Page images
PDF
EPUB

may remark that Ptolemy, the first writer who mentions the Thames at all, and who flourished in the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian, expressly terms our modern river “ Tamessc estuarium." It is by Tacitus that Londinum is first described, and he notices it as a flourishing city, celebrated even then for its wealth and its mercantile importance; but he, as well as later writers, is silent as to any water-way, and we know that merchandise, even until the twelfth century, was conveyed along the direct road from Dover to London.

A goodly city was Londinum Augusta, exceeding in extent any other Roman town in the kingdom, and, from a period very early in the second century, unquestionably the capital of the rich and fertile province of Britain ; a fair city, too, with stately buildingstemple, and palace, and forum; and adorned with noble statuary, and rich with tesselated pavements, in which glass tessere were mixed with the coarser material, and decked profusely with paintings which, from the small fragments Mr. Roach Smith has preserved, show to what high perfection art-culture had arrived, even in the capital of a remote province of the Roman empire. But while Roman London was thus flourishing, and her redundant population extending into Southwark, where the remains of many richly-decorated houses have been found, it is strange that we do not find the name of a single place for miles round bearing either Roman or Celtic designation, save “Isel-dun." All the villages that cluster round London-many now actually forming her suburbs-have strictly Saxon names. May we not, therefore, believe that during the five hundred years and more of Roman domination, the accumulated waters were gradually subsiding, leaving tracts ere long to be inhabited ; and that the noble river, probably as yet almost tideless, was slowly shaping out its future course ? That at this period, and centuries after, the Thames encroached largely on its present boundaries, seem proved by the name assigned by our Saxon forefathers to the road now at some distance from the northern bank, “the Strand.” It would be difficult to account for the application of such a name, unless the Saxons, on their first arrival, viewed the Thames as an arm of the sea. The name they gave, too, to that portion of the river, below bridge, and which is still retained, “the Pool," is utterly unintelligible as applied to a swift flowing river, for "pool" is the Saxon for lake; but, ere the alluvial deposits that form the headlands on either side of that part of the river were formed, the wide, tideless, accumulation of waters there must have spread out, just below Londinum Augusta, in a broad lake-like expanse--and, doubtless, thence the name.

How much there is that it would be pleasant to know about Roman London! Many thanks to Mr. Roach Smith for all he has done ; but, after all, how very fragmentary and disjointed are its scanty records ! During the later period of her history the walls were built. Tradition has assigned their erection to the Empress Helena, herself an Englishwoman; and perhaps in this instance, as

in many others, the tradition may be correct. Stout and strong. fitted to endure for many a long century, were these walls; buik, doubtless, for protection against the rude tribes who, during the decline of the Roman power, were attracted by the wealth and treasures of the chief city. But strange is it to find that 3 w l though of a somewhat later construction, extended along the riv side. Fitzstephen, in the twelfth century, refers to it, although them no longer standing; but many antiquaries have disbelieved bis statement. The careful researches of Mr. Roach Smith have, hov. ever, shown that a wall of considerable strength--from eight to tea feet thick-certainly did extend along the river-side ; for portions of it, far below the ground, still exist. It is curious to find that this wall, although strong, had been built up in many parts with sculptured stones—some of them portions of friezes- as though the inhabitants, unable to procure fresh materials, and perhaps in imediate apprehension of danger on the southern side, constructed is from the remains of buildings close at hand. Such a wall auli never have been built-indeed, could scarcely have been needehad the Thames then flowed with the vigorous current of aftertimes.

But while we can obtain only very scanty notices respecting Roman London, her history, from the decline of Roman power ere's to the days when the kingdom of Mercia received its name and res wide heritage of English ground, might be written in a few lines Who subjugated Roman London? How did it fall ? By suddea attack of fierce, resistless barbarians; or did its wealth panchas from time to time, a temporary respite, and its inhabitants, imp verished, diminished by continual exile, by warperhaps by po lence, too-at length became merged in the new dynasty Prais the latter; for there is neither tradition nor history to show that the inhabitants of London, like those of Anderida, sustained a long sies. and eventually were put to the sword, and the whole city burn:: and we find notices, too-would that they had been more spaticeven in middle-age writers, which seem to prove that many rrin, of Roman magnificence were even yet to be seen ; just as the statels forum and gilded tiles of her palaces were seen at Caerlesen by Giraldus, even in the twelfth century. It is suggestive, too, that Aldhelm, in his curious Latin poem addressed to the uncu. maidens of the newly-founded convent of Barking--he died in the year 709--alludes to luxurious habits of living, to costly jeweikry. and varied and splendid apparel, as though London, in the seventh century, still contained in part, at least-a lughly civilu.] population.

Up to this period, whatever might have been the appear the Thames below London, it seems, westward of the city, ta bor been a mere collection of shallow pools, except in the rainy ke when it flooded the low lands and extended far over Lamheth Westminster. The legend of Thorney Island proves that this was the case; and, silly as is the story, it is worthy of presen tion for its topographical details.

Long had the fisherman lingered beside his boat and his nets, for not a single fish had rewarded his toils, and the night was far spent, when a venerable old man suddenly appeared, and asked to be rowed over to Thorney Island. The legend tells us a church had been lately erected there by Sebert, King of the East Saxons, and it was now awaiting consecration. Much marvelling, therefore, what the aged man's errand could be, the fisherman rowed him over to the island-so called from the thorns and briars that overran it-and saw him enter the lowly church. But, behold the miracle! A blaze of light surrounded that aged man, in whom the awe-struck fisherman at once recognized St. Peter; angels filled the church, angelic voices sang the service; and thus, by no mortal hands, and amidst the songs, not of an earthly choir, but a heavenly, was the minster of St. Peter consecrated. The saint, his duty over, was rowed back again to land—he might as well, we heretically think, have descended on the island at once, and saved himself the trouble of being rowed over—and then he bade the fisherman cast his net. It was filled with the finest Thames salmon; and the saint, bidding the wellpleased fisherman go to the King and detail the wondrous events of the night, bidding him also never fail to pay tithe of salmon at his high altar-an injunction dutifully complied with by the Thames fishermen even until the sixteenth century-vanished from sight.

This legend contains the first notice we have of the Thames salmon-a fish which, in after-times, divided with its swans the admiration of medieval London. We may remark, ere passing, that, although this goodly legend professes to refer to the seventh century, there is no doubt that it is a fabrication of later date ; for, although there was a church, and probably an abbey, on Thorney Island toward the close of the eighth century, it scarcely received even a passing notice until Edward the Confessor laid the foundation of the new abbey-church-the first erected in the Norman style, and " with courses of hewn-stone so neatly fitted that the joints are scarcely visible," as William of Malmesbury admiringly records. From that prond time the monks, no longer of the Thorney Island, but of the royally-endowed Abbey of Westminster, manufactured legends, and forged charters, and indited marvellous chronicles, to the praise and glory indeed of St. Peter and King Edward, but also for the special emolument of themselves. Indignant enough were the Dean and Canons of St. Paul's at the honours bestowed on the rival church of St. Peter, and a most pious warfare commenced between them. Talk of rival sects, of “ opposition chapels” in a country town! the feuds of these holy men would make the bitterest contest ever waged between such appear as merest child's play. The St. Paul's party, however, were certainly the least to blame, and so thought their fellow-citizens; for, while the monks of Westminster were always boasting of "royal gifts” and “royal favour," the Canons of St. Paul's held to the popular side, and welcomed every triumph of the popular cause ; sang Te Deum with heartiest goodwill when the Great Charter was wrested from John, and joined as heartily in the anathema pronounced on all those who opposed it. The monks of Westminster were sorely moved at this; for the wealthy Londoners lavished their gifts upon St. Paul's, and, thanks to the progress of free opinion, many of the inhabitants of Westminster thought proper to do the same. Hence arose that we known proverb—the spiteful ebullition of the monks of Westminster —“ Robbing Peter to pay Paul.” But this is a digression, and . very wide one ; for, when the unpretending church on Thornet Island was built, we doubt whether the Chapter of St. Paul's even heeded its erection, for these were the early days of the Saxon kingdoms, and beyond the walls of London little toward the westward, save uncultivated land, met the eve.

Few notices can we find of our river during the earlier period Saxon rule. We think it probable that our Saxon forefathers werd it far more than the Romans, for the Saxon, like the Dane, ns almost “to the water born;" and difficult must have been the natgation, and perilous the shores, along which their long boats would not find out a way. Was it to protect the city from these NTT enterprising foemen that the wall by the river's side was built Ineffectual enough it proved, if so ; and the Saxons, ere long, les it sink into ruin. It is now that we find settlements near, alth raga not exactly “ by, the River's-side ;” and deeds and charters even this early give us the names--genuine Saxon-of the villages founded the them. Meanwhile, Londinum Augusta had fallen upon evil dans, and been reduced from the metropolis of Roman Britain to a mer third-rate city, the capital of the little tributary kingdom of the Ex Saxons. Subsequently, London became the capital of the more important kingdom of Mercia; but little account have we save the “in this year there was great slanghter at London ;" * now there was war against the Pagans ;' and eventually, in 83), we are to it was attacked, and the Mercian king forced to flee. Content: enough did the fierce Vikings find the river-way; and from the mouth of the Thames to Southwark their tall ships, ** the dragocs of the ocean," swept in triumph.

On Alfred's accession, all the eastern portion of England was subjugated by the Danes ; but by battle and by treaty be regained Mercia, and often was resident in London. With his illustrios grandson, however, the history of London and her poble river been Of all our kings, Athelstan alone has bequeathed his name to pain terity in two important localities of the ancient city. * King AS Street," now “Addle Street," has told, for more than nine eintures where the great Saxon monarch convened the "good men of London.' and gave them their highly-prized “ ('ustoms;" while “ Addle H.) still marks the chief approach to the palace-stronghold when he dwelt. Many blunders have been made about King Athrltan's palace. The Scalds, when they celebrated the prowess of this Vikings, frequently refer to the Castle or Tower of London; and it has been hastily concluded that this was the Tower. But the Tower was a much later erection, built by Gundulph, the great engineers

well as architect of his day ; but not to “guard” London, as some writers have sillily thought, but to overawe the Mercian city, which never yielded more than a sullen homage to the Norman sovereigns.

A hearty and spontaneous homage, however, was yielded by the fathers of the city to Athelstan; for he quitted royal Winchesterthen and for two centuries after the chief city of the land—to dwell among them; and he elevated the Mercian capital to an equality with Winchester by appointing for London an equal number of mint-masters, and regulated their civic proceedings; and, above all, enacted that law which gave the right to every merchant who had made three successful voyages to claim the dignity of Thane. A proud eminence this : to wear the golden bracelet, and sit, as of right, in the King's halls, and drain the mead-cup with the hereditary nobles of the land. No wonder Athelstan was long remembered in London, for from his days “the port of London” became a recognized phrase, and each year saw the Thames more crowded with vessels, and the barques of the enterprising trader spreading their sails to more distant regions, until, even in the twelfth century, Fitzstephen could boast that luxuries from all parts of the world found a mart in London,

But disastrous days, ere the close of that century, drew on; for the feebleness of the later Saxon monarchs disgusted a haughty people, and during the reign of Ethelred the Unready, the Saxons, who sought in their king a “ Bretwalda ”-a leader in war and a legislator in peace-but had found only a slave of the priesthood, or a glutton and wine-bibber, invited over the gallant “ Svend of the forked beard” to oppose their despised king. That the Danes, however unwelcome to Ethelred, were welcome enough to the inhabitants of London, seems proved by the fact that Svend entered the city without opposition, and his fleet quietly anchored just below. We must bear in mind that the inhabitants, as“ Angles,” were more closely allied to the Danish race than the West Saxons. But Ethelred, however cowardly, could not see the greater part of his kingdom wrested from him without a struggle ; and he invited the aid of King Olaf of Norway, and retook the city. But Svend was not to be baffled. Unable to pass “ the bridge,” which we now read of for the first time, “he came with his ships to Greenwich, and from thence to London," says the venerable Saxon chronicle, “and there they sunk a deep ditch on the south, and dragged their ships to the west side of the bridge.” A very creditable piece of engineering for the beginning of the eleventh century, for King Olaf's Saga informs us that it was “a great work, of large ditches with bulwarks of stone, timber, and turf.” Ethelred again fled away, and Svend's fleet sailed in, and, passing up the Fleet, anchored just on the site of King's Cross. How strange this reads! Some writers have supposed that the Danish vessels must have been very small to have anchored there, but the narrators of this incident give us no reason to believe that they were other than the vessels that had brought his army from Denmark; and we know that their ordinary

« PreviousContinue »