The History of London: King Alfred

This post about important events in the history of London is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available from Amazon and bookshops.

How did King Alfred obtain London?

The writings of a man called Æthelweard tell us that that Alfred besieged  London in 886, and another early writer called Henry of Huntingdon suggested that an opportunity had arisen because the Viking presence had been weakened as a result of some having left to join Viking forces on the continent. Although The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and Asser record Alfred in London at this time, neither source mentions that Alfred had taken London by force.  The Chronicles also tell us that in the same year Alfred entrusted London to his son-in-law and ruler of Mercia, Æthelred. London had been a Mercian city and there may have been some resentment after it had been taken over by Wessex, with this being defused by Alfred handing it over to Mercian Æthelred in order to control on behalf of both of them. We know from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles that London had been under Viking occupation in 871 when they had moved there from Reading. However, the Chronicles also tell us that these Vikings left for Northumbria in 872, and it was perhaps this that subsequently allowed Alfred to start to extend his power to London. Indeed, there is evidence from coins suggesting that London may have been under Alfred’s protection as early as the late 870s.

Where was London?

But what was this London that Alfred was gaining control over? It has been suggested that after Roman control ended the population left the fortified area at the current site of the City of London and went to a place called Lundenwic, approximately 1 mile to the west, perhaps because this provided easier access to a ford at Westminster. The wic element of Lundenwic persists in the modern name Aldwych.  It appears that people later moved back to re-use the earlier Roman fortifications (as also appears to have happened at Winchester), and it seems plausible that this move had been triggered by Viking attacks.  So, when Alfred took control of London it could well have comprised what is now the City of London and the area around Aldwych, with the two settlements connected by what we now call Fleet Street. There is also evidence of a high status Saxon site at Whitehall, although this seems to have fallen out of use about the same time as Aldwych.

Mosaic. Queenhithe. North bank. River Thames.  London.
The Queenhithe mosaic on the north bank of the River Thames, London. There would have been a dock here in King Alfred the Great’s time.

It is thought that Alfred restored London after 868 and it has been suggested that the site of the restored Alfredian burgh extended along the north bank of the Thames from near Queenhithe in the west to near Billingsgate in the east, and extending inland by about 300m. It is interesting to note that this area only occupied a small part of the Roman walled area, but in Alfred’s time much space might have been taken up by crops and livestock. Much of this stretch along the river can be walked and for me the most interesting location is Queenhithe, where there are some information boards and one can look out over what would have been a dock in Alfred’s time. It is a great place to stop and think about the Saxon history of London. Queenhithe is named after Matilda, the wife of King Henry I, but the location had previously been called Æthelred’s Hithe, named after king Alfred’s son-in-law.

Queenhithe. North bank. River Thames. London.  Millennium Bridge and Tate Modern in background.
Queenhithe, on the north bank of the River Thames in London, with the Millennium Bridge and Tate Modern in the distance. There would have been a dock here in King Alfred the Great’s time.

It may be that the administrative centre of London at Alfred’s time was somewhere near Aldermanbury. If this is the case then it seems likely that Alfred would have been there at some point. However, this is based on the presence of the Old English burh in the place name, and it is not known whether this was acquired after the time of King Alfred.

Road sign. Aldermanbury, London.
The ward of Aldermanbury, London.

Aldermanbury is immediately to the north-west of the current Guildhall, with Wood Street running north-south through the middle of it. It is possible, based on the 13th century Matthew Paris quoting an 11th century source, that there had been a Saxon royal palace at Aldermanbury near the site of the former church of St Alban on Wood Street. This does not allow us to confirm that it was there when Alfred was alive, but there must have been at least one royal residence and there are few other potential locations within the circuit of London’s walls (another being the site of the former Roman praetorium, the remains of which are largely under Cannon Street station). This church was a victim of the 1940 Blitz and all that remained, with the exception of the tower, was demolished in the 1950s. The tower, now a private residence, still stands in splendid isolation in the middle of Wood Street. if it was still standing, the church would extend eastwards into where the police station is located.

Also perhaps of significance is that this was in a particularly important part of Roman London, being within the outline of the Roman fort, and also very close to the Roman amphitheatre. You may not wish to miss the remains of the amphitheatre, which are located beneath the Guildhall Art Gallery. It is also possible that the walls of the Roman fort were still intact, and this square area at the north-east aspect of the walled city might itself have served as a base (more details on this, with a map, in this post). There is some evidence that there may have been royal palaces at Brentford and Chelsea in the 8th century, but whether these were still in service at the time of King Alfred is not known.

St Alban's bell tower, Wood Street, London. Inside the outline of the Roman fort.
St Alban’s bell tower, Wood Street, London. Inside the outline of the Roman fort. Was there a Saxon royal residence here?

A predecessor to St Paul’s would have been present at or near the site of today’s cathedral, as this had been founded in 604. All Hallows by the Tower shows evidence of Saxon work, so it is possible that a church was also standing there in Alfred’s time.

North bank. River Thames. View east towards London Bridge
The north bank of the River Thames, looking east towards London Bridge

Southwark is mentioned in the Burghal Hidage, issued in the reign of Edward the Elder (Alfred’s son) after Alfred’s death, so it seems likely that there was a burgh in place here on the south side of the Thames before Alfred died. Indeed, it is possible that a London Bridge, as a replacement or a repair of the earlier Roman structure, may have been built, perhaps during Alfred’s lifetime, in order to connect the two burghs on either side of the river and to act as a defence against Vikings trying to proceed upstream.

King Alfred may have also been at Chelsea in 892, 898 or 898 (it depends on which reading of a particular charter one is looking at. The one in Corpus Christi, Cambridge  has 892. The one from  Lambeth Palace has the other dates. The transcription, in Latin, of the Lambeth Palace document is here). I have some concerns about how what seems to be Chelsea is spelt in these documents, which makes me shy away from saying for sure that he was there. It seems to me, however, that it was more likely than not.

It have seen it suggested that Lothbury (a street in the city of London) may have had its name derived from the 7th century King Hlothere of Kent, and that this may indicate that there was some sort of royal function taking place there. However, this does not seem to fit well with evidence that most of the population of London at that time would have been at Lundenwic.

St Paul's Cathedral, London
St Paul’s Cathedral, London. From Winkles’ Cathedrals 1836
Thames Embankment, London, from Waterloo Bridge.
Thames Embankment, London. From Illustrated London News 1856. Looking east. The dome is that of St Paul’s. To the left, back from the river, are the Strand and Aldwych areas.
St Paul's Cathedral, London
St Paul’s Cathedral, London. From Winkle’s Cathedrals, 1836

I hope that you enjoyed reading about these important events in the history of London. There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. Tap or click the image below to learn more about the book.