A Moment in London’s History – The martyrdom of St Alphege…

This month marks the 1010th anniversary of the murder of Alphege, the Archbishop of Canterbury, by Vikings in Greenwich.

St Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury, is asked for advice in this early 15th century manuscript from Paris.

Alphege, also known as Ælfheah and Alfege, had been kidnapped from Canterbury during a Viking raid in September, 1011. Alphege’s captors were said to have been seeking a huge sum for his ransom – some 3,000 gold marks, reports the monk Osbern – but that, knowing such a sum would bring starvation upon the people under his care, he refused to allow himself to be ransomed – for money or anything else – and this drew the anger of his captors.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one day, seven months after his kidnapping – on 19th April, 1012, the Vikings were drunk and, had the elderly archbishop brought before their assembly. Then, in an act of execution, they began throwing ox bones and heads at the unfortunate archbishop before one of them struck him on the back of the head with the butt of an axe, killing him.

According to tradition, the murder took place on the site of St Alfege’s Church in Greenwich. A contemporary account also tells that a Viking lord named Thorkell the Tall, a Christian convert, had tried to save the archbishop’s life – offering everything he owned except his ship in exchange for the cleric’s life – but failed (interestingly, so appalled was Thorkell at the murder that he switched sides and fought for the English king Ethelred the Unready following Alphege’s death). There is also an account that the fatal blow was actually delivered by a Christian converted named Thrum as an act of mercy.

Alphege’s body was recovered and he was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral in London. In 1023, the body was moved by King Cnut to Canterbury in a gesture of goodwill to the English. The first Archbishop of Canterbury to meet such a violent end, he was canonised in 1078.

There is a memorial stone to the saint set in the floor in front of the altar in the Greenwich church.

10 London ‘battlefields’ – 2. ‘London Bridge is falling down’…

London-Bridge3We’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.

PICTURE: http://www.freeimages.com

10 sites from London at the time of the Magna Carta – 9. Old St Paul’s Cathedral…

The first great stone cathedral on the site where Sir Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s now stands was a relative – and as yet incomplete – newcomer in 1215. Construction on it had started more than 120 years before in 1087 but it eventually took more than 200 years to finish.

Old-St-PaulsIt was Bishop Maurice, chaplain to William the Conqueror (he donated some Caen stone for its construction), who began the project after the previous wooden Saxon church on the site – the latest in a succession of them dating back to the 7th century – had been destroyed by fire (although it was under successor Bishop Richard de Beaumis that work began to really take shape).

The first part of the building to be completed was the quire in 1148 – its opening was delayed by another fire in 1135 caused during civil unrest following the death of King Henry I – but it wasn’t until after the Magna Carta’s advent – in 1240 – that the church was eventually consecrated by Bishop Roger Niger.

Originally designed in the Norman Romanesque-style, the architectural style changed during the building process into the Early English Gothic style.

Enlarged and renovated several times since construction began, it wasn’t fully completed until the 14th century – when it was the largest church in England and the third largest in Europe featuring the tallest steeple, built in 1221, and spire, built in 1315, ever built (that is, until 1561 when it was knocked down by lightning).

It later contained a number of important relics including the arms of Mellitus, the first bishop of London (see our earlier post on him here), St Mary Magdalene’s hair, the head of King Ethelbert and, importantly for the time, some pieces from the skull of St Thomas á Becket. Among the tombs inside the emerging church in 1215 were those of Sebba, King of the East Saxons, who had been buried in the north aisle in 695, and that of King Ethelred “The Unready”.

While the exterior was remodelled in the early 17th century – including the addition of a monumental new porch by architect Inigo Jones – the medieval building remained standing until the Great Fire of 1666.

PICTURE: Via Wikipedia

A Moment in London’s History – When London Bridge was pulled down…

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.

London-BridgeFirst 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