Many people will have seen the terrorist attack on and around London Bridge last week with the remarkable image of him being overpowered by a man armed with an antique Narwhal Tusk, a fire extinguisher and a pair of fists. A quite amazing and brave feat by any stretch of imagination and worthy of note in any period in history.
London Bridge has frequently been the sight of battles and spirited defences by Londoners from the times of the Roman Empire, through the Vikings and on to the present day. One of the most noteworthy was the aborted attempt of William The Conqueror to enter London this way.
After the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William The Conqueror took a few days to get into motion, letting his army that came within a hair breadth of defeat, recover after its spectacular victory whilst also waiting for the Anglo Saxons to send a delegation to surrender.
Everyone thinks of King Harold as the final Anglo-Saxon king but in fact after Hastings, a new king was elected (yes it was the Normans to took away the very Anglo-Saxon and relatively democratic tradition of a council electing a new King).
William went to attack Dover and Canterbury and then a month or so later arrived in London not expecting there to be any major problems. He was immediately presented with the formidable natural barrier of the River Thames, so formidable in fact that the Vikings had pulled down the river-side section of the Roman Wall.
Edgar Ætheling had been proclaimed king by the Witenagemot. Not expecting much in the way of resistance, William sent a his cavalry to the strategic town of Southwark to secure the southern end of London Bridge, which provided a crossing of the River Thames and direct access to London. Now Southwark is very firmly near the centre of London but at the time, Southwark was a partially-fortified suburb town of London and formed part of the personal estate of the royal Godwinson’s family.
Local Anglo-Saxon forces were led by Ansgar (or Esegar) the “Staller” (Royal standard bearer) and sheriff of Middlesex. Ansgar had been wounded whilst leading a contingent of Londoners for Harold at the Battle of Hastings, but had returned to the city with a number of other Anglo-Saxon leaders to organise a defence against William. Ansgar’s wounds that he gained in battle were so severe that he was not capable of walking and so to be carried third raising of the local militia or Fyrd and his troops were described as “numerous and formidable”.
William made an offer to Ansgar that he could retain his estates and position as sheriff and join William’s council if he recognised him as king. Ansgar refused to accept the terms of the foreign invader and led a number of London citizenry against the Norman force at Southwark, with Edwin, Earl of Mercia, Morcar, Earl of Northumbria and Ealdred, Archbishop of York may possibly have been amongst the defenders.
The 500 Norman knights defeated the Anglo-Saxon force and reached London Bridge, however, they were unable to make much headway on the fortified bridge and were so shocked at the fierce defence put up by the defenders that William ordered their retreat.
The town of Southwark however was set ablaze as the Normans withdrew to spread terror amongst the inhabitants of London across the river and William was forced to take a torturous route west to cross the River Thames with the river proving to be too wide and at any natural crossing point, too well protected until almost as far as Oxford where a local lord had come to an agreement with the invader.
This provided William with the opportunity to come round in a giant encircling movement and with the local militia already starving and exhausted from a year long invasion watch and bloody battles, the road was left for William to enter London from the north.
I’m sure the brave citizens of London Bridge in the winter of 1066 would be proud of their successors on a cold winters day almost a thousand years later.