March 1, 2024

When London Was Abandoned

When the Romans left Britain in the 5th century, the city of London was abandoned. It remained empty for 400 years.

Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar

The Romans first entered Britain under Julius Caesar, in 55 BCE. Caesar had been campaigning in Gaul (modern day France), and initially crossed the channel in an exploratory capacity; he was the first Roman leader to visit the island.

Caesar saw in Britain a territory ripe for conquest. It had abundant natural resources but limited defences; it was not yet a unified country, and different areas had different leaders, suspicious of each other.

Caesar returned the following year to lead a full invasion, commanding five legions and 2 000 cavalry. The well drilled Roman troops quickly routed the local forces.

The Romans installed Mandubracius as their ‘client king’: a puppet ruler, indebted to Rome. Britainnia became the farthest territory of the Roman Empire.

The Roman city of Londinium
The Roman city of Londinium

The fulcrum of Roman Britain was Londinium.

When the Romans arrived the future city was a small village on the Thames. But its location made it important: it sat at the point where large ships could go no further upriver, and so became Britain’s key internal port.

Troops, emissaries, and cargo came and went through Londinium, connecting there to a network of Roman roads, spanning the country. Reflecting its importance, the town grew rapidly.

Londinium was sacked in a local uprising in the year 60. Military reinforcements restored order, after which it was rebuilt in a more Roman style.

The central point of the city was a large, open plan forum. This functioned like a town square, and was used for commerce, and public meetings. Surrounding the forum were offices and shops, on its north edge was a fifty metre long basilica.

West of the forum was an amphitheatre, and a sizable public baths, supplied by an aqueduct. Along the riverfront was a commercial district, with warehouses lining the water.

A large wooden bridge spanned the Thames. On the south bank was another commercial area, alongside market gardens that provided the city with fresh produce.

Aerial view of Londinium showing the wall
Aerial view of Londinium showing the wall

In the northwest corner was a military installation, Cripplegate Fort. Local reprisals against the Romans still flared occasionally, there were also periodic threats from raiding parties from mainland Europe.

To further defend the city, between the years 200 – 220 a wall was erected around it. Built of 86 000 tonnes of ragstone, the wall was 6 metres high, two metres deep, and had battlements along the top that allowed for a manned guard.

Londinium’s wall represented a formidable barrier. Five gates through the wall allowed the only access.

By the middle of the second century, the city had a population of 25 000, making it the largest in Britain.

Londinium was cosmopolitan but also segregated; local Britains did most of the work, and lived in cramped, low quality dwellings concentrated in the town centre. The wealthier citizens, predominantly Roman, lived in larger, more opulent residences on the outskirts.

But the standard of living overall was high for the time. During the Roman period, Londinium was busy and bustling, a thriving hub of trade, and other activity.

Emperor Constantine
Emperor Constantine

By the 4th century, the fortunes of the Roman Empire had begun to fluctuate.

Arguments over succession led to periodic civil war, which weakened the empire’s defences. At the same time, they were under greater threat from external foes, battling against the Goths, the Franks and the Samaritans, among others.

In 324, Constantine emerged victorious from the civil conflicts, and was proclaimed Emperor. His seat of power would be Constantinople, named after himself, a city he built up in eastern Europe to eclipse the power of Rome.

The focus of the new ruler would be to the east. Britannia was viewed as less important, and Roman troops and resources were steadily directed away from the frontier territory.

The decline continued throughout the 4th century.

The old fort was decommissioned, the other grand buildings of Londinium fell into disrepair. Some were demolished so their materials could be re-used in citizen’s houses, and gardens.

The forum and basilica were gone early in the 4th century, the amphitheatre was derelict by 350. By the end of the century, even the city’s once flourishing commercial district was in decline.

In 410, the Roman Army was fully withdrawn back to the continent. The remaining Roman citizens either returned with it, or stayed and were absorbed into the local population.

Britannia eased to be a part of the Roman Empire. Londinium itself was completely abandoned.

Roman Mosaic floor, unearthed at a London construction site
Roman Mosaic floor, unearthed at a London construction site

Archaeological work is conducted regularly in London, a vast number of artefacts have been found that inform the city’s history. But despite dedicated investigation, no evidence has been found of activity after the Roman’s departure.

It is an eerie mental image.

The city’s defensive wall was still intact, within that perimeter an abandoned space of several square kilometres. Nothing but crumbling, or collapsed, buildings, empty public squares, and stone roads slowly being overtaken by weeds.

A realm of ghosts.

Location of Ludenwic alongside abandoned London
Location of Ludenwic alongside abandoned London

The Romans would be replaced by the Anglo-Saxons, who began arriving in Britain from northern Germany in the 5th century. As they spread throughout the country, they established a small town alongside the ruins of Londinium.

West of the Fleet River, in an area now occupied by Covent Gardens, the new settlement was known as ‘Ludenwic’. The site was chosen for the same reason the Romans had done.

Ludenwic was a trading hub, the Thames provided easy access to shipping lanes for commerce with the rest of Britain, and Europe. Boats would dock at a small beach at the mouth of the Fleet, cargo would be transported by the still functional Roman road network.

But it is notable that the Anglo-Saxons initially avoided Londinium.

The walled city must have had some appeal: it remained the most substantial construction in the south of England. But the crumbling infrastructure made it unsafe, and the new settlers did not yet have the resources to repair it.

The old city stayed empty.

By the 7th century, the area was under the control of King Saeberht, the Anglo-Saxon ruler of East Britain. Saeberht converted to Christianity, and in 604 had a Cathedral, St Paul’s, built inside the walls of the former city.

The bishop of the new Cathedral, Mellitus, was the first resident to live there in 200 years. In the Anglo-Saxon language, the city was known as ‘Lundun’.

Ships docking at Ludenwic
Ships docking at Ludenwic

Ludenwic thrived and grew rapidly.

‘It spread over 55-60 hectares, and was probably laid out on a rough grid pattern, with gravelled main streets. Excavations have suggested it was a crowded, busy, but well organised place.’

 

– ‘London’, Cathy Ross and John Clark

But its success also brought unwanted attention.

By the 8th century, Viking raiders had begun targeting Britain, crossing the North Sea from Scandinavia. They disrupted seaborne trade routes, and on land slaughtered or enslaved the locals as they plundered their villages.

Their expeditions grew steadily bolder.

Ludenwic was attacked by Vikings in 842, and again in 851. In 865, a substantial Viking army landed in England, and seized much of the north and central part of the country; Ludenwic was finally captured in 871.

King Alfred, ruler of the West Saxons, remained the only opposition.

King Alfred
King Alfred

Alfred gathered a sizable army of his own, and defeated the Vikings in a series of battles through the 870s. He finally pushing them north again, and would reclaim Lundun around 880.

Alfred immediately saw the value in the city’s still imposing defenses.

Ludenwic would subsequently be abandoned and Lundun rebuilt. Alfred entrusted his son-in-law, Aethelred, with a substantial redevelopment program, repairing and replacing buildings, laying out new streets, and commercial areas.

Remains of the Roman wall, present day London
Remains of the Roman wall, present day London

The re-occupation of Lundun would take 20 years, and was not complete until the end of the 9th century. From this point onwards, it remained Britain’s largest and most important city, and the eventual capital of the unified country.

London had been completely deserted for 470 years, from 410 to 880. Parts of the Roman wall, marking out the Roman city, are still standing.

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