London: The Romans and Early Saxons II

Roman ships

When Julius Caesar’s fleet took part in a battle against the ships of the Veneti tribe of Brittany in 56 BC he noted how their vessels were better than his own for the conditions of the Atlantic coast. The Veneti ships had shallower keels that were more suited to tidal waters, solidly-built of oak, seams between planks caulked with moss, reeds or hazel shavings, with higher prows and sterns, and sails of leather that could withstand Atlantic storms. Thereafter Roman-era ships generally divided into either those of the Grecian/Roman tradition, suited to tideless Mediterranean conditions, or those for northern European seas based on Celtic designs. Goods arriving from the Mediterranean were generally transhipped several times throughout their journey, those ships arriving at Londinium would normally have been of the latter type.

Some Roman cargo ships are known to have carried loads of over 1,000 tons but it is unlikely that such large long-distance vessels ventured up the Thames. Those to be found in Londinium were more likely to be either smaller round-bottomed river and coastal boats, which were unable to beach at low tide and therefore anchored in mid-stream to load and unload, or flat-bottomed barges.

Importation and exportation was a precarious business, with large investment in the vessel and its cargo, financial risk and high reward. Much of the cost was raised in the form of syndicates of wealthy men who would not be ruined in the event of a ship being lost at sea. At first, cargo ships arriving were owned by traders from other parts of the Empire but there is evidence of later shipbuilding at Londinium, which indicates ownership by locally-based traders.

A typical Roman ship or barge was propelled by a single sail, mounted towards the front of the vessel. The centralized sternpost rudder had not yet been invented and thus direction was achieved by a large oar protruding from the right-hand side of the stern – the steer-board or ‘starboard’ side of the boat – or oar rudders on each side.

The decline of the Roman Empire

Roman civilisation reached its zenith during the mid-first century, at around the same time that Londinium was being established. While the city matured and grew on the western extremity of the Empire through the second and third centuries it was protected, and occasionally prospered, from troubles in Rome and elsewhere.

During the 170s victorious troops arriving back from battles in the east carried with them a plague that had a devastating effect on the Roman people. It wiped out about 5 million people, perhaps between 10 and 25 per cent of the entire population of the Empire. Garrison towns were particularly affected by the plague, leaving the Empire’s border vulnerable. At around the same time, the Langobardians invaded from Northern Germany, causing a war that lasted for seventeen years, during which they captured areas as far south as northern Italy; the first time Italian soil had been occupied for three centuries. A peace treaty was signed in 181 and the border was restored along the line of the River Danube but it was clear to the northern barbarians from that time on that Rome was not invincible.

To the north of the Continental Empire new nations formed, with the Goths, Franks and Alamanni becoming a major threat in the third century. The Franks, based in the lower Rhineland areas, began making raids on the wealthy and vulnerable east coast of Britain and the Thames estuary, while inland agricultural areas prospered and large mansions were built. People of wealth abandoned the coasts of East Anglia, the Thames Estuary, Kent, the south and the Severn Estuary, where they were vulnerable from raids by the Franks or Irish. A significant factor was the disbanding of the Classis Britannica fleet in the late third century. Long-distance voyages in and out of Londinium were unlikely to have been affected but coastal shipping was probably in greater danger. By the mid-third century the population of Londinium had reduced, as had the amount of imports arriving. As Londinium declined in importance and fewer ships arrived and departed, the timber quays and jetties along the river began to decay, probably from around 250 AD. Riverside warehouses were converted for residential use as trade diminished.

Londinium went into a long, slow decline during the fourth century. It had become successful partly because it was the most convenient port from which to trade with the Rhineland and near Continent. As the Roman armies lost control of the northern Continental areas it became safer to ship goods to and from Boulogne to the ports on the south coast of Britain. By the end of the fourth century Venta Belgarum (Winchester) overtook Londinium as Britain’s leading commercial centre.

When the east coast of Britannia came under attack from Germanic raiders a riverside wall was built to complete the enclosure of Londinium. Unlike the first three sides, the riverside section was certainly erected in haste and with far less care taken in its construction, using whatever materials were to hand. We can therefore be sure that it was constructed when the city was under immediate threat of attack. With the town almost cut off from the river by the wall, the timber quays had largely been dismantled by the fourth century. Despite its defensive wall, Londinium was overrun in 367 by an alliance of Picts, Irish, Franks and Saxons and had to be retaken by Roman forces.

In the early fifth century Visigoths invaded the Italian peninsula. Rome no longer had the ability to defend Britannia and the province became independent from what remained of the Empire. The population of southern England had been shifting more to the West Country and Londinium gradually dwindled until, at the end of the fifth century, it was most probably largely deserted. For a period of time life continued in Britain as it had done previously, with the Romano-British choosing their own leaders and prospering. In order to repel attacks by Picts from the north they enlisted Saxon men from the area around the mouth of the River Elbe in what is now northern Germany, as well as Jutes and Angles. The Romano-British began to squabble amongst themselves, however. During the first half of the fifth century the immigrant fighters rebelled against their Romano-British paymasters, slaughtering many of their leaders in about 459. In the following decades England was gradually divided into a number of tribal kingdoms.

The site of Lundenwic, showing the locations of the modern-day Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square and Charing Cross Station.

Some of the ports known to have traded with Lundenwic.

The Saxon port of Lundenwic

When Londinium was abandoned, the Thames and its tributaries continued to be used for carrying and communication. The early Saxons were seafarers and did not possess the knowledge of how to maintain roads to a Roman standard. Yet they also initially lacked the skills to build sophisticated ships, and even their largest vessels were designed to be pulled up onto a beach.

Saxons began to berth their boats at low tide on the sloping foreshore two miles to the west of the deserted Londinium, where the river suddenly swings southwards in a large curve near the modern-day Charing Cross station. A new community known as Lundenwic began to grow there from the mid-seventh century. From a simple start of pulling boats onto the sloping bank, a market and trading port developed in the area of modern-day Covent Garden. ‘Wic’ was the Saxon word for market, indicating that Lundenwic developed for the purpose of trading, and is still remembered in the modern street name of Aldwych (‘old market’). At the early stages in the life of the community there was no need for shops, stalls, warehouses or quays. Traders could arrive from along the river or around the coast, moor up and, as the tide went out, allow the boat to berth on the muddy bank, selling goods directly from the vessel. Evidence indicates that a planned town grew rapidly in the 670s, which would be during the reign of the Mercian king Wulfhere. From the late seventh century a wooden embankment was constructed along and out into the river, perhaps with jetties.

Many artefacts of the time have been discovered around Covent Garden and therefore the limits of the settlement of Lundenwic can be defined. The line of the north shore was about 100 metres south of, and roughly parallel to, the old Roman road that was still in use. (By the late twelfth century the road was known as the Strand, Germanic for bank or shore). Lundenwic stretched from there northwards to around where the street Shorts Gardens now runs. The east side was approximately along Kingsway, stretching westwards to Trafalgar Square, a distance of over a kilometre. Its centre is now the site of the Royal Opera House. Within that area a permanent community developed, living in small wooden homes. The population consisted of farmers and smallholders, fishermen, traders and craftsmen dealing in bone, antler, metal and cloth. On the town’s fringes were gravel pits and horticulture, with some farms between Lundenwic and Thorney Island (modern Westminster) further along the river, including one at modern-day Downing Street. Northwards, towards the Roman road of Holborn/New Oxford Street, there was boggy ground.

The early Saxon period was an age when any form of transport other than boats was rare, with very few people owning a horse and cart. As a result, beach markets developed at locations along the river at Woolwich, Greenwich, Twickenham and Hampton Wick. Other port markets that developed around the same time included Sandwich, Hamwich (Southampton) and Gipeswic (Ipswich).

There is a written reference from around 672, in a grant by Frithuwold, sub-king of Surrey: ‘by the port of London, where ships come to land, on the same river [the Thames] on the southern side of the public way [the Strand].’ The historian Bede wrote in the early eighth century of a Frisian trader buying a Northumbrian slave at Lundenwic back in 679. In 731 he described London as ‘an emporium of many nations who come to it by land and sea’.

Saxon period trading markets existed by royal charter, with revenue collected by port-reeves on behalf of the king or landowner in the form of tolls on boats that berthed to trade. Extant documents from around 680 state the trade regulations to be observed by the men of Kent when they bartered at Lundenwic. At that time King Hlothere of Kent appointed a royal official, or reeve, to administer local wics and by at least the 730s the kingdom of Kent was levying tolls on boats using the market of Lundenwic. A document dated 734 refers to ‘the remission of all dues … which are exacted by the tax-gatherers in the port of London’ and from that time the king gave the bishops of Rochester and Worcester and the abbess of Minster in Thanet the right to levy tolls on certain ships at the port.

The lack of exotic items found in excavations shows that during the early stages of the development of Lundenwic, from around 630 until the mid-eighth century, trade was quite local in its nature. Most goods brought to the beach market were perhaps produce from further along the river or nearby coastal villages. The inhabitants probably survived mainly on grain, meat, hay, timber and wool from the immediate hinterland. Local farmers visited the market from up and down the river to buy and sell produce, arriving in small punts that were dug out from the trunk of a tree, between two and four metres in length. They were sufficient to carry up to about four people or several animal carcasses and were propelled by a pole or paddle. Long distance traders arrived in ships made from oak planks of between 20 and 30 metres in length, powered by a sail and steered by an oar, probably of clinker construction. Excavated fishbones and shells include freshwater species, as well as marine varieties such as cod, haddock, herring, whiting, bass, plaice, flounder, whale and oysters.

Money was required in order to easily buy and sell goods. Seventh century gold coins known as thrymsas have been found at other places bearing the name ‘LONDVNIV’, showing that a mint had already been established. During the late eighth century silver penny coins were being minted for the Mercian kings bearing the name ‘LUNDINIA’.

By the eighth century the population of Lundenwic had grown in size and goods were being traded with ports such as Gipeswic, Eorforwic (York) and Hamwic. The greatest international trade was with settlements around the mouth of the Rhine and the north-west coast of what is now France, and Lundenwic was frequented by Frisian and Frankish traders. Ships sailed to and from the ports of Dorestad (Wijk-bii-Duurstede in the Netherlands), Sliaswich (Schleswig in Germany), Quentovic (near Boulogne), and even as far as Norway. Wine, quernstones, pottery and luxury goods were imported and ships returned with wool or cloth. Dried figs and grapes indicate trade with places even further afield.

Lundenwic was a relatively large community of perhaps six to seven thousand people by its heyday in the mid-eighth century, by then within the kingdom of Mercia on the border with Essex. Excavations show a settlement at that time of around sixty hectares, laid out in a grid pattern, similar to earlier Roman towns. Although never as large as the old Roman city, it was nevertheless probably the largest Saxon settlement in England. On several occasions, between 764 and 801, the town suffered from fires from which it may never have fully recovered. It went into decline during a period of unrest in the Carolingian kingdoms in France and Germany in the late eighth century, suffered from rivalry between the Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, and the added threat of attack from Vikings from the early ninth century. Lundenwic, like its Roman predecessor, was thereafter abandoned by the Saxons, having flourished for less than a century.