South London begins

Roman Southwark is where South London began.

Rocque 1768 Southwark

 Of course ‘Southwark’ is not a Roman name. On the contrary, it is emphatically English, dating from the ninth century or later, when King Alfred re-occupied and re-built the city. Anglo-Saxon Southwark was the ‘South Work’, the works or workings on the south bank, and in this context ‘work’ probably meant ‘defensive work’, walls or stockades. Southwark’s alternative name of ‘The Borough’ recalls this, because ‘borough’ or ‘burgh’ was Alfred’s name for a defended settlement.

 However right now we are concerned not with the ninth century, but with the first to the fifth centuries; not with Anglo-Saxon Southwark but with Roman Southwark. Sadly we have no idea what the Romans called it, and no very clear idea of its relation to Londinium across the river.

  This stretch of the south bank of the Thames was an intricate river-scape of tidal creeks and mudflats, reeds and marshes, dotted with small islands which managed to keep themselves a few feet above the high-water mark. The Roman settlement at Southwark was based on two of these islands, north and south.

The north island was settled first – naturally, since it provided the bridge-head for the Thames crossing – and some basic riverside revetting was carried out even before Boudicca’s revolt in AD 61. After the revolt Londinium entered its boom-town phase and Southwark followed suit: both islands were settled by AD 100, in an orderly fashion with clear property boundaries. Quays were built along the riverfront in the late first and early second centuries, and marsh-land was drained and reclaimed at sites such as the future Courage’s Brewery and Winchester Palace. At its height, Roman Southwark had a population of perhaps 3,000 or 4,000 people.

 The general consensus is that Londinium started to decline from the late second century. Some of its quays were dismantled in the later third century to make way for the defensive riverside wall which marked the city’s shift from being primarily a port and market, to being primarily an administrative and military stronghold. Southwark apparently continued to flourish, maybe by tempting merchants to move their business from the north bank to the south. But it couldn’t hold out forever. By the fourth century it was in decline, and by the end of that century it had shrunk back to a small area around the bridge-head on the north island, reminiscent of its beginnings more than four hundred years earlier.

 But let’s imagine Roman Southwark in its prime, around AD 150. Anyone leaving Londinium to head south would cross the Thames bridge to Southwark, and carry on down the main road for about half a mile as it crossed the two islands, until it reached the mainland. There the road split into two at a junction: Stane Street heading south-west towards Chichester; and Watling Street going south-east to Kent.

Roman Southwark map

 We can still follow this route today. Borough High Street follows the line of the Roman road. A few yards beyond the junction with Southwark Street is roughly the crossing-point between the north and south islands.

 Southwark north south channel

 And a few yards before the church of St. George the Martyr

 Southwark St George's church

 is roughly the crossing point between the south island and the mainland.

 The road junction in front of the church is the Roman junction: the final section of Borough High Street and Newington Causeway form the first section of Stane Street; and Great Dover Street is the start of Watling Street.

 Close to this junction, behind the church, on land now bounded by Long Lane and Tabard Street

Southwark Roman temple 

 was a temple complex including ritual buildings and guest houses. This was established in the late second century, expanded in the third, and reduced in the fourth. Its location close to a junction of Roman roads, and to a later Christian church (St George’s was built in the 1730s to replace an earlier medieval church), is highly suggestive. We will pick up this theme in future posts.  

 From the fifth century, Roman Southwark went the way of London as a whole, abandoned as Britain was cut loose from the Empire, and lost touch with imperial networks and institutions. Nevertheless, this is where South London began, inseparable from the city across the river, but also distinct as a place in its own right.


London Begins: Only business

In Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Godfather, when Tessio’s plot to assassinate Michael Corleone fails, Tessio is abruptly led off to execution. He turns to Tom Hagen and – mournfully and memorably – says: “Tell Mike I always liked him. It was only business”.

“Only business”. It could be London’s motto.

In my previous post I argued that the pre-Roman London region – and South London in particular – was an unregarded, thinly-inhabited back-water. Admittedly it sat on the banks of a major river, but so too did many other places with better soil and better prospects. Politically it was part of the Catuvellauni territory, but there is nothing to suggest that it held any importance for them, unlike Colchester, St. Albans, Dorchester, Rochester or Canterbury. And yet, within ten years of the Roman invasion, London was an entrepôt, a market, a place to make money, a place to do business.

The decision to create London involved political, military and commercial interests, and must have represented some sort of compromise between them.

From the point of view of the army and imperial authorities, their priorities in these early years were dictated by the geography of the invasion, and the locations of allies, and of actual or potential enemies. They needed to consolidate their grip on recently-conquered Catuvellauni territory in Kent, Hertfordshire and Essex. They needed a secure connection with their allies the Atrebates, on the south coast. They needed a jumping-off point for continuing campaigns to the north and west. They needed a single site from which they could reach out in all these different directions.

Roman priorities AD 43

But that site also needed to work for the merchants and craftsmen and financiers who were an indispensable part of the imperial project. They needed good access to the sea to bring in supplies for the army; and to kick-start a British export trade to tie the new province into the wider imperial trading system; and to import luxury goods as part of the standard Roman strategy of cultural assimilation, bribing local elites into acquiescence.

And finally, crucially, the Romans needed this site to be their site, a virgin site, unencumbered by local tribal associations or traditions.

The site they chose became London. They chose it because it was convenient as a river-crossing, acting as a junction for roads in all directions; convenient as a port because it was on a tidal river; and convenient because it had no previous existence, because it was a back-water. It offended no tribal dignity. It was a blank slate upon which the Romans could write a new city and make it entirely theirs.

Admittedly, this raises a question: if London was founded as an entirely Roman creation, why didn’t it have an entirely Roman name? Why was it called ‘Londinium’, which adds a Latin ending to a non-Latin place-name? The current philological view seems to be that ‘Londin’ is derived from the pre-Celtic, Indo-European word ‘plowonida’ meaning ‘fast-flowing river’, referring perhaps to the Thames from the point where it becomes tidal. If this is right, then ‘Londin’ is a metonym, a descriptive term for the river itself, recruited to serve as a place-name for a particular site upon the river. But this still doesn’t explain why the Romans chose to use this local term, rather than adopt one of their own.


Londinium Bridge – (c) Museum of London

 Until sometime in the second century, London seems to have kept itself outside the formal imperial/military structure which the Romans were imposing on the rest of the country. Former tribal centres such as St. Albans or Colchester were quickly adopted as Roman settlements; and large parts of the country were divided into civitates, cantons or administrative regions, sometimes based on pre-existing tribal territories and sometimes not. But London just got on with being London, so that around AD 98 the Roman historian Tacitus wrote that it “did not rank as a Roman settlement but was an important centre for merchants and goods”.

Rightly or wrongly, this conjures up a picture of a boom-town, devoted to the making of money, happy to turn a profit from import and export, and anxious to avoid outside control. This picture is consistent with the numerous letters on writing tablets, found during recent excavations in the City. These date from very soon after the city’s foundation, either side of Boudicca’s revolt in AD 61, and they are mostly concerned with business, with loans and repayments, purchase prices, deliveries, and the commercial value of a good reputation.


 Roman writing tablet –

Boom-town London didn’t last. In the late second and third centuries the Empire slipped into crisis. The cross-continental trade upon which London relied started to dry up. Horizons narrowed as imperial policy shifted to a new defensive stance organised around walled towns and cities, and provincial self-reliance. This was also a time of greater class inequality: Britain’s most luxurious villas date from this period. London meanwhile acquired new city walls, as markets and trade gave way to a new emphasis on administration and taxation, and its population fell.

In other words, London began as it has continued, an accommodation between money-making and power-play, profits and politics. Sometimes the emphasis is on money, sometimes on state-craft, but ultimately each feeds off the other. Nothing personal, it’s only business.


London Begins: Back-water

There is a whole literature about London as myth, ranging from the self-regarding psycho-geography of Iain Sinclair or Peter Ackroyd, to the seductive parallel-world fantasies of China Miéville or Ben Aaronovitch, plus countless bloggings and tweetings which in their various ways figure London as weird. And there are the wonderful age-old legends of London’s beginnings: its foundation as ‘New Troy’ by the Trojan refugee Brutus; its re-naming as ‘Lud’s Town’ by his descendant King Lud; or alternatively, its origin as a Druidic sacred site based on ritual mounds at Tower Hill, Tothill, Parliament Hill and Pentonville.

Sacred mounds

Frontispiece from E.O. Gordon’s Prehistoric London: Its Mounds and Circles, 1932.

This is lovely stuff, enriching, poetically real. But not, sad to say, historically real. The historical reality is that London was created in cold blood in the AD 40s or 50s by brutal, energetic, and utterly prosaic Romans. Until then it was mainly a muddy stretch of riverside.

South London in particular was uninviting territory. Along the Thames it was a boggy prospect of marshes and creeks, dotted with ‘eyots’ or tiny islands of higher ground. Inland, much of it was on heavy London clay covered by dense oak woodland. It was not impossible to clear the trees and grow food: there are signs of Iron Age cultivation in Southwark, and at Canada Water and Elephant and Castle. But it was hard work. Most pre-Roman South Londoners chose to settle on better soils along the rivers at places like Charlton and Greenwich on the Thames, or sites on the Hogsmill and Cray; or further south, at sites such as Beddington and Keston. But in general South London in the late Iron Age, in the first-century BC and first-century AD, was a thinly-inhabited backwater.

Meanwhile, south-east Britain more broadly was a churning zone of tribal politics and rivalries, closely watched by the Romans just across the Channel. The key players were the Catuvellauni, whose home-base was in present-day Hertfordshire around St. Albans and Wheathampstead. To their east in Essex were the Trinovantes around Colchester; and to their south and west were the Atrebates in West Sussex, Hampshire and Berkshire. The Catuvellauni were the most expansionist of these three peoples. It was probably their aggression against the other two – who had trading and tribal links with Roman Gaul and Germany – which provoked Caesar’s expeditions to Britain in BC 55 and 54, and Claudius’s full-scale invasion in AD 43.

For almost 90 years between these Roman incursions, however, the Catuvellauni managed their relations with Rome more discreetly, while continuing their territorial expansion. During most of this period they had just two kings, each of whom reigned for 30 years – an extraordinarily long time. First there was Tasciovanus, who ruled from about BC 20 to AD 10. He defeated or absorbed the Trinovantes and adopted their capital at Colchester, which was already the main point of entry for a lively trade with Roman Gaul and Germany. Tasciovanus set up a mint there and issued his own metal coins in the Roman manner. He also put pressure on the Atrebates to the south and tried – unsuccessfully – to persuade them to accept his brother as king. And he expanded his territories south of the Thames. His coins have been found across north Kent west of the Medway. His lands would therefore have included what is now South London, though I doubt if he paid it much attention. He would have been more interested in the richer land to the east, and in the Medway and the strategic site of Rochester.

Tasciovanus was succeeded by Cunobelinus – the historical model for Shakespeare’s legendary ‘Cymbeline’ – who ruled from about AD 10 to 40. He continued to expand Catuvellauni influence in Kent – his coins are found both west and east of the Medway – and came to control the whole Thames Estuary region on both the Essex side and the Kent side. From this position he maintained diplomatic and trading links with Roman Gaul and Germany, and tried to hold a pragmatic balance between the pro- and anti-Roman factions within his own family.

Cunobelinus coin

A coin of Cunobelinus, ruled AD 10 – 40:

When Cunobelinus died, power passed to two fiercely anti-Roman sons, Caratacus and Tugodumnus. Possibly they divided the realm between them, Tugodumnus taking the Catuvellauni heartland north of the Thames, while Caratacus took the smaller but strategically placed lands in Kent. They also resumed pressure on the Atrebates to the south, and when the Atrebates’ king asked the Romans for help, the Emperor Claudius took it as a justification for invasion. Having arrived on the imperial throne in dubious circumstances, and without any reputation as a warrior, Claudius needed a military triumph, and the exotic island of Britain, perched on the edge of the world, fitted the bill.

The Roman invasion in AD 43 was a grimly business-like affair. The invaders aimed to break the power of the Catuvellauni, and they succeeded, and their success stemmed from their ability to surprise. Their arrival was a surprise, landing unopposed at Richborough. They won their first battle against Caratacus on the Medway by adopting unconventional tactics. They crossed the Thames and won a second battle where Tugodumnus was killed. They then continued to Colchester and finished the job. But the question for us Londoners is: where exactly did they cross the Thames?

Our primary source for the campaign is the Roman historian Dio Cassius. However, he was writing more than a hundred years after the events he describes, and his account is vague and dwells largely on individual deeds of valour. Regarding the crossing point, he says that the Britons “withdrew to the Thames, at a point where it flows into the sea and at high tide forms a lake” which suggests somewhere on the estuary; but he then refers to warriors swimming across the river and using a bridge, which suggests somewhere entirely different. Nevertheless, his account has traditionally been treated as broadly reliable. The usual interpretation is that from the Medway, Roman soldiers marched west for about 40 miles along the line of the future Watling Street, to cross the Thames either from Southwark near the future site of London Bridge, or at a ford somewhere near the future site of Westminster Bridge. They fought and won their second battle: one author suggests that the City of London was the battle-ground. And then they set off again, now heading north-east towards Colchester, about 60 miles away.

According to this traditional account, therefore, the significance of London is that it was the crossing-point chosen by the Roman army in AD 43.


Sensible route

 Roman march on Colchester AD 43: traditional route vs sensible route

I’m no military strategist, but to my mind this makes little sense. Having won their battle on the Medway, the Romans’ strategic target was Colchester, lying north-north-east directly across the Thames estuary. So why set off to the west, even if the Catuvellauni were retreating in that direction? Why commit themselves to a round trip of 100 miles or so? Why not retain the initiative and head straight across the estuary, using the transports in which they had just crossed the Channel? This idea was floated by P. Thornhill in the 1970s, who suggested a crossing between Highbury in Kent and Tilbury in Essex, and it makes a lot more sense to me. Admittedly it contradicts some of the anecdotal detail of Dio Cassius, but not the overall logic of his narrative.

 If this is right, London is not the result of a Roman military decision in AD 43. Instead, it is the result of some other Roman decision, made as they consolidated their position in the following years. What might that have been? Watch this space.