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Some Thoughts on the Topography of Saxon London

  • J. N. L. Myres

In the September number of ANTIQUIT (VIII, 290–302) Dr Wheeler analysed with characteristic brilliance the topographical and archaeological evidence for the relation of Roman and Saxon in Dark-Age London. He pointed out that the 330 acres enclosed by the Roman Walls were divided almost centrally by the Walbrook into two areas of rising ground, the eastern which we may term Cornhill, and the western Ludgate Hill. He showed that there is undeniable evidence epitomized in the position of the central basilica and of London Bridge to prove that the eastern of these was the nucleus of the Roman City, and that the inclusion of the western within the walls was intended ‘to provide generously for a development which only in part materialized’. He noted further that the evidence for the earliest Saxon settlement within the walls pointed with hardly less emphasis to their preference for the western area, where the foundation of St. Paul's, the less certain suggestion of early church dedications, the traditional site of the Royal Palace, the certain position of the Folk Moot, and the more frequent occurrence of small objects of the early Saxon period combine to indicate the focus of their settlement. So far we may tread securely in his footsteps; we may agree with his summary of the contrast— ‘Roman London began on the Hill above London Bridge and spread westwards; Saxon London emerged on the western hilltop and spread eastwards’.

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1 Bede, H.E. 2 3, mentions, it is true, only the building of St. Paul’s by the missionaries, for, by his time, the traditional supremacy of that church was already firmly established, and it is characteristic of his historical method to give no unnecessary information. It is far more significant that he says nothing whatever of any sub-Roman population in London when Mellitus arrived. In the chequered history of the see during the seventh century such an element, if it had existed,, would surely have played a noticeable part.

2 Ant. Journ. 14, 254.

3 One obvious difficulty is to visualize a political situation in which London was strong enough to defend her territorial interests more than thirty miles away, yet so weak as to allow the intruders to construct their own frontiers: for it will be remembered that except for the Berkshire Grim’s ditch, whose behaviour suggests that it may belong to a totally different chronological horizon, these earthworks all face towards London. If the Londoners were strong enough to insist on such lines being drawn, they were strong enough to draw them themselves. And was there any possible advantage which the Saxons could obtain by the labour? It is not the aggressor but the defender who has need of frontier defence.

4 This phrase can only mean that Dr Wheeler regards the undoubted early Saxon settlement of the Thames valley and its tributaries, evidenced by, for example, the partly cremation cemeteries of Croydon, Hackbridge, Shepperton, Aston and Reading, all of which must be within his London Territorium, as the outcome of negotiation and agree-ment with the Roman Londoners. It is difficult to see why they were so anxious to defend their rights in the far-away Chilterns while surrendering the control of much closer and more valuable land on their best line of communication—the river. I mention only the cremation cemeteries, because while cremation is in itself no proof of early date, its occurrence in an area so Romanized as the middle Thames valley is hardly explicable in any other way. Some of the inhumations here may be early too.

5 His forthcoming publication on London and the Saxons is of course most eagerly awaited.

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  • ISSN: 0003-598X
  • EISSN: 1745-1744
  • URL: /core/journals/antiquity
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