Its plum trading position - at the mouth of the Thames and the heart of a network of Roman roads – makes London quite a prize. No wonder then it was so fiercely fought over throughout the Anglo-Saxon age.
Not long after the Romans abandoned the old city, the early Saxons moved in, building a new settlement which they called Lundenwic (wic being the Old English name for a trading town). For many years, archaeologists searched for traces of this early town. In the 1980s, they found it: not on the site of old Roman London but much further west. Work on the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden revealed a grid of streets stretching for 600,000 acres from the National Gallery to the Aldwych (or old town) and dating as far back as the 5th century.
At this time, England wasn’t unified but split into seven separate kingdoms. London became a pawn in an on-going power struggle between the kingdoms of Essex, Mercia and Kent.
By 730, Mercia had control of most of south east England, including London. But this apparent stability was short lived. By the 9th century, Lundenwic’s wealth attracted the unwanted attentions of the Danish Vikings. From 830 onwards, they sailed up the Thames and attacked with alarming regularity.
Only nine years after a particularly bloody raid in 842, a terrifying convoy of 350 longboats attacked London and burned it to the ground. By 871, the ‘great heathen army’ had set up camp for the winter in the city. The Vikings had total control of London.
But in 879, they were forced to give the south of the country back to Alfred of Wessex and recognise him as King of all England. London was back in Saxon hands. That didn’t stop the Danish raids, however, and on Christmas Day 886, King Alfred the Great abandoned undefended Lundenwic and relocated within the protection of the old Roman walls. A plaque near the north end of the Millennium Bridge marks the site where Alfred set up a harbour and market.
The new settlement of Lundenburgh became a thriving hub of trade: excavations have uncovered evidence of wharves and giant warehouses. Thanks to its size and commercial wealth, London also became more important politically (although the official seat of government was still at Winchester).
But after Alfred’s death, the Vikings began concerted attacks on London once more. It was only when the Danish king Cnut came to power in 1017 that the raids finally stopped. In a move that heralded London’s reputation for tolerance, Cnut united the Danes and the Saxons and encouraged Danish traders to settle in the city.
After Cnut’s death, London returned to Saxon hands – this time under Edward the Confessor. Since he had been raised in Normandy, his reign attracted French traders to the city. It was Edward, a deeply religious man, who founded Westminster Abbey on an island in the Thames and moved his court there.
On Christmas Day 1066, having defeated Edward’s successor, King Harold, William the Conqueror was crowned in the new abbey. Winchester may still have been the official capital of England. But London was without a doubt it’s most important city.