Middlesex in the Dark Ages

Middlesex in the Dark Ages

The breaking down of the Roman order has its inevitable effect upon our knowledge of the centuries immediately following the withdrawal of the Roman troops: so much is this the case that diametrically opposed views as to the position of London during the early Saxon period continue to have their champions. The balance of opinion, however, still favours the belief that the branch of the Saxon invasions which followed the Thames was not interested in the site of London as such; and that the city itself was more or less deserted and a ruin for i 00 years or more. There are very few finds of the early Saxon period from the city, and the cemeteries so far found which are the chief clues to the distribution of the early Saxon population, all occur at a distance, the two most important in Middlesex being at Hanwell and, in particular, at Shepperton; where many burials were found (and mostly destroyed) during gravel-digging some years ago.

Other finds of this period scattered along the Thames and elsewhere tell little of the quality of life in Middlesex, but the Saxons were essentially farmers, and enough is now known of their settlements elsewhere to make it certain that their villages and their individual buildings would continue the pre-Roman barbarian tradition, often probably on much the same sites, though with important changes in social and economic organization. The clearing of the forests of north-western Middlesex had probably already been begun by the Romans as part of their industrial activity, but much must have remained to provide refuge for outlaws of all kinds, criminal and otherwise.

London began to re-assert itself; however, towards the end of the sixth century, when it appears as the capital of the East Saxons, with Middlesex as part of the same kingdom. For a few years from A.D. 596 London became the centre of a new diocese; but the time for this was not yet ripe, and Christianity died again in A.D. 616. The appearance of a new coinage in the early seventh century implies a degree of economic stability, and there is evidence also for the revival of trade, if only on a small scale. Again it may be surmised that these processes, which relate primarily to London, had their effect upon Middlesex also; for though the name “Middlesex” first appears in a charter of A.D. 704, the area was never an independent territory with its own head, but came under the jurisdiction of the Portreeve of London: from A.D. 664 both formed part of the kingdom of Mercia until the unified Kingdom of England was established under King Egbert in A.D. 827.

Grims Dyke

Peaceful conditions did not, however, last. Towards the end of the eighth century began the long series of attacks by the Norsemen which were to continue at intervals for the next 200 years. The attacks began as mere plundering raids and as such continued into the ninth century; from then on the armies showed an increasing disposition to settle in the country. It is impossible in a limited space to deal at length with the complicated events of the time: the invading armies under bold and ruthless leaders moved with extraordinary rapidity, their fleets penetrating far inland along the rivers, as when in A.D. 871 they reached Reading. In all this unrest London was the chief centre of Saxon resistance, which enjoyed its greatest success under the leadership of Alfred the Great in the late ninth century. The effect upon the undefended countryside can only be imagined: there can have been little peace or prosperity along the Thames or anywhere else in Middlesex at this time, for while London held out against almost all attacks, falling to the enemy for only a short time in 1013, the invading army continued to ravage the countryside. Even the proclamation of Cnut as king of all England in 1017 (though he had been defeated in the battle of Brentford in the previous year) did not see the end of unrest, which broke out again at his death in 1035. The pre-Norman story of Middlesex closes, however, with another phase of growing prosperity in which it may be assumed that Christianity became firmly established (after the final re-founding of the Diocese of London in A.D. 674). The crowning event was the founding of Westminster Abbey by Edward the Confessor and the establishment of the seat of royal government at Westminster rather than at Winchester.

Inevitably then the chief signs of life in late Saxon times in Middlesex are the chance finds of weapons and other objects which betoken war and unrest. Here, too, belong the inadequately recorded discoveries of two Viking craft in the Lea (or Lee) valley, the more important of which, found during the construction of the Lockwood Reservoir in 1900, may have belonged to the fleet that in A.D. 896 sailed up the River Lea, there to be cut off by King Alfred. For the rest, no settlements are known, nor has any example of Saxon architecture survived outside the city and the remains of the Confessor’s abbey which underlie the present building. This, however, is the most appropriate place for mentioning the one considerable earthwork which survives in Middlesex to-day. The name Grims Dyke, spelt in various ways, is applied to an earthen bank with accompanying ditch which can be traced across north Middlesex from Pinner in the direction of Stanmore (Bentley Priory) and Brockley Hill and perhaps even beyond. Earthworks with the same name and of the same general type occur farther west in Buckinghamshire, but are probably quite independent. The general character of Grims Dyke is that of a frontier or boundary earthwork in which the bank is evidently the important element, for the ditch may occur on either side of it. But its date at present remains uncertain.

It may be of the Early Iron Age and relate in some way to prehistoric tribal boundaries; but it may also have served a similar purpose as a territorial frontier in the Dark Ages: between these alternatives only future research can decide.

Earthworks at Manor Farm