Medieval Period Overview
From the end of the Roman period at the beginning of the 5th century, to the end of the Wars of the Roses in the late 15th century, London changed dramatically. We can simplify these changes into three key phases, each of which had a quite distinct urban geography.
During the early Medieval period (Saxon) the walled Roman City of London was almost completely unoccupied as far as archaeologists can tell, and a new settlement or ‘wic’ was founded in the area of modern day Covent Garden. At the end of the 9th century, during the reign of King Alfred, the main focus of settlement moved back into the area of the walled Roman city and the ‘wic’ was largely abandoned. Finally, after the Norman conquest in 1066, the Tower of London was constructed in the eastern corner of the city and many new monastic houses were founded.
Remnants of the Roman Period
The evidence from the Eastern Roman Cemetery indicates that at the beginning of the 5th century AD, the Roman cemetery rapidly fell into disuse. There is some early Saxon evidence from the cemetery in the form of 5th century jewellery from some of the latest graves, but this does not mean for certain that there was any significant activity in the area at this time or any continuity between the Roman and Saxon period. It may simply indicate this type of jewellery was traded or exchanged from elsewhere on the Continent, or was simply fashionable at this late period. This may also be due to the fact that this type of Continental style jewellery has been allocated dates that are slightly later than they should be.
Early Medieval Period
During the Early and Middle Saxon period (AD400 – 950), the area that was the Eastern Roman Cemetery site would have lain well to the East of any significant activity. The Saxon settlement of Lundenwic was probably founded as a trading point, near what is now the Strand, during the late 6th – early 7th century, conveniently near the confluence of the River Fleet and the River Thames. It had developed into a thriving settlement by 700AD and richly-furnished Anglo-Saxon style burials have been found at St-Martin-in-the-Fields Church and at the London Transport Museum close by. Bede mentions the settlement was “a mart of many peoples coming by land and sea”, although it seems highly likely that Saxon Lundenwic did not have anything like the size of population supported by Roman Londinium, with some suggested figures being around 10,000 people.
The land was said to be desolate and forsaken by the inhabitants, and remained so until it was requested, during the reign of the Saxon king Edgar [957-975] by 13 of his most loyal knights or soldiers.
Edgar granted his knights’ request on condition that they each performed three combats – one above the ground, one under ground, and one in the water; and after this, ‘on a certain day in East Smithfield, they should run with spears against all comers’. The knights held this land as a liberty, or manor, and it remained open ground, until it was granted by their descendants to the church, and eventually divided between various monasteries and convents that were constructed upon it.
It is very hard to say what the area around the Prescot Street site would have been like during this period as little Saxon-period evidence has been found in the area, but we can assume that it would have been either rough scrub or in some form of agricultural land use. The site was on ‘the far side’ of the old Roman city from the new Lundenwic, and whatever motivations kept the early Saxon Londoners out of the Roman ruins may have had the same effect in keeping people away from the study site.
Reoccupation of the City
During the reign of Alfred, in response to Viking attacks of the late 9th century AD, the Roman city was reoccupied and the walls and ditches rebuilt and refortified. This revitalised settlement became known as Lundenburh. It is hard to judge the extent to which the city was repopulated during this short period. The River Lea to the East represented the boundary between Alfred’s England and the Viking Danelaw.
There is very little evidence to suggest what the Prescot Street site was like during this period, but it seems most likely that it was some kind of agricultural land. There is no evidence for structures or any other kind of activity on the site at this time.
Later Medieval London
Shortly after the Norman conquest in 1066, William I (“the Conqueror”) built a large fortified palace in the eastern corner of the city. The Tower of London undoubtedly changed the urban geography of this end of the city, both within and outside the walls. During this period, there is a slow polarisation of roles between the new City of Westminster, focused around the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey, founded on Thorney Island in the River Thames, which begins to become more associated with royal and governmental power, and the City of London which assumes a more mercantile power.
London expanded to become a large city occupying almost all of the area within the ancient Roman walls, and in places spilling over into new suburbs. These suburbs formed first along the main axial routes into London such as the Whitechapel Road and also along the edges of the City walls. It seems unlikely that any of this suburban development reached the Prescot Street site in this period.
During the later Medieval period there was extensive construction of monastic houses all around London. The Prescot Street site lies close to the Abbey of St. Clare which was located on the modern day street of Minories. The nuns of St. Clare were part of the Second Order of St. Francis which was founded in the late 13th century AD. The nuns were known as sorores minores or minoresses. This term is preserved in the modern street name. We can be reasonably certain of the extent of the Abbey Precinct as it became a Liberty of the Tower of London after the Reformation. However, it is unclear what other surrounding lands belonged to the Abbey, although later accounts state that this corresponded with ‘Goodmans Fields’. It seems likely that the Prescot Street site lay within these agricultural lands.
Evidence from the site, such as residual Medieval pottery corroborates the idea of agricultural activity rather than anything more structured.