10 London ‘battlefields’ – 2. ‘London Bridge is falling down’…
October 28, 2015
We’ve touched on this story before but it’s worth a revisit as part of this series. London changed hands several times during the later half of the first millennium as the Anglo-Saxons fought Vikings for control of the city, meaning the city was the site of several battles during the period.
One of the most memorable (or so legend has it, there are some archaeologists who believe the incident never took place) was the battle in 1014 in which London Bridge – then a timber structure (today’s concrete bridge is pictured above) – was pulled down. A story attributed to the Viking skald or poet Ottarr the Black but not found in Anglo-Saxon sources, the event, if it did take place, did so against the backdrop of an ongoing conflict between the Danes and Anglo-Saxons.
Anglo-Saxon London had resisted several attempts at being taken by the Vikings – a fire was recorded in the city in 982, possibly caused by a Viking attack – and in 994, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that a fleet of 94 Danish and Norwegian ships were repelled with prejudice. Further attacks was driven back in 1009 and it wasn’t until 1013 that the city finally submitted to Danish rule after Sweyn Forkbeard had already claimed Oxford and Winchester.
But Sweyn, the father of the famous King Canute (Cnut), didn’t hold it long – he died on 3rd February the following year.
The deposed Anglo-Saxon King Æthelred II (also spent Ethelred, he was known as ‘the Unready’) – who had been forced to flee from London, which he used as his capital, to what is now Normandy thanks to Sweyn’s depredations – is said to have seized his chance and along with the forces of his ally, the Norwegian King Olaf II, he sailed up the Thames to London in a large flotilla.
The Danish had taken the city, occupying both the city proper and Southwark, and were determined to resist. According to the Viking account, they lined the timber bridge crossing the river and rained spears down on the would-be invaders. (The bridge, incidentally, had apparently been built following the attack in 993, ostensibly to block the river and prevent further incursions further upstream – there is certainly archaeological evidence that a bridge existed in about the year 1000).
Not to be beaten, Æthelred’s forces, using thatching stripped from the rooves of nearby houses to shield themselves, managed to get close enough to attach some cables to the bridge’s piers, pulling the bridge down and winning the battle, retaking the city.
There’s much speculation that the song London Bridge is Falling Down was inspired by the incident but it, like much of this story itself, remains just that – conjecture (although Ottarr’s skald does sound rather familiar).
The bridge was subsequently rebuilt and King Æthelred died only two years later, on 23rd April, 2016. The crown subsequently passed to his son Edmund Ironside but he too died after ruling for less than a year leaving Viking Canute to be crowned king.