History Files


Anglo-Saxon Britain

Light Enters Dark Age Londinium

by Doctor John Schofield, British Archaeology (Issue 44), 1999



Of all the periods in London's history, the Saxon has produced the most surprises from excavations of recent years.

Though the Dark Ages continue to be dark, there is increasing light on this formative period. . . Within the city itself, however, evidence remains meagre from the collapse of the Roman administration in 410 until the late Saxon reoccupation under King Alfred in the 9th century.

The extent to which the city was occupied during these intervening centuries, with its great Roman buildings slowly crumbling, remains one of London's - as yet - great unsolved mysteries.

By 410, the built-up area within the town walls had already contracted greatly in size. Parts had been cleared of buildings and were already covered by a horizon of dark silts (often described as 'dark earth') suggesting that land was converted to arable and pastoral use or abandoned entirely.

The dark earth may have started forming in the third century. The protection afforded by the walls, however, suggests the town would have remained a centre of some importance, a place of refuge if not an urban centre.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 457 mentions the flight of the British to London after their defeat at Creaganford (Crayford in Kent) at the hands of Hengist and Horsa, leaders of the Saxon invaders.

The first documented building work in the walled area after the departure of the Romans was the foundation of the cathedral church of St Paul by King Aethelbert (Æthelberht) of Kent in or shortly after 604, as recorded by Bede.

Its remains presumably underlie the present Wren church and churchyard, though any fragments beneath the cathedral would now be very badly damaged; and no Saxon remains of this period have been identified in excavations either here or elsewhere in the city.

The building of a cathedral does not necessarily imply the continuation of settlement, as it was papal policy to establish cathedrals in former Roman towns whatever their level of population.



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