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.
• The Vikings come to the British Museum from today with the first major exhibition in more than 30 years. Vikings: life and legend, the first exhibition to be held in the new Sainsbury Exhibition Gallery, was developed with the National Museum of Denmark and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin) and looks at the Viking period from the late 8th century to the early 11th century. Featuring many new archaeological discoveries and objects never seen before in the UK alongside items from the British Museum’s own collection, the exhibition is centred on the surviving timbers of a 37 metre long Viking warship excavated from the banks of the Roskilde fjord in Denmark (pictured). Other items include skeletons recently excavated from a mass grave of executed Vikings in Dorset, the Vale of York Hoard (discovered in 2007) and a stunning hoard of silver from Gnezdovo in Russia. A unique live broadcast event presented by historian Michael Wood taking cinema audiences around the exhibition will be shown in cinemas across the nation on 24th April. Admission charge applies. Runs until 22nd June. For more, see www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/vikings.aspx. PICTURE: Copyright of the National Museum of Denmark.
• The commemorations of the World War I centenary have commenced at the National Portrait Gallery with The Great War in Portraits. The first of a four year programme of events and displays at the gallery, the exhibition features iconic portraits of figures such as Winston Churchill, Kaiser Wilhelm, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen as well as major art works by the likes of Lovis Corinth, Max Beckmann, and Kirchner, whose painting Selbstbildnis als Soldat (Self-portrait as a Soldier) is featured, and Harold Gillies’ photographs of facially injured soldiers from the Royal College of Surgeons. Among the highlights are Jacob Epstein’s The Rock Drill, a contrasting pair of British and German films about the Battle of the Somme, and a press photograph of Gavrilo Princip, the student who sparked the flames of war when he assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Elsewhere among the 80 works on display are portraits of war heroes such as VC winners are contrasted with those of soldiers disfigured by war, POWs and those shot for cowardice. Admission is free. Runs until 15th June. For more, see www.npg.org.uk/whatson/firstworldwarcentenary/exhibition.php.
• Our fascination with ruins is the subject of a new exhibition which opened this week at Tate Britain. Including more than 100 works from the likes of JMW Turner, John Constable, John Martin, Eduardo Paolozzi, Rachel Whiteread and Tacita Dean, Ruin Lust examines the craze for ruins that overtook creative types in the eighteenth century and the subsequent revisiting – and at times mocking – of this fascination by later figures. Works on show include Turner’s Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window 1794, Constable’s Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’ c 1828-9, Graham Sutherland’s Devastation series 1940-1 – showing the aftermath of the Blitz, Jon Savage’s images of London in the late 1970s, and Whitehead’s Demolished – B: Clapton Park Estate 1996, showing the demolition of Hackney tower blocks. Runs until 18th May. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/ruin-lust.
February 10, 2014
This year we’re launching a new regular edition to Exploring London in which we take a brief look at a moment in the city’s long and colourful history.
First up, we travel back exactly 1,000 years to 1014. The story – recorded in Viking Skaldic poetry but apparently not in Anglo-Saxon sources – goes that during the ongoing conflict between the Danes and Anglo-Saxons, the Danish had taken the city, occupying both the city proper and Southwark. At that stage, there was a timber bridge crossing the Thames.
Desperate to regain the city (the Viking ruler Sweyn died on 3rd February that year – this may have been why the attack was launched), the Anglo-Saxon King Æthelred (known to history as ‘the Unready’) and his Norwegian Viking allies apparently under King Olaf II sailed up the Thames in a large flotilla.
Despite meeting fierce resistance from the Danish occupiers – they lined the bridge and attacked the invasion force with spears – the attackers, apparently using thatching stripped from the rooves of nearby houses to shield themselves, managed to get close enough to attach cables to the bridge’s piers and then pull the bridge down.
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 (but it’s still a nice story!)
The bridge was subsequently rebuilt and King Æthelred died only two years later, on 23rd April, 2016. The crown passed to his son Edmund Ironside but he too died after ruling for less than a year before the Viking Canute was crowned king.
For more on the history of London Bridge, see our earlier posts Lost London – London Bridge and Lost London: Gates Special – The Stone Gate, London Bridge.
PICTURE: Not the original London Bridge