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Chronicles of Old London
Exploring England's Historic Capital
By Kevin Jackson
Museyon, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Kevin Jackson
All rights reserved.
BOUDICCA REVOLTS AGAINST THE ROMANS; LONDINIUM BURNS
The area of land now occupied by London was once seabed; fossils of ancient marine life from the Upper Jurassic period can be found in the local stone. When the waters finally retreated, they left a broad, shallow valley, made up of marshes and mud flats, streams and small rivers — and one great river. The Thames, broader and shallower in its early days, ran from the heart of England to the North Sea. About 5,000 years ago, Southern English tribes began to gather in greater numbers at a particular spot on the Thames, about 40 miles inland, where the water was shallow enough to be forded with ease. They practiced trade and they learned to work iron and bronze. Merchants came from Spain and Gaul, and possibly as far away as the eastern Mediterranean. Next, Celtic tribes moved in to the growing city and gradually developed a culture of astonishing complexity and stability. A new city began to thrive, born from commerce, but cursed to suffer a thousand years of invasion, rebellion, blood and death.
London enters the written record in 54 B.C., when Julius Caesar, anxious to subdue Gaul, decided that it was time to claim "Britannia" for Rome, base a powerful army there and so secure the flanking area across the English Channel, while extending Roman hegemony further still. His armies — 2,000 cavalry and five legions, each consisting of thousands of men — landed at Deal, in what is today the county of Kent. He was met with keen resistance from an army headed by a local king, Cassivellaunus, but in the end the natives were no match for the discipline of the mighty Roman army. Caesar found the London fording point, crossed the Thames and forced the Britons to make an ignominious retreat.
It took a second Roman invasion, in 43 A.D., to fully secure Londinium for Roman rule — 40,000 legionnaires tore into the native resistance forces from all sides — but only a decade or so after this massacre, the city had settled into a peaceful and increasingly prosperous way of life. The historian Tacitus wrote of it as a city famous for its negotiators — businessmen, traders, merchants. At its center were low structures built of the local clay: smithies, shops, taverns, stores. Some Londoners lived here, but most lived a little further back from the river, mainly in the traditional native round huts. Such idyll proved brief.
On the fringes of the Roman Empire's territory in Southern England, trouble began to brew with the Iceni, an East Anglian tribe allied with the Romans, but not under their rule. That changed when the Iceni king, Prasutagus, died around 60 A.D. To fulfill an agreement with the Roman authorities, Prasutagus left control of his territory to both his daughters and the Roman Empire. The Romans, believing that inheritance could only pass to male heirs, seized the land from Prasutagus's queen, the tall and clever Boudicca (also recorded as Boudica and Boadicea). Legionnaires flogged her and raped her daughters. Hungry for revenge, the angry queen sacked the Roman settlement at Colchester and then marched on London. Since its governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, was away in the North trying to secure the borderlands, Londinium was all but defenseless.
According to Tacitus, the locals were "massacred, hanged, burned and crucified." The total death toll may have been as high as 70,000. The vengeful Boudicca then set fire to the city, burning it to the ground. Archaeologists have discovered a thin layer of red earth spread right across the site of the fire, made up of oxidized metal, burned wood and fired clay. Coins have been found near London Bridge, melted into strange shapes by the inferno. Boudicca's fire was the first of the many that have afflicted the city and by far the worst — her arson was the only one ever to destroy the place entirely.
Returning from the North, the governor's armies put down the revolt; it is not clear whether Boudicca died of illness or after poisoning herself to avoid defeat. The Romans rebuilt Londinium swiftly, and entirely to their own tastes, constructing Roman temples, an amphitheater, a forum and rows of shops and houses laid out in formal squares after the Italian model. (Very few traces of this period remain, the most famous being the ruins of the Temple of Mithras in the City of London.) Once again, trade thrived and the population swelled. By 250 A.D. there were about 30,000 inhabitants, making Londinium by far the largest city in Britannia and the fifth largest Roman settlement north of the Alps.
All went well until the Empire began to crumble. In 286, the senior Roman commander Carausius mutinied and declared Britannia his own kingdom. Seven years later, this coup d'état was put down by the Emperor Constantius Chlorus, who rebuilt the city's defenses against likely attack by Germanic pirates, Picts and other enemies. But Rome's grip was weakening. When Rome itself came under attack by Alaric the Goth early in the fifth century, the Emperor Honorius told Britain that it must now fend for itself.
The period that followed, from 410 A.D. to 1066 A.D., is in large measure a bloody, confusing tale of invasions — some successfully resisted, some overpoweringly strong. At first, there was little in the way of cultural influence from these skirmishes. The first sets of invaders, the Angles and the Saxons — Germanic tribes, who came from the territories that are now Germany and the Netherlands — were semi-nomadic peasant warriors, not all that interested in settled life. Raiders from the North Sea largely killed off what was left of Roman maritime trade, and the city went into an economic decline that lasted for the better part of three centuries. Despite this period of recession, the Angles and Saxons (who inevitably began to intermarry, thus producing the Anglo-Saxons; the period from about 550 to 1066 is usually called the Anglo-Saxon stage of English history) finally began to settle in London and build houses. They also built churches, since, by the start of the seventh century, Christianity had displaced the older religions. A Roman monk, Mellitus, was made Bishop of London and founded a wooden cathedral dedicated to St. Paul. By the time of the Norman Invasion in 1066, London had a hundred parishes, with one church for every three acres.
Trade slowly revived, and by the early eighth century London was once again, as a contemporary writer put it, "the mart of many nations." Britain in general and London in particular were not as highly developed as cities in France and Italy, partly because they were not yet as rich, partly because the land was in many ways provincial — not nearly so open to the innovating forces of trade from which cities on the Continent had benefitted. Still, they were starting to catch up. Above all, London grew steadily richer on the export of wool to the Continent, as it would for centuries. Once again, though, the time of peace and plenty was short-lived. From 834, Vikings began to plague England, and London was a key target for plunder and slaughter. The horrors lasted for two hundred years, and the tide only turned under the rule of King Alfred of Wessex, who reigned from 871-899. In 886, he seized the city from Viking control and turned it into a fortress. He restored the ancient walls that had been breached or simply allowed to fall into ruin, and he rebuilt the quays that had been destroyed by war. He also built a large road, just inside the city walls, which ran from Aldgate to Ludgate; a few traces of it still exist in the modern City district.
More Viking attacks were to come about a century later, but by now London was ready. A massive invasion attempt in 984 was resisted so ferociously that for once the Vikings suffered far more than the Londoners. Subsequent assaults, just as bloody, led to further short-term victories for the Vikings. In the long term, though, London prevailed. When the Danish prince Cnut (Canute) was accepted by Londoners as King of All England in 1016, his crowning was as much a product of tactful diplomacy between him and his Anglo-Saxon equals as of a local surrender to Cnut's superior military forces. Under Cnut, London supplanted Winchester as the capital city of England. The center of trade was now also the national center of power, religion and culture, and it has remained so ever since.
Throughout the early eleventh century, London began to find stability after centuries of recurrent crisis. A system of parish communities grew in the city, building strong social bonds. Trade revived yet again and religious communities were founded. Londoners could feel confident that the terrors and miseries of the last centuries were finally at an end.
They were not.CHAPTER 2
THE DEDICATION OF WESTMINSTER ABBEY
28 DECEMBER 1065
He may have been an albino. He was certainly said to be very pale; also plump, mild mannered, kindly, pious and dangerously weak. Edward of England, known also as "Edward the Confessor," has left few enduring marks. Historians have often been harsh to him, depicting him as a man too preoccupied with religious matters to care much about the good of his realm — more of a monk than a monarch. ("Confessor" signifies a man who lived a saintly life, but was never a churchman or a martyr.) In effect, he was a puppet king, set on the throne of England in April 1043 by a warrior Earl Godwin, who had been the most powerful man in the land for about 24 years. It is doubtful we would remember Edward's name at all were it not for the one great gift he left the nation: Westminster Abbey.
Edward commissioned the Abbey with the intention that it should be his burial place. He eventually had his wish. Though the building, begun sometime between 1043 and 1052, was not completed until 1090, Edward lived just long enough to hear that it had been dedicated, on December 28, 1065; "hear" rather than "see" because he was already too feeble to rise from his sick bed. He died a week later on January 5, 1066, after muttering a hair-raising prophecy of dark times ahead for the kingdom that terrified all but one of his attendants. (The unmoved listener was Archbishop Stigand, who whispered in the ear of Edward's appointed heir Harold II that the poor old man was raving mad.) Edward's remains were buried in the Abbey and are there to this day.
It is possible, however, that Edward was a much less pious and much more vigorous man than he appears in the stories the Church sponsored about him, stories that ultimately led to his being canonized in 1161 by Pope Alexander III. Edward was even the Patron Saint of England, until the adoption of St. George during the Hundred Years' War.
Through the haze of sanctity, glimpses of a decidedly un-saintly head of state sometimes emerge, as when, in 1054, he ordered an army to Scotland to attack a troublesome local warrior named Macbeth. And if Edward was motivated in part by piety to commission the Abbey, he also had good political reasons to flex his regal muscles by ordering a grand monument to his reign; abbeys and monasteries were under royal, not aristocratic, patronage.
The idea of building the Abbey — or, more exactly, of entirely rebuilding the Benedictine foundation that had already existed there — is said to have come to Edward in a dream, which seems fitting, since the ground on which it was built had long been associated with dreams and visions. A document of the eighth century calls it "that terrible place," meaning not that it was disgusting, but that it inspired sensations of holy terror. Legend tells that in the seventh century, on the night before the consecration of the Saxon church of St. Peter on the site, a humble fisherman from the south of the river in Lambeth met St. Peter himself, who asked to be rowed across the Thames. St. Peter stepped inside the new church and at once it was lit up by an intense brilliance, as though a thousand candles were burning. It was the story of St. Peter's visit that inspired the name "West" Minster — as a complement to the East Minster over in the City, devoted to St. Paul. A thousand years later, the London poet William Blake had a vision of monks walking down the central aisle of the Abbey. Perhaps he had gazed back through time and seen the community of Benedictines that was established here by St. Dunstan in 960.
When it came to the design of his monument, Edward, who had been educated by Normans, was deeply influenced by Norman culture: It was his decision that the Abbey should be built in the Norman Romanesque style, of which a major defining feature is the presence of large, semi-circular arches above windows and doors. Westminster Abbey was the first Norman Romanesque church in England; it was very similar in looks to the Abbey at Jumièges, built at roughly the same time.
Almost as soon as Edward died, the Abbey became a building of State as well as Church. Edward had been crowned king in Winchester, the capital city of Wessex, but Harold was crowned in the Abbey, as William of Normandy would be just a few months later. From that point on, the Abbey became the official place of coronations, and often of royal funerals and weddings, too. Edward's Abbey lasted until the reign of Henry III, who in 1245 ordered the church to be rebuilt in the Anglo-Gothic style. Work staggered on as late as 1517, though much of it was completed during the reign of Richard II and under the direction of the great architect Henry Yevele.
Henry III's creation is largely the building we still see today, though subsequent monarchs and architects have chipped in with afterthoughts. In 1503, Henry VII commissioned a chapel in honor of the Virgin Mary; Nicholas Hawksmoor designed two new towers, which weren't built until after his death. The Abbey's fortunes waxed and waned according to the political and religious turbulence of successive ages. From 1540 to 1550, Henry VIII granted it Cathedral status so as to exempt it from his own policy of looting and destroying monastic foundations. Under Mary, the Catholic queen, it was given back to the Benedictines; under Elizabeth it was immediately reclaimed for England and Protestantism.
The clerics and scholars who assembled within its walls made the Abbey the third most important center of learning in England, after Oxford and Cambridge. One of the three teams that worked on the translation of the King James Bible was based here and produced, roughly, the first third of the Old Testament and the last half of the New Testament.
As the Abbey grew central to the nation's ceremonial life, it became the custom to bury the great and the good under its stones — even regicide Oliver Cromwell was initially laid to rest in the Abbey, though his body was later dug up and decapitated. No doubt to the horror of some believers, Charles Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey (April 1882), as suitable company throughout eternity for Sir Isaac Newton (March 1727), who rests nearby.
Excerpted from Chronicles of Old London by Kevin Jackson. Copyright © 2012 Kevin Jackson. Excerpted by permission of Museyon, Inc..
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