Book 1, Ch. 1: From the Romans to the Conquest

A New History of London Including Westminster and Southwark. Originally published by R Baldwin, London, 1773.

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John Noorthouck, 'Book 1, Ch. 1: From the Romans to the Conquest', in A New History of London Including Westminster and Southwark( London, 1773), British History Online [accessed 15 July 2024].

John Noorthouck, 'Book 1, Ch. 1: From the Romans to the Conquest', in A New History of London Including Westminster and Southwark( London, 1773), British History Online, accessed July 15, 2024,

John Noorthouck. "Book 1, Ch. 1: From the Romans to the Conquest". A New History of London Including Westminster and Southwark. (London, 1773), , British History Online. Web. 15 July 2024.

In this section


Containing the History.

CHAP. I. History of London from the earliest accounts of it under the Romans, to the Norman conquest.

Aretrospect into the events of past times, resembles in some measure, a prospect through a fog; the more remote the objects are, the more indistinct they appear, and the more liable they are to be mistaken, from the impurities of the medium through which they are viewed; until at length they are totally lost to the most acute fight. With regard to the history of this island, the more desirous we are of tracing our antiquity backward, the more are we exposed to the danger of being misled by the delusive lights held out to us in monkish tales and the reveries of ignorance: nor are the misrepresentations of better-informed writers, more favourable to the true knowledge of recent times. Indeed there are strong temptations for writers to desire the shelter of a party; as an able advocate thus secures the approbation of one class of readers, while a man who maintains that character of impartiality which all assume, stands the unwelcome chance of giving occasional disgust on every side. However, when we duly consider the imperfections of human nature, we shall readily admit that even right purposes have often been prosecuted by wrong means; and if a just censure of these in history, requires any apology, a regard to truth is the best that can be offered. The ultimate judge on such occasions must be—every reader for himself.

Had the transactions and events of unlettered ages been transmitted down to us with tolerable certainty, they would not have been interesting enough to claim much attention: they flowed from no fixed systems of policy, nor were they extensive or lasting in their consequences. The ties of morality and social obligations, were not then strong enough to include any great numbers of people, needy and barbarous, because ignorant; what societies then existed were small, and so detached and independent, as to view each other only with an eye to rapine; and the stronger seldom overlooked an opportunity to plunder and destroy the weaker: the state of nature, or natural society, whatever poetical philosophers may maintain, being only a state of brutal violence. The situation of things when Julius Cæsar first landed on our unhospitable shores, justifies this representation; nor did our ancestors attain knowledge and civilization at an easier purchase than by a hard subjection under four severe masters, the Romans, Saxons, Danes, and Normans; and the present inhabitants of England are a mixture of all these several interlopers with the original natives.

The limits we have prescribed to this Work, will not allow entering into an examination of exploded fabulous stories recorded of the ancient Britons, with the origin and incredible antiquity attributed to the city of London; neither would such unnecessary tedious discussions prove agreeable to those readers whose desire of information leads them to require such relations only, as are authenticated by the concurrent testimony of writers, without engaging themselves in the labour of discrimination.

It has long been thought a vain expectation to find certainty in any relations of the affairs of Britain previous to the arrival of Julius Cæsar, who gives the first account that can be depended on of this island: and the scarcity of historical materials relating to London during the residence of the Romans here, subjects historians to great difficulty and uncertainty. The casual discovery of an inscription on a stone or a coin, so far obliterated as to require the aid of conjecture to furnish a meaning to it; an equivocal ruin, or meerly the shape and dimensions of a brick; are among the precarious evidences on which historical events are founded, until we arrive at more settled times, which afford us existing monuments and a series of positive records.

The present name London, by which the metropolis of England has been long distinguished, is variously derived by the ingenuity of antiquarians (fn. 1) : but there is little dependance to be had on their combinations of names; for by the latitude assumed of altering, adding, or substracting letters, and upon occasion calling in two or three languages to expound the syllables, as best suits the hypothesis they set out in the establishment of; any name may be made to signify any thing.

It is nevertheless as true, that the names of all places had some origin, as that the original appellations are seldom transmitted down from rude ages, without being so much corrupted as to render their etymology very uncertain, if not totally inexplicable. Such appears to have been the fate of the term London; but that our readers may have sufficient choice for their own determination, to the conjectures mentioned in the note below, may be added that to which Mr. Maitland gives the preference so far as to decide positively on it. He derives it from the ancient Gaelic or Erse language, still spoken by the Irish, and the Scots Highlanders; in which Lon signifies a plain, and Dun or Don, an eminence or hill, than which he observes no denomination can better suit the city of London. Tacitus, who knew London well, calls it Londinium, copia negociatorum et commeatu maxime celeberrimum; London famous for its merchants and merchandise (fn. 2). Hence it appears that however the Romans came by a name not explicable in their language, we can with some degree of certainty trace it thus far, and beyond that there are plenty of old British significations to choose out of; in which every one must be left to his own judgment or fancy.

It has already been observed that the earliest account of this country that merits regard, is given by that illustrious Roman Julius Cæsar, who in his celebrated Commentaries relates his two expeditions across the channel from Gaul to Britain. By the particulars he records of the natives, they appear to have had some resemblance to the present North American Indians; only with rather more acquaintance with the arts suited to their wild way of living. They were a fierce people, little accustomed to agriculture, were cloathed with skins, subsisted on milk and flesh, dwelt in rude huts, and shifted their habitations as conveniency of pasturage, hope of plunder, or fear of enemies prompted them.

Under these circumstances established towns and commercial cities are scarcely to be expected; and we may safely argue from Cæsar's silence respecting any town where London now stands, though the country about it was the theatre of his principal transactions here; that if it existed at all, it was of no consideration at that time. A situation so advantageous, did not however, remain long neglected; for in Nero's reign, about an hundred years after, it appears to have been a place of consequence, though rather as a town of trade, than as a military colony; and inhabited jointly by Britons and Romans.

The civil wars among the Romans allowed the Britons some respite after Cæsar's second expedition, which had procured little more than a simple acknowledgment of the Roman authority here. In the reign of Claudius, however, they resumed the intention of making a total reduction of the island, and Plautius an experienced commander was sent over hither, where he gained some advantages; Claudius himself followed, and received the submission of those nations which inhabited the south-east parts of the country. With these nations alliances were formed, with a view of detaching them from other British states, and when occasion offered, of engaging the former to assist in subduing the latter. To establish the Roman power still farther, their policy was to colonize wherever they conquered, rewarding their veterans thus at the expence of their enemies, and thereby engaging them to support that power by which they obtained and held their possessions. The conquered countries were thus also improved by the introduction of the Roman laws, arts, and manners; the capital of every colony resembled the mother city Rome, and the elegance of the Roman improvements made their authority be more easily admitted. Among the rest, London and Verulam were created municipia or free cities, by which grant, the privileges of Roman citizens were conferred on the inhabitants: these soon increased amazingly in number, and by the distinction they enjoyed were strongly attached to the Roman government. Accordingly we find that in the great revolt of the Britons under Queen Boadicea, the Britons directed their vengeance principally against these two cities, where they are recorded to have slaughtered seventy thousand of the citizens.

This insurrection was excited by the oppressive taxes imposed by these rapacious conquerors. One of these was on pasture grounds, or rather on the cattle that fed on them. This tax was called scriptura, because the collectors of it visited the pastures, took lists of all the cattle in writing, and demanded a certain sum for each beast according to the prescribed rate. This tax proved very oppressive to the Britons; for, as they abounded in cattle, and were destitute of money, they were obliged either to sell some of their cattle to pay the tax, or borrow money from the wealthy Romans at an exorbitant interest. The famous moralist Seneca is on this occasion said to have lent the distressed Britons, the prodigious sum of three hundred and twenty thousand pounds; and, that his demanding the payment of his money with rigour, contributed among other things to this great revolt (fn. 3).

The first notices of London, being thus ascertained, we shall for a while suspend the prosecution of the history, in order to point out its original situation and boundaries.

When the Romans came first into this island, they landed near Dover, and from thence proceeded toward the city, raising their military ways, and at every ten miles distance fixing their stations or camps.

Their approach was by several ways both on the right hand and left, as will appear from the following observations. 1. A Roman camp was found near Farnborow, a village within a few miles of Bromley in Kent, and about 16 miles distant from London. 2. At Peckham of late years was dug up in the middle of the high-way a famous glass Roman urn; which kind of urns are scarce and not commonly seen. 3. Much about the same time, not far from St. Thomas Watering, in a garden near the road was dug up an ancient Janus's head in marble. 4. Many other Roman antiquities have been found on the edge of Black-Heath. 5. On the left hand of Kent-street in the road to London, in the garden ground, (which was a Roman military way, and is commonly made use of upon an extraordinary cavalcade, as it was particularly upon the entrance of King Charles II. at his return from Holland, and at such time is laid open,) they found in digging, several Roman antiquities, with many of their coins both in silver and brass.

The first thing the Roman general had principally to take care of, was to fix his camp and secure the army, which after their first landing on this side, was about the middle of the street now called Bush-lane, where he pitched his tent, which was paved, as was customary among the Roman generals, and was encompassed about by the soldiers both horse and foot. This pavement was dug up sometime after the dreadful fire of London, and part of it is now to be seen in the Musæum of the Royal Society. The next care the Romans took to secure themselves in their new conquests, was by making publick military ways, as that of Watling-street, which extended from the Tower to Ludgate in a direct line; at the ends of which for their better security they built citadels as we now call them, or, as they were stiled by them, stations; one of which, without dispute, was what now goes by the name of the Tower, though this is not to be understood of the Tower as it appears at this day, but only of that part of it which we now call the White Tower, a place that hath since been made use of as a chapel to the princes that have kept their courts within those walls.

The architecture of the White Tower is perhaps as ancient as any building now remaining among us. It was new-cased by King Charles the First; but in Leland's time (as appears from a rude draught of it, at the end of the second tome of his Collectanea) it had four round turrets; three of which have since been made square: they all seem to have been staircases to go to the several offices. This Tower is traditionally reported to have been built by Julius Cæsar; which may at least be accepted as a good argument to shew that it is of Roman origin. It is probable that the Saxons made use of the same fortification for their security, after the Romans left the island; for when the chapel was fitted up for the reception of the records, there remained many Saxon inscriptions. At the other end of the old Roman way, mentioned to lead from the Tower, near the Thames was another castle, which the Romans built as a watch-tower, and stood at the entrance of Black-friars into that part of the city. This tower when demolished was sufficient to provide materials for building a noble and magnificent house for the friars, who met with such fignal favour, that part of the wall of the city, which ran in a direct line from Ludgate to the Thames, was removed to make way for their settlement, and turned short to Fleet-ditch (fn. 4).

Upon occasion of digging a foundation for the church of St. Mary le Bow in Cheapside, after the great fire, Sir Christopher Wren discovered the extent of the Roman colony northward. Upon opening the ground, a foundation appeared firm enough for the intended fabrick, which on inspection was found to be the walls, windows, and pavement, of a temple or church of Roman workmanship, entirely buried under the level of the present street. Hereupon, he resolved to erect his new church over the old; and, as the church stood about forty feet backward from the high street, by purchasing the ground of one private house, not then rebuilt, he was enabled to bring the steeple forward, so as to range with the houses in Cheapside. Here to his surprize, he sunk about eighteen feet deep through made ground, and then imagined he was come to the natural soil and hard gravel; but, upon full examination, it appeared to be a Roman causeway of rough stone, close and well rammed with Roman brick and rubbish at the bottom, for a foundation, and all firmly cemented. This causeway was four feet thick, under it lay the natural clay, which descends at least forty feet lower. He determined to lay the foundation of the tower upon this Roman causeway, as most proper to bear a weighty and lofty structure. He was of opinion, for divers reasons, that this highway ran along the northern boundary of the colony. The breadth then north and south, was from the causeway, now Cheapside, to the river Thames; the extent, east and west, from Tower-hill to Ludgate; and the principal middlestreet, or Prætorian Way, was Watling-street.

The Roman Trajectus, or ferry, intersected the river Thames at Dowgate; near which was erected the Milliarium of the Romans, now called Londonstone, in Cannon-street; from which stone it is supposed, they measured the distances to their several stations throughout Britain. At this place centered the Roman military ways, the Watling-street from the south-east and northwest, the Ermine-street from the south-west and north, and the vicinal way from Old Ford by Bethnal-green. The first entered the city at Dowgate, and passed through Ludgate; supposed to have been originally termed Floodgate, from its neighbourhood to the rivulet Flod or Fleet, afterward called Fleetditch. The second accompanied by the Watling from Southwark, likewife entered at Dowgate, and passing through Cripple-gate, took its way by Highbury-barn to Stroud-green, where there is a much greater appearance of a military way, than in any other place in the neighbourhood of London. The vicinal way, led through Aldgate by Bethnal-green, to the Trajectus at Old Ford.

Not far distant from the Tower there was a Roman burying-place, that of late years was found to be in that ground, which commonly goes by the name of Goodman's-fields. These fields are mentioned by John Stow, but he takes no notice that they were a Roman burying-place. In digging the foundations for building of houses in or about the year 1678–9, there were found many urns, together with the ashes and bones of the dead, and several other antiquities, as brass and silver money, with an unusual urn in copper, curiously enamelled in colours, red, blue and yellow, which was preserved by the then earl of Peterborough. The like antiquities have been found many years ago in Spital-fields, which lie opposite Goodman's-fields, crossing Whitechapel-street; where on the farther side thereof next Bishopsgate-street was another station of the Romans, in that part which formerly bore the name of the Old Artillery Ground, and was their field of Mars. In this place the Romans trained up their young soldiers, and likewise the youth of the neighbouring Britons, in the skill and exercise of arms, that they might be more expert in the use of them upon all emergent occasions: and if any sudden tumults or insurrections should happen in the city, they were then ready and at hand to suppress them.

Another old building of the Romans, was a watch-tower, then and now called Barbican, but nothing remains of this antique building except the name. Here they kept cohorts of soldiers in continual service to watch in the night, that if any sudden fire should happen, they might be in readiness to extinguish it, as also to give notice if an enemy were gathering toward the city to surprise them. In short, it was a watch-tower by day, and at night they lighted some combustible matter on the top of it, to give directions to the weary traveller repairing to the city, either with provisions, or upon other occasions. The same was afterward intended by a lanthorn on the top of Bow-steeple before the fire of London, though seldom made use of, for burning of lights to give direction to travellers, and to the market people that came from the northern parts to London. This watch-tower stood, much about the same place where the Earl of Bridgewater's house stood before it was pulled down, and not far from the old military-road of the Romans, which indeed seems to be the most ancient at this time extant, to this day called Old-street (fn. 5).

It has been supposed that the Romans built a temple to the goddess Diana, on or near the spot where St. Paul's cathedral was afterward erected: but Sir Christopher Wren, whose authority in this point is unquestionable, assures us, that he met with no indications in all his searches in the foundation of St. Paul's to confirm that story. But it deserves attention, when he adds, that the north side of the ground had been a burying-place of great antiquity; for under the graves of the latter ages he found the burial places of the Saxon times: and it appeared that they lined their graves with chalkstones in general, though some were entombed in stone coffins. Deeper still were the antient British graves, in which were found ivory and wooden pins in abundance of about six inches long, used possibly to pin up the bodies in their shrouds. In the same row, but deeper, Roman urns were intermixed, at the depth of eighteen feet or more. Upon searching still deeper for the natural ground, the surveyor observed that the foundation of the old church stood upon a layer of very close and hard pot-earth; and he concluded that the same ground, which had already borne so weighty a building, might reasonably be trusted again. However, he had the curiosity to dig wells in several places, and found this hard pot-earth to be on the north side of the church-yard, about six feet thick, and more, but thinner and thinner toward the south, until it was, upon the declining of the hill, scarcely four feet. Beneath this he found nothing but dry sand, so loose that it would run through the fingers; and about the level of low water mark, he came to water and sand, mixed with sea-shells. Under that he found a hard clay, which is the natural soil of the country.

By these shells it was evident, that the sea, or current of the river, had originally extended where now the hill is, on which the cathedral of St. Paul stands: and the surveyor gave it as his opinion, that the whole country between Camberwell-hill and the hills of Essex might have been a great Frith, or Sinus of the sea, leaving a large plain of sand at low water, through which the river found its way; but in the summer season, when the sun dried the surface of the sand, and a strong wind happened at the same time, before the flood came on, the sands would drive with the wind, and raise heaps, which in time increased to large sand-hills; as might be exemplified by the sand-hills raised in the same manner on the coasts of Flanders and Holland. The flat sands on each side of the river above and below London, now converted into good meadows, were gained by large banks still remaining, which reduced the river into its present channel: a great work this, which no history records! the Britons were too rude to attempt it; the Saxons were employed in continual wars; and therefore it was probably effected by the indefatigable Romans.

How long London remained in a defenceless state without walls is uncertain; for the Romans had nothing to fear from the Britons, whose power and spirit had been totally crushed by them. That it had originally no security against an attack, appears from the danger it so narrowly escaped in the reign of Dioclesian, when Caius Alectus, having assassinated the British Emperor Carausius, who assumed a sovereignty independent on the Roman power; called in an army of Franks to maintain his own usurpation. These Franks on the death of their leader, defeated by M. Cl. Esclepiadotus, determined to pillage London, which was preserved by the providential arrival of a Roman squadron. But by the Franks entering London without opposition, and the Romans at their landing falling immediately upon them in the city, it most probably was not then fortified; and, if so, the wall of London must have been erected between An. 298, and the reign of Honorius in 402, when the Romans left Britain, to defend the city of Rome against Alaric the Goth.

But the builder of it is very uncertain; some authors ascribing it to Constantine the Great, and others to his mother Helena. It may with more reason be referred to the reign of Valentinian the first; in whose time Britain was reduced to great misery, by the joint attacks of the Scots, Picts, Attacots, Franks, and Saxons; and the Romans were defeated in divers engagements, until the arrival of Theodosius the elder; who landing in Britain, divided his army into several divisions, and, marching toward London, routed several parties of the enemy, and entered the city in triumph. This great success of the Romans recovered the drooping spirits of the citizens, in hopes of future protection against the depredations of such cruel enemies.

London never was at any time so great a sufferer as at this juncture, unless in the war with Boadicea, therefore never had more occasion for a wall than at this time: But that it had no wall then is evident; because, if it had been walled in by Constantine the Great, or his mother Helena, the wall would then have been not above fifty years old, and consequently in such a state of defence, as to have baffled all the attempts that could have been made against it, by such bands of transitory enemies. And as we are told that Theodosius, by repairing some cities and castles, and fortifying others, left every thing so secure, that peace was preserved in Britain 'till the departure of the Romans in the reign of Honorius; we may conclude, that London was at first walled in by Theodosius, about the year 368.

It has been a disputed point, whether the wall surrounded the city on the side next the river? The principal objection being, that the tides and weather could not have so totally demolished it as to have left no traces of it. In answer to this, the known decay of our modern wharfs, though strongly built, is appealed to; and it is further urged, that we cannot, at this remote distance of time, expect to discover any of its remains, seeing our modern wharfs extend considerably farther into the river, than London wall can be supposed to have done; which will appear by the following observations. We are told that there was a tower Palatine on the east of the city, and two castles on the west; the first whereof was the square white tower of London built at the south-east angle of the city wall; and the castles on the west were those of Baynard, and Mountfitchet. Considering then that the modern wharfs on the west side of London bridge run into the river, as far as the fourth pier of the bridge; which piers being all erected in the Thames, these circumstances are sufficient to shew that the city wall could not extend so far south as the said wharfs do at present, nor nearer the river than the north end of the bridge adjoining to Thames-street. Wherefore these wharfs must be so many incroachments on the river, since the erection of London-bridge: and we may, by the situation of those fortresses, suppose, that they were erected at the extremities of the wall at the river-side, as places the most exposed to sudden attacks from the land at low water. The Roman military ways that led into the city, have already been pointed out; and it is reasonable to conclude that at the erection of London-wall, the Romans built the gates over them. Therefore Ludgate, Cripplegate, and Aldgate, three of them, must at first have been erected where they lately stood; and the fourth being at Dowgate, as aforesaid, these were the four original and only gates built for the use of the city. The other gates have from time to time been made for the convenience of carriage, and the accommodation of the citizens. Stow mentions several gates along the river beside Dowgate, as Wolf-gate, Eb-gate, Puddledock-gate, Oyster-gate, Butolphs-gate, Billings-gate, and the Water-gates by the Tower and Custom-house. But these, instead of having ever been real gates in the City wall, were only so many wharfs, or places for landing of merchandize; denominated from their owners, from vicinal places, and from goods usually landed there, and which by their number and names, were without doubt erected after the dissolution of the wall, and since the conquest. The learned Dr. Woodward, in his Roman Antiquities, describes the materials and fabrick of London wall, which he had an opportunity of examining by digging near the wall at Bishopsgate, for foundations of certain new houses to be erected there in the year 1707. His observations will undoubtedly gratify curious readers, and are therefore laid before them. From the foundation, says the Doctor, which lay eight feet below the present surface, quite up to the top, which was in all near ten feet, it was compiled alternately of layers of broad flat bricks and of rag-stone. The bricks lay in double ranges; and each brick being but one inch and three tenths in thickness, the whole layer, with the mortar interposed, exceeded not three inches. The layers of stone were not quite two feet thick, of our measure. It is probable they were intended for two of the Roman, their rule being somewhat shorter than ours. To this height the workmanship was after the Roman manner; and these were the remains of the ancient wall. In this it was very observable that the mortar was (as usually in the Roman work) so very firm and hard, that the stone itself as easily broke, and gave way, as that. It was thus far, from the foundation upward, nine feet in thickness. The broad thin bricks above-mentioned were all of Roman make; and of the sort, as we learn from Pliny, that were in common use among the Romans; being in length one foot and a half of their standard, and in breadth one foot. Measuring some of these very carefully, the Doctor found them seventeen inches and four tenths in length, eleven inches and six tenths in breadth, and one inch and three tenths in thickness, of our measure.

The old wall having been demolished, was afterward repaired, and carried up, of the same thickness, to eight or nine feet in height; or, if higher, there was no more of that work now standing. All this was apparently additional and of a make later than the other part underneath it. The outside toward the suburbs, was faced with a coarse sort of stone, not compiled with care, nor disposed into a regular method; but on the inside there appeared more marks of workmanship and art. There was not one of the broad thin Roman bricks, mentioned above, in all this part, not was the mortar near so hard as in that below; but, from the description it may be easily collected, that this part, when first made and intire, with so various and orderly a disposition of the materials, flint, stone, and bricks, could not but carry a very elegant and handsome aspect.

Whether this was done at the expence of the Barons, in the reign of king John; or of the citizens, in the reign of king Henry the third; or of king Richard II. or at what other time, cannot be ascertained from accounts so defective and obscure, as are those which at this day remain of this affair.

Upon the additional work, now described, was raised a wall wholly of brick; only that as it terminated in battlements, these were topped with copings of stone. It was two feet four inches in thickness, and somewhat above eight feet in height. The bricks of this are of the same model and size with those of the part underneath. How long they had been in use is uncertain.—This wall was strengthened and embellished with stately towers, which on the south, together with the wall, are long since become a prey to the tide and weather: but the remains of those on the land side, being fifteen in number, are still to be seen; one whereof, about the middle of Houndsditch, discovered by the above-named antiquary, is of Roman construction, composed of stone, with layers of bricks, interlaid after the Roman manner. It is situated almost opposite the end of Gravel-lane, on the west of Houndsditch, and is still three stories high, but sorely decayed, and rent from top to bottom in divers parts.

In searching for this tower, about eighty paces south-east toward Aldgate, Mr. Maitland discovered another of the same construction, of the height of one-and-twenty feet, and much more beautiful than the former; the bricks being as sound as if but newly laid, while the stones in most parts are become a sacrifice to devouring time. On the south of Aldgate, at the lower end of a street called the Vineyard, is the basis of another Roman tower, about eight feet high, which supports a new building of three stories; and in the wall is fixed a large stone, with the following inscription, which is still legible.

"Glory be to God on high, who was graciously pleased in a wonderful manner to preserve the lifes of all the people in this house, twelve in number, when the ould wall of this Bulwark fell down three stories high, and so broad, as two cartes might enter a breast, and yet without any harm to their persones. The Lord sanctify this his great providence unto them. Amen and Amen.

"It was Tuesday, the 23th September, 1651."

The original height of the Roman wall is conjectured, by its remains, to have been about twenty two feet, and that of the towers about forty feet. Our forefathers were so careful to preserve it clear from incumbrance and prejudice, that they made an act, that no tenement should be built within sixteen feet of the walls.

But to return to our history:—The time was now arrived, when the unweildy extent to which the Roman empire had attained, began to give way by the falling off of the distant provinces: which, either by the Roman governors setting up independent sovereignties, or the natives taking advantage of the degeneracy and weakness of their masters, began to assert pretensions, to which the corrupt government of Rome, hastening to quick decay also from internal causes, was obliged to give way. This however was not the case of Britain; for, neglected by their masters, who called home their troops for their own defence, the dispirited Britons found themselves deprived of protection, in being deserted and restored to freedom. Unable to maintain themselves against the depredations of their more warlike northern neighbours, the Scots and Picts; and unable to procure assistance from Rome, (fn. 6) the Britons at length cast themselves into the arms of the Saxons.

The Roman Pontiff Gregory the great, having in the year 597, sent over Augustine the monk, with forty associates, to preach the gospel to the heathen Saxons; Augustine at first conducted himself with such prudence and moderation, that he and his brother missionaries converted many of them to the Christian faith: he was thereupon, by order of pope Gregory, ordained archbishop of the English nation, by Etherius, archbishop of Arles in France. Augustine ordained Mellitus bishop of the East-Saxons; who, upon converting that nation, had a church dedicated to St. Paul, erected for him in London, the capital of East-Saxony; at which time this city was celebrated for its commerce, being called by our venerable Bede, London, a mart town of many nations which repaired hither by sea and land. It was not yet dignified with the title of metropolis, which seems to have been then applied to Canterbury, the residence of Ethelbert king of Kent, to whom the East-Saxons were vassals; and Sebert, their king, his feudatory. Nor indeed did it arrive at the grandeur of either Canterbury or York, until upward of three hundred years after; as will appear in due time.


Sometime between the year 605 and 610, Sebert built a church or minster in the island of Thorney, situated on the west of London, on the spot whereon a temple to Apollo had formerly stood; which he amply endowed, and dedicated to St. Peter. But this church was soon after destroyed by the Danes. The work of conversion was however much obstructed by the arrogance of Augustine and his coadjutors; so that on the demise of Sebert, the first christian king of Essex, who was succeeded by his sons Sexred, Seward and Sigbert, they threw off the mask, and publickly returning to paganism, expelled Mellitus, bishop of London, their dominions. Eadbald, king of Kent, obtained the bishop's recall to his see, but the disgusted Londoners could not be prevailed on to receive him.


So defective is history at this time, that after the year 616 the city of London is only mentioned for having the plague in 664; until the year 764, when it became a great sufferer by fire; and underwent two other conflagrations, owing to the wooden buildings and narrow lanes.



While this country remained under the seven states which composed the Saxon heptarchy, the people were continually harrassed by the contentions of the several princes; until the year 827, when Egbert, king of Wessex, having acquired a superiority in arms over all his neighbours, consolidated all these kingdoms into one, and became sole monarch of England. He fixed his residence at London, which thus became the seat of government; and in the year 833, a witena-gemot, or parliament, was held there, wherein were present, Egbert his son Ethelwolf, Withlaf the tributary king of Mercia, together with all the bishops and great men of England. Their deliberations were employed upon the means to prevent the Danish piracies and invasions for the future. England had been cruelly harrassed by these northern plunderers, and their successes at length tempted them to take up their winter quarters in England, and to think of reducing it intirely. A body of Danes established themselves in the isle of Thanet; and in the spring of 852, receiving a strong reinforcement of 350 vessels, they plundered and burnt the cities of Canterbury and London. Ethelwolf the son of Egbert gave them a bloody defeat, but could not dislodge them from their settlement, which they removed to the isle of Sheepy, where they established their winter quarters, ready for future depredations.


Alfred, after having been driven from his kingdom by the Danes, recovered his losses so successfully, that he reduced them to terms, and planted colonies of them where the country had been desolated by their former ravages; hoping thereby to convert them from mortal enemies into good and peaceful subjects. He rebuilt all the ruined cities, particularly London, repaired its wall and towers; and having embellished the city with additional buildings, committed the government thereof to Ethered, who had married his daughter Ethelfleda, with the title of earl of Mercia. Its beauty however was soon destroyed by fire; for in the year 893, it was totally burnt by casualty.


The hopes of subduing England, still subsisting among the Danes, they in 894, landed in a considerable body under their general Hæsten, on the Essex shore of the Thames, below Tilbury; and erected a strong castle at Beamfleote now Southbemfleet, near the isle of Canvey; from which they made frequent excursions, commiting great ravages in the neighbouring country. This roused the vigilant Alfred, who dispatched his son-in-law Ethered, governor of London, against them with an army joined by a select body of citizens: they routed them, and, laying siege to their castle, took it, and a very rich booty therein, together with the wife and sons of Hæsten; who were brought prisoners to London. In this battle the citizens distinguished themselves by their intrepid behaviour.

On the approach of the winter, another body of Danes, who for some time had lain at the isle of Mærisige, now Mearsy, at the mouth of the river Coln, to wait the issue of their comrades expedition, finding it necessary to retire with their fleet to a place of more safety; they therefore penetrated as high up the Thames as the river Ligan, (fn. 7) and towed their ships up to the town of Ware. Here, or at Hertford, the Danes erected a strong fortification, which gave the Londoners great uneasiness, being justly apprehensive of the danger to which they were exposed, by having such a nest of robbers in their neighbourhood. The citizens, in conjunction with neighbouring auxiliaries, marched out against them early in the spring, with the brave king Alfred at their head; but were repulsed with considerable loss. Wherefore Alfred, apprehending that he should run too great a risque by renewing the attack, disposed of his army in the most convenient posts in that neighbourhood, to cut off all supplies of provisions from the enemy; and at the same time diverted the current of the river Lea into three channels to prevent the return of the enemy's fleet to the river Thames. The Danes finding themselves thus cooped up, and their ships rendered useless, broke up their camp, and retreated. Whereupon the citizens demolished their works, restored the navigation of the river Lea, brought divers of the best of the enemy's ships to London, and destroyed the rest. (fn. 8)

Alfred was as famous for his civil regulations as for his martial talents. He established a powerful marine: he divided his kingdom into counties; the counties he subdivided into hundreds, and the hundreds into tythings, for the more regular government, and administration of justice. He instituted the office of sheriff, appointed that most equitable mode of trial by juries, the grand security of the lives, property, and liberties of mankind; and, by a long, wise and upright reign, justly merited the name of Alfred the Great, and the title of Founder of the English monarchy. (fn. 9)



About the year 939 London seems to have recovered from its late sufferings by the Danes, and to have been in as flourishing a condition as any other place in the kingdom; for, by a law of Athelstan, which appointed a certain number of coiners to each of the principal cities of England, eight were allowed to London, which was considerably more than was allotted to any other town, Canterbury excepted; for which the same number was appointed. This king Athelstan or Adlestan, had his palace in Addlestreet, Aldermanbury, which street we find in ancient records called King Addlestreet. He also founded the church of St. Alban's Woodstreet: king Edmund held a witena-gemot or parliament in London A. D. 945; in which divers good laws were passed, but ecclesiastical affairs were the principal objects of the council.



The minster, which we have already mentioned to have been built at Thorney Island, and which was called Westminster from its situation with respect to St. Paul's, had been destroyed in the Danish wars. It was rebuilt by king Edgar and Dunstal bishop of London, in 958; when twelve monks were placed in it, who were but badly supported until the reign of Edward the Confessor, by whose piety they were more sufficiently endowed. A very malignant fever raged in London, in the year 961, which carried off a great number of the citizens; and St. Paul's cathedral was consumed by fire in the same year. Land then sold at one shilling per acre. In the fourth year of king Ethelred, this city was almost wholly destroyed by fire. At the same time there were but few houses within the city walls, and those irregularly dispersed. In the heart there were next to none, (as appears by the city repertory at that time, called Doomsday book), the chief and greatest part of the buildings being then without Ludgate. However, by what has been said above, relating to the number of coiners, this city and Canterbury appear to have been then considered as the chief cities in England.


The Danes making preparations for another descent on England in 992, king Ethelred fitted out a numerous fleet at London, to prevent their landing, under the command of the earldermen Ealfrick and Thorod, and the bishops Elstane and Escwige. But when they drew near the enemy's fleet, the treacherous Ealfrick, by a private signal, cautioned them to provide for their security, and, in the night preceeding the intended engagement, deserted with his ship, to the enemy, whereby they had an opportunity of escaping. His desertion was no sooner known, than a signal was given to pursue; and the English fleet coming up with the rear of the Danes, one of their ships was taken: after the return of the fleet, a squadron of Londoners fell in with one of the enemy's squadrons, which they bravely attacked, and, after a desperate engagement, took the ship of the infamous Ealfrick, himself narrowly escaping.

It is tedious to enter into particular details of the successive expeditions of the piratical Danes, who continually harrassed the English coasts, and committed the most shocking and brutal violence. They were rather invited than withheld from extending their depredations, by the weakness of king Ethelred and his court, who, instead of vigorously spiriting up the nation to keep out these robbers, meanly purchased their absence more than once by money. (fn. 10)

We have before related that Alfred had induced numbers of Danes to settle in England. They were almost the sole inhabitants of Northumberland, East Anglia and Mercia; and from their hardiness and bravery, his successors kept several bodies of them in pay, who committed many excesses and lived at discretion on the country; being more ready to assist their foreign countrymen, than those among whom they lived, and whom they were paid to protect. From the insolent conduct of these Danish mercenaries, the term Lord Dane, corrupted into Lurdan, became afterward a name of reproach for an idle, insolent fellow; and the animosity between them and the English increased to such a height, that Ethelred, with a cruelty consistent enough with his timidity, caused these Danish troops (fn. 11) all to be massacred in one day!


The Danes, who plundered the English so freely without any quarrel originally, were no doubt glad to seize so fair a pretence to justify their hostilities; accordingly Sweyn king of Denmark, the next year A. D. 1013, entered the river Humber with a formidable fleet, breathing revenge and destruction wherever he came; and the people, in order to secure their safety, judged it the most prudent way to submit to his mercy. Accordingly, as he advanced, the countries adjacent to the place of his landing surrendered to him without opposition; and bending his march southward, Oxford and Winchester followed their example. He then marched directly to London; but attempting to pass the river Thames, without enquiring either for a ford or bridge, he lost a great number of men: however, not discouraged, he continued his march eastward, and, arriving before London, summoned it to surrender. But the presence of their king so animated the citizens, that, resolving to defend him and their city, they sallied boldly out upon their enemy, and obliged Sweyn to raise the siege; who hereupon marched westward. Having reduced the whole kingdom, except London, he was determined once more to attempt the conquest of that city. Whilst he was preparing for that undertaking, he received advice of Ethelred's withdrawing himself from thence: and the citizens, thus deserted by their king, judged it the safest way to submit to the Danes, which they accordingly did; and Sweyn was thereupon proclaimed king of England in this city. Ethelred fled with his family into Normandy.


The reign of Sweyn over England was not long; for he died at Gainsborough in the very spring after his proclamation. Upon this the English recalled Ethelred from Normandy: he arrived, and reassumed the government; but died in this city soon after his restoration, and was buried in St. Paul's cathedral.


The Londoners immediately proclaimed Edmund Ironside, the eldest son of Ethelred, and, by the unanimous consent of the nobility and citizens, he was crowned king by the archbishop of York, with the greatest demonstrations of joy. This was the first coronation that is recorded to have been performed in this city. Yet, notwithstanding this brave prince was every way deserving the love of his people, he found a formidable rival in Cnut, or Canute, the son of Sweyn the late Danish king. He was deserted by the clergy, and divers of the nobility; who awed, as is supposed, by the Danish army, not only declared in favour of Canute, and proclaimed him at Southampton, but likewise abjured the whole race of Ethelred; whose chief support was the loyal city of London.


Canute encouraged by this support, fitted out a potent fleet to reduce London, which adhered to his competitor; but, upon his arrival before that city, found, to his no small disappointment, that he could not pass the bridge (fn. 12) with his ships; which the citizens had strongly fortified, to prevent such an attempt. Wherefore Canute, in order to carry on a siege by water, as well as land, caused a cut or canal to be made through the marshes (fn. 13), on the south side the river Thames, deep and broad enough to convey ships above the bridge. He had no sooner finished his canal, and brought his ships on the west side of London-bridge, than he violently assaulted the city on all sides. However, the bravery of the citizens as often repulsed him with great loss, and at last, having received advice of Edmund's march to it's relief, he raised the siege, and retired to his ships. But, upon Edmund returning to west Saxony to reinforce his army, Canute took the advantage of his absence, and renewed the siege with greater vigour, though with no better success. After several engagements between them, the principal nobles on each side, equally harrassed by this bloody competition, effected a compromise between Edmund and Canute, by which the kingdom was divided between them; and Mercia, of which London was the capital, falling to Canute's share, the city submitted to him, and he passed the winter there. Edmund was murdered about a month afterward, at Oxford, and thus the whole sovereignty of England came into the hands of Canute.

In the beginning of his reign, Canute found himself under a necessity of loading his new subjects with taxes, in order to gratify his Danish army who assisted him in acquiring this new dominion. He raised seventy-two thousand pounds from them at one time, exclusive of eleven thousand pounds levied in the city of London only: The ability to pay a sum so amazing, considering the value of money in that age, is a clear proof of the riches of the city; which, from this proportion, appears to have been possessed of above one seventh of the wealth of the whole kingdom! It is probable, however, that Canute intended to punish the citizens by a severe exaction, for their obstinate resistance against him under their late king.

After these rigours, Canute wisely endeavoured to reconcile the English to Danish government by the justice of his administration. He disbanded and sent back as many of his Danish forces as he prudently could; and restored the Saxon laws in a general assembly of the states: he incorporated the Danes with the English, between whom he made no distinction; and both of them being glad to enjoy some quiet after the distresses of war, the kingdom, for a season, experienced an interval of peace.


Canute left three sons, Sweyn king of Norway, Hardicanute king of Denmark, and Harold, who was in England at his father's death. Hardicanute the youngest, had the good wishes of the English on his mother Emma's account, but Harold was left by his father successor to the English crown. Their pretensions threatened a renewal of the horrors of civil discord; when, by the prudent conduct of the chief nobles of both parties, an amicable compromise was proposed; and a witena-gemot, or national council, was, A. D. 1036, held at Oxford; where earl Leofric, and most of the Thanes, on the north side the river Thames, with the Li[ths]men of London, chose Harold for their king. Li[ths]men is by the Saxon annals rendered nautæ, i.e. mariners. But, taking Li[ths]men siguratively to mean pilots of the city, the city representatives at Oxford may be supposed to be the magistrates of London deputed in that capacity.

Though there is no notice taken of any charter granted to London, so early as this period, yet it is fairly to be inferred from its having a voice in the national assembly, that it was then a town corporate, reasoning from the established policy of those times. It is well known, that national councils, by whatever name distinguished, were, in feudal times, composed entirely of such barons, chiestains, and dignified ecclesiastics, as held immediately of the crown: while all towns depended for protection on the lord of whom they held. They had no political existence that could entitle them to be admitted into legislative assemblies, until they were enfranchised and formed into bodies corporate; when they became legal members of the constitution, and the persons free of them, were thereby invested with all the rights essential to free men. Among these, the most valuable was the privilege of a voice in enacting laws, and granting subsidies; which it was natural for cities accustomed to municipal government to claim: and the wealth and consequence which arts and trade put into their hands, enabled them on favourable occasions to get this claim admitted (fn. 14).

Thus though historical events ought to have a better foundation than conjecture and inference, yet, on the above evidence, and under this acknowledgment, the existence of London at this time in a corporate capacity is rendered extremely probable.



Harold died in 1039, and the nobility sent messengers to Hardicanute, then with his mother at Bruges in Flanders, preparing for a descent upon England, intreating him to come over, and receive the crown, which he did without opposition; and upon his demise in 1041, Edward, called the Confessor, and revered as a saint by the monks, the son of Ethelred, and the last of the Saxon line, was chosen king, by the general voice of the people. This king rebuilt the minster or monastery in Thorney island, dedicated to St. Peter, magnificently; and got the privileges he granted to it confirmed by a bull from pope Nicholas.


In the sixth year of Edward, A.D. 1047, a great council was held in this city; wherein it was resolved to send out nine ships of war, to protect the coast against the ravages of Danish pirates, and five others to remain in port as guard-ships, to be ready upon all emergencies.

The powerful Godwin, earl of Kent, having incurred the King's displeasure, by his opposition to the Norman influence at the English court; he was summoned to appear before a great council assembled in London, to answer to the charges brought against him: but, well knowing, by the intrigues of his enemies, that they were resolved upon his destruction, he refused to appear without pledges given for his safe conduct; which being denied, he determined to provide for his own security, by having recourse to arms. He engaged divers of the principal citizens in his interest, soon raised a considerable army, and fitted out a potent fleet; with which he sailed directly to London; and, being arrived at Southwark, he anchored there till the return of the tide; when, meeting with no opposition at the bridge from the Londoners, he passed through the arches at the south end of the same, with a design to attack the royal navy, then lying before Westminster, to the number of fifty sail. At the same time, his army, being arrived in Southwark, made a formidable appearance along the south bank of the river Thames. However, by the interposition of many of the prime nobility, matters were happily accommodated between the king and the earl, by restoring him and his sons to their honours and estates, and banishing his Norman favourites whom Edward regarded with too much partiality, and who committed grievous outrages against the English. Upon this happy reconciliation, both the fleets and armies were disbanded.

A statute, in the 46th chapter of the laws of this king is preserved, wherein he grants and appoints the time for holding the bustings in London, in these words: — "Debet in London que caput regni est et legum et semper cu"ria domini regis singulis septimanis die lunæ Hustyngs sedere et tenere: fundata enim erat olim et edificata ad instar magne Troje. Et ad modum et in memoria in se continet in qua super suit ardua compota et ambigua plecta carone et coram Domini regis totius regni predicti quia usus et consuetudines suas una femper inviolabilitate conservat ubique ubicunque ipse rex fuerit five in expeditione five alibi propter fatigationes gencium et populorum regni juxta veteres consuetudines bonorum principum et predecessorum et omnium principum et procerem et sapientum seniorum tocius regni predicti, &c."

King Edward here acknowledges the pre-eminence of London over all his cities; compares it to ancient Troy; confirms to it all its ancient customs and usages; so as not to be violated by his successors; and particularly grants his citizens of London the privilege of holding and keeping the bustyngs once a week, on every Monday. The fourth charter of king Henry III. has a manifest reference to this antient privilege of holding weekly hustings (fn. 15).


Edward having no children, had intimated to William, duke of Normandy, an intention of leaving the succession to him, while Harold, the son of earl Godwin, by every popular measure, was preparing the way for his own advancement on the death of Edward: but happening to be shipwrecked on the coast of Normandy, William so far improved this incident in his favour, as to induce Harold to forego his own pretensions, and enter into a solemn obligation to assist him in obtaining the crown of England. On obtaining his liberty, Harold, however, deemed himself also freed from the observance of an extorted oath, and continued, by every possible method, to strengthen a party in his favour. At the demise of Edward, he accordingly mounted the vacant throne without any obstruction, having the principal nobility, bishops, clergy, and citizens of London, all zealous in his support; and the day after the death of Edward, he was crowned by Aldred, archbishop of York

Upon the news of this event, the duke of Normandy sent over an embassy to reproach Harold with his breach of faith, and to require the fulfilment of his contract: but not expecting that any regard would be paid to meer expostulations, he prepared to assert his claim in a more respectable manner.

Many circumstances concurred to favour William's intended descent on England, and he compleated his levies with great facility. The popes of Rome were always fond of being arbiters in political contests, and Alexander II. the reigning pontiff, immediately gave his sanction to William's claim; denounced excommunication against Harold as a perjured usurper; and sent William a consecrated standard, with a ring having one of St. Peter's hairs in it: presents, which in those days, were equivalent to an auxiliary army.

While William was preparing for his English expedition, he excited the Danes and Normans to make a diversion in his favour in the north of England: they landed with a strong force, and gained some advantages, extending devastation wherever they came; until Harold, whose subjects chearfully crouded under his standard, gave them a total overthrow by land, and got possession of their numerous fleet.

This invasion was scarcely suppressed in the north, when Harold heard, that the duke of Normandy had landed with a powerful force in the south. His armament consisted of 3000 vessels great and small, on board which he crossed the channel with 60,000 men, commanded by many bold chieftains, invited by the hopes of sharing the spoils of England. Harold was defeated with the loss of his life at the battle of Hastings, sought on October 14, 1066, which gave William an easy possession of the dominion he fought for; the astonished English, after so severe a stroke and the death of their king, not being able to unite under any one leader, or to determine on any plan of measures to check the victorious Norman.

The quick succession of events in the latter part of this chapter, affording no room to introduce the following miscellaneous remarks, they were therefore reserved for this place.

The scarcity of money under the Saxons, occasioned it to bear a very high rate, or in other words, occasioned commodities to be very cheap; as will appear by a few comparisons between them; first premising that the Saxon shilling was one fifth larger than our, and contained but five-pence. In the time of Athelstan, a sheep was rated at one shilling; an ox was estimated at the rate of six sheep, and a cow at four. Between the years 900 and 1000, Ednoth bought a hide of land for about 118 shillings, which amounted to about one shilling an acre, and that appears to have been the ordinary price. Silk and cotton were then unknown, and linen, a luxury not easily come at. In the reign of Edward the Consessor, the Saxon chronicle mentions so terrible a famine, that a quarter of wheat sold for 60 pennies, about fifteen of our present shillings, then equivalent to about 7 l. 10s (fn. 16). In those ignorant unquiet times, agriculture was but badly known, and little attended to. But William of Malmsbury, who wrote in the time of William the Conqueror, remarks, that in the above reign of Edward the Consessor, "London was a noble city, frequented by merchants from all parts of the world:" and though the world must have had a very confined meaning in common acceptation at that time, yet the comparative opulence of the city, may be fairly inferred from this passage. That commerce began to claim peculiar attention, appears from a law of Athelstane (fn. 17), in 925, which ordained, "That every merchant who made three voyages to the Mediterranean sea on his own bottom, should be raised to the honour, and enjoy the privileges of a gentleman."


  • 1. Thus it has been deduced from Caer Lud, or Lud's town; from Luna, another name for Diana; from Lindus, a city of Rhodes; from Lugdus a Celtic prince; from Llan Dyn, the temple of Diana; from Lundain or Llandain, the Thames bank town; from the British word Llbwn a wood, and Dinas, a town; from Llong a ship, and Dinas a town, the compound of which implies a town or harbour for ships; a character which its situation well qualifies it for supporting.
  • 2. While the Romans remained here, the name was altered to Augusta, concerning the reason of which authors are divided, though it is agreed that this new appellation was given as an honourable distinction; it being stiled a great and wealthy city, by Herodian, in the time of the emperor Severus. Under the Saxons, however, the old name was corruptly restored from the Latin.
  • 3. Henry's Hist. Gr. Britain, vol. 1.
  • 4. Bagford's letter relating to the antiquities of London, prefixed to the first vol. of Leland's Collectanea.
  • 5. Bagford's letter, ut ante.
  • 6. The Romans indeed sent them a legion twice, but being harrassed themselves, they soon grew tired of defending the Britons upon meer motives of generosity; and after compleating the wall of Severus with stone, they finally left them, with a hint of advice, which was that they ought to defend themselves; and support their independance by their valour. Not having spirit enough to profit by this counsel, they made a third but ineffectual application to Rome, by a letter couched in very pathetic terms. It was inscribed, the groans of the Britons; and the tenor of it was suitable, the barbarians, said they, on the one hand chase us into the sea, the sea on the other, throws us back upon the barbarians; and we have only the hard choice left us, of perishing by the sword or by the waves! If slavery can debase the human mind to such an abject degree, with what vigilance ought we to oppose not only the open attempts of tyranny, but also the specious pretences, and insidious arts, continually made use of by magistrates to undermine the native rights of mankind!
  • 7. This river in the Saxon annals goes by divers appellations, viz. Ligan, Lygan, Luye, Ley, Luys, and Lewis; at present, the Lea, or Hackney river.
  • 8. Nails, pieces of planks, &c. belonging to these vessels, were a few years ago discovered at the erecting the present Stanstead Bridge.
  • 9. Hume's Hist. of England.
  • 10. In this reign a tax was imposed under the name of Danegelt; the produce of which was applied, either in opposing the inroads of the Danes, or in purchasing peace of them.
  • 11. Mr. Hume, on the authority of Wallingford, understands the massacre in this restricted sense, against the opinion of others, who assert that all the Danes in England were cut off; which from the circumstances is highly improbable.
  • 12. This is the first mention of a bridge across the river at London: and the building even a timber bridge over such a river as the Thames, is an argument of its consequence at that time.
  • 13. It is a question that cannot perhaps be answered now, why Canute found it easier to cut a new channel to pass the bridge, than to destroy the bridge itself by fire.
  • 14. Robertson's Charles V. vol. 1. p. 37. 4to. edit.
  • 15. See Appendix to this Vol. No. XV.
  • 16. Hume Appendix I.
  • 17. Anderson's History of Commerce. vol. 1. p.48.