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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 period has produced the most surprises from excavations towards the end of the twentieth century.

Though the dark age period which engulfed the territories of the former Roman empire continue to be dark, there was increasing light being shone on this formative period... Within the city of London itself, however, evidence remained meagre regarding the period between the formal departure of the Roman administration in AD 410 and the late Saxon reoccupation under King Alfred in the later ninth 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 city 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 had been converted to arable and pastoral use or had become entirely abandoned.

The dark earth may have started forming in the third century. The protection afforded by the walls, however, suggests that the city 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 predominantly Jutish invaders there.

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 of the post-1666 period, although 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, but its mere presence would have attracted people to the area.

London's Roman basicila
This model of the Second Great Forum and Basilica in Roman London is part of the Museum of London display on the city's Roman remains, which includes areas of surviving wall, both overground and (now) underground

Roman Londinium wall remains

Part of the surviving Roman wall of Londinium, now underground (alongside a car park) and viewable only on a Museum of London guided tour



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