Canute’s London Palace


I found it!  After much digging, I found what I was looking for: reference to Canute’s palace in London.  Not only did I find the location, but I stumbled across a juicy tidbit that would fit perfectly into my story.  That’s certainly the advantage of writing historic fiction: a legend is usually more interesting than a dry fact, so why not incorporate it?

It turns out that Alfred’s re-constructed London comprised a very small section on the Thames, from Billingsgate Quay (just downriver from London Bridge), up to the current Blackfriar’s bridge.  There was an old palace between St. Pauls cathedral and the Thames, apparently up against the Roman wall.  Here it is thought that the late Anglo-Saxon kings lived and did their government business.  The location of the palace is the same as the old Baynard’s Castle, which was built on its foundation by a Norman knight.

According to The Gentleman’s magazine, Volume 139, this is the spot where Canute killed the traitor Eadric and had his body thrown out the window of the palace and into the Thames.  Wow! What a scene that must have been!

Where did the King live before the Norman Conquest?

I’m writing this post as I research Anglo-Saxon London.  I’d like to add some historical local color to my narrative, but aside from references to London Bridge and the Roman wall, I’m having a hard time finding mention of anything, anywhere – especially referring to a royal residence. 

The three mile-long Roman walls surrounded what is roughly today’s city limits.  What I didn’t know until yesterday was that after the Romans left Britain, Londinium declined and sat in ruins for about 400 years.  During the dark ages, the Anglo-Saxons established a settlement about one mile west of the Roman walls, called Lundenwic.  The town was at the mouth of the river Fleet (now underground), and served as a lively trading center until Alfred the Great re-established London within its old walls and fortified the city, calling it Lundenburh.  This happened within a 10-year period after 886.  Lundenwic was then pretty much abandoned and called Ealdwic or “old settlement” which evolved into Aldwych, its name today.

All this is very interesting, but it certainly doesn’t answer my question.  However, I have bumped into references that Canute may have built a palace on Thorney Island, the site of the future Westminster Palace (Houses of Parliament).  I’m a little confused, because this site is even further upriver from Aldwych, which was upriver from London Bridge.  But at least it’s a start!  Can’t imagine why Canute and Edward the Confessor would want a palace in a marsh, but I’ll keep digging.

Canute’s Trench

Said to be four miles long

In 1016 Canute had returned to England to reclaim the throne his father had won three years before.  He had a formidable rival in Edmund Ironside, son of Aethelred the Unready.  Edmund stoutly defended London, and London Bridge blocked Canute’s passage up the river.  This wooden bridge joined the walled city to the suburbs of Southwark, which were protected, in turn, by raised Roman roads that provided a system of dykes to keep out the tidal waters.

There is very little agreement as to how he did it, but most historians believe that Canute’s men dug a trench, or a canal around Southwark, through the marshes, ending at Vauxhall and bypassing the bridge. He then totally encircled the city of London and laid siege.

In the course of writing about this feat, I keep wondering about how they managed to get so many shovels?  They certainly didn’t go to Home Depot and clean out the inventory.  Did they raid the locals and appropriate all the Saxon’s tools?  Did the put the locals to work?  Or can we assume that the Northmen expected to lay siege and packed shovels onto their ships before they left home?  How much stuff could they carry on those shallow vessels?

In the end, he raised the siege anyway, so what a lot of trouble for nothing!

London Bridge is Falling Down

1014 was a busy time for Londoners. The year before, Swegn Forkbeard, their unwelcome new king had died after only 5 months on the throne, and Aethelred wanted his crown back. But the Vikings were still in possession of the city, and they had other ideas. This time they were the ones defending London, and the attackers were Aethelred the Unready and his ally King Olaf of Norway.
Aethelred and Olaf were clever fellows and they protected their ships with thatched roofs pulled from buildings downstream. The bridge was packed with stout Vikings throwing everything they had onto the Saxon ships, who were busy tying ropes to the bridge piles. They rowed with all their might, taking advantage of the tide, and were able to pull out the supports, tearing the bridge down and everyone on it.  London threw open the gates and welcomed their old king back in, and the Northmen went away, only to return two years later with Canute and start all over again.
Many historians think this is where the nursery rhyme came from!