired and the defensive ditch was re-cut. This changes effectively marked the beginning of the present City of London, the boundaries of which are still to some extent defined by its ancient city walls.
As the focus of Lundenburh was moved back to within the Roman walls, the original Lundenwic was largely abandoned and in time gained the name of Ealdwic, 'old settlement', a name which survives today as Aldwych.
10th century London
Alfred appointed his son-in-law Earl Æthelred of Mercia, the heir to the destroyed kingdom of Mercia, as Governor of London and established two defended Boroughs to defend the bridge, which was probably rebuilt at this time. The southern end of the bridge was established as the Southwark or Suthringa Geworc ('defensive work of the men of Surrey'). From this point, the city of London began to develop its own unique local government.
After Æthelred's death, London came under the direct control of English kings. Alfred's son Edward the Elder won back much land from Danish control. By the early 10th century, London had become an important commercial centre. Although the political centre of England was Winchester, London was becoming increasingly important. Æthelstan held many royal councils in London and issued laws from there. Æthelred the Unready favoured London as his capital and issued his Laws of London from there in 978.
The Vikings return
It was during the reign of Æthelred that Vikings resumed their raids, led by Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark. London was attacked unsuccessfully in 994, but numerous raids followed. In 1013, London underwent a long siege and Æthelred was forced to flee abroad. Sweyn died, but his son Cnut continued the attacks and the following year the Vikings overran the city.
Æthelred returned with his ally the Norwegian king Olaf and reclaimed London. A Norse saga tells of a battle during the Viking occupation where the English king Æthelred returned to attack Viking-occupied London. According to the saga, the Danes lined London Bridge and showered the attackers with spears. Undaunted, the attackers pulled the roofs off nearby houses and held them over their heads in the boats. Thus protected, they were able to get close enough to the bridge to attach ropes to the piers and pull the bridge down, defeat the Vikings and ending the occupation of London. There is some speculation that the nursery rhyme "London Bridge is Falling Down" stems from this incident.
Following Æthelred's death in 1016, his son Edmund Ironside was declared king. The Vikings returned and again placed London under siege. Initially, the city's defenders were able to hold back the invaders, but Edmund was eventually forced to share power with Cnut. After Edmund's death, Cnut became the sole king of England. He was succeeded briefly by his sons, Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut, after which the Saxon line was restored when Cnut's stepson Edward the Confessor became king in 1042.
The city prior to the Norman invasion
Following Edward's death, no clear heir was apparent and his cousin, Duke William of Normandy, claimed the throne. The English Witenagemot met in the city and elected Edward's brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson, as king: Harold was crowned in Westminster Abbey. William, outraged by this, then invaded England.
- Billings, Malcolm (1994), London: a companion to its history and archaeology, ISBN 1-85626-153-0
- Inwood, Stephen. A History of London (1998) ISBN 0-333-67153-8
- Reassessing what we collect website – Anglo-Saxon London History of Anglo-Saxon London with objects and images