The Vikings in London did not leave behind any grand monuments or buildings, but if you look carefully you’ll discover a city well connected to Scandinavia during medieval times. Did you know that London was once ruled by Norsemen? Or that several churches in the City were named after a Norwegian Viking Saint?
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The Vikings and London Bridge
The Danes were not particularly popular in either Norway or England during the early middle ages, repeatedly trying to gain control of both countries. This resulted in the Norwegian Viking commander Olaf Haraldsson (later King Olaf II of Norway and St Olave after his death) siding with the English against the Danish army occupying England. If we are to believe the Icelandic saga of Snorri, Olaf helped King Æthelred and the English retake London from the Danes by tearing down London Bridge, breaching the Danish defences of the city.
The attack on the bridge took place in 1014, with the combined Norwegian and English force sailing westwards upstream the Thames towards the timber bridge defended by the Danes. Attaching ropes and grappling irons to it, Olaf sailed downstream again dragging down and seriously damaging the structure of the bridge. This compelled the Danes to surrender London to Æthelred’s forces.
The story of Olaf’s adventures in London was written down by Snorri Sturlason around 1230 in the book “Heimskringla”. It even includes a verse very similar to a famous nursery rhyme that we know well today:
London Bridge is broken down. —
Gold is won, and bright renown.
Hild is shouting in the din!
Mail-coats ringing —
Odin makes our Olaf win!
Based on Snorri’s story, many think it was Olaf’s Battle of London Bridge that gave rise to the nursery rhyme London Bridge is Falling Down (also known as “My Fair Lady“).
While it’s tempting to believe that Snorri’s colourful description of the event is accurate, it’s also very difficult to verify that it is entirely correct. The fact that Olaf was proclaimed a saint, might have lead to his role in tearing down London Bridge being exaggerated after his death.
After his adventures in England, Olaf soon returned to Norway where he was crowned as King Olaf II in 1015 taking advantage of the Danes being busy in England. After his death, he was declared a martyr and patron saint of Norway for services to Christendom. Five medieval London churches (see below) were dedicated to St Olave, the great Viking hero that helped the English chase the Danes out of London!
Norwegian “Viking Saints” in London
After helping the English against the Danes during the Battle of London Bridge, Olaf remained popular in London for a long time. As many as four City of London churches were erected to St Olave’s honour as well as one in Southwark, just next to London Bridge. On the north side of London Bridge, another church was dedicated to the Norwegian St Magnus of Orkney. In this way, two Norwegian Vikings turned saints were guarding each side of London Bridge.
St Olave Hart Street
St. Olave Hart Street Church, located at the corner of Hart Street and Seething Lane in Tower Ward, has served as a place of Christian worship for Londoners since the late eleventh century. The church was probably built between 1055-1060, but the earliest confirmed reference occurs in 1109. Famous as a favourite of Samuel Pepys, he referred to St. Olave’s in his diary affectionately as “our own church”. Saint Olave’s was also one of few churches surviving the Great Fire of London after the houses surrounding the church were blown up to create a fire break.
However, the church was badly damaged by German bombs in 1941 during the London Blitz. King Haakon VII of Norway worshipped at St Olave’s during WWII and returned to lay down a foundation stone from Trondheim Cathedral (where St Olave is buried) for the restoration in 1954. Today, St Olave is more popular than ever and one of few surviving mediaeval buildings still standing in London.
St Olave Old Jewry
St Olave, Old Jewry was a church in the City of London placed between the street named Old Jewry and Ironmonger Lane. Old Jewry was the area of medieval London largely occupied and populated by Jews until their expulsion from England in 1290. Like many other medieval buildings, this St Olave church was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Christopher Wren rebuilt it incorporating much of the medieval walls and foundations. The church was finally demolished in 1887, except for the tower and west wall, which can still be seen today. The church clock went to St Olave Hart Street.
St Olave Silver Street
The church is thought to have been in existence by 1000, first mentioned in 1181 as ‘St Olave de Mukewellestrate’. In 1609 the church of St Olave, Silver Street, was rebuilt and enlarged, but in 1666 the church was engulfed in the Great Fire of London. Destroyed by the flames, it was never rebuilt only leaving the churchyard to be seen today. The yard is not very striking but it has an unusual looking plaque that was discovered after WW2 stating that the church was “destroyed by the dreadful fire in the year 1666”.
St Nicholas Olave
Located on the west side of Bread Street Hill in Queenhithe Ward in the City of London. Together with 85 other churches, St Nicholas Olave was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Fifty-one churches were chosen to be rebuilt, but St Nicholas Olave was not on the list. Its unusual dedication to two saints refers to the combination of two parishes: St Nicholas and St Olave Bradestrat. Described by John Stow as a “convenient church”, the parish had strong connections with the Fishmongers, many of whom were buried in the churchyard. Following the fire, it was united with St Nicholas Cole Abbey
St Olave’s Church Southwark
The church probably began as a chapel of Godwin, Earl of Wessex who is assumed to have known Olav personally. After many years of neglect, most of the church was demolished and rebuilt by Act of Parliament between 1737 and 1739 in Portland stone. Almost 100 years later, during the night of 19th August 1843, there was a great fire in Tooley Street. Of the fabric of the church, only the tower and the bare walls remained, and the fittings were either burnt or smashed by the falling roof.
The old church was rapidly rebuilt to much the same design during 1844, this time with a huge pipe organ to the design of Dr Henry Gauntlett. By the early twentieth century hardly anyone lived in the parish, and the building was declared redundant and finally demolished in 1928. A decision was made at the same time to establish a new district and parish in the north-eastern portion of the old parish of Mitcham, to which the dedication of St. Olave was transferred.
St Magnus-the-Martyr Church
On the north side of the Thames, right next to London Bridge you’ll find the church dedicated to St Magnus. Who was St Magnus? Magnus Erlendsson was related to the Norwegian nobility (including St Olave) and ruled as Earl on the Orkney Islands. He participated in Viking raids on the British isles but he also had a reputation for gentleness. The Orkneys was one of the first places settled by Vikings from the western part of Norway and remained part of the Norwegian kingdom for centuries.
In 1118 Magnus was lured to the remote island of Egilsay to meet his cousin and political opponent. Magnus was treacherously murdered by his cousin, who took power and was buried in Kirkwall. St Magnus Cathedral was later raised in his honour. A richly coloured stained glass window in the south wall of the church represents St Magnus and the church on Egilsay where he was murdered.
After becoming a martyr after his death, miraculous happenings and healings followed making him a saint in 1136. The original church, founded in the early 12th century, was one of the first buildings to be destroyed by the Great Fire as it stood just 300m (1000ft) from Pudding Lane. The work of rebuilding St Magnus was begun by the master mason George Dowdeswell in 1168 and completed under the direction of Sir Christopher Wren from 1671-1687. The church received minor damage from bombs in WWII but was fully restored and reopened in 1953.
Many authors had admired the beauty and location. The church featured in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, in the scene where Nancy secretly meet with Mr Brownlow and Rose Maylie against Bill Sikes’ will, “the tower of old Saint Saviour’s Church, and the spire of Saint Magnus, so long the giant-warders of the ancient bridge, were visible in the gloom.” Eliot had celebrated the architecture and spiritual importance to him, quoting, “the interior of St. Magnus Martyr is to my mind one of the finest among Wren’s interiors” Eliot came here as a sinner, and learn to appreciate its spirituality.
St Clement Danes – The Danish Viking church
Strand (Norse for beach or shore) has from ancient times been the main route between the two cities of Westminster and the City of London. Originally, it referred to the shallow bank of the once much broader Thames, before the building of the Victoria Embankment. The name was later applied to the road itself. In the 13th century, it was known as ‘Densemanestret’ or ‘street of the Danes’, apparently referring to the community of Danes in the area.
Outside the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand, you’ll find St Clement Danes Church. In the early part of the middle ages the church was called in Latin, “Ecclesia Sancti Clementis Danorum,” or, “the Danes’ Church of St. Clement.”
It was here on the Strand to the west of City of London that the Danes in London are believed to have had their own community when England was under Norse rule. The current church building was completed in 1682 by Sir Christopher Wren. Wren’s building was destroyed during the WW2 Blitz, rebuilt in 1958. Today it serves as the central church of the Royal Air Force. The church parish was also called St Clement Danes until 1921 when it became a part of the borough of Westminster.
Vikings settling in the City of London
In 1016, London finally yielded after a series of sieges and attacks by the Danish invaders. From then until 1042, England was part of the territories ruled by Cnut and his sons Harald and Harthacnut.
The rule of the Danish kings brought a renewed Scandinavian influence to the south of England and great numbers of Danes and Norwegians began to settle permanently in London. Danes and Norwegians were also given exclusive rights to trade in the City of London, similar to the privileges of burghers.
Many Viking items have been uncovered over the centuries in the City such as jewellery, buckles, stirrups, swords, spears and axes – some are on display in Museum of London. Quite a few of the finds have been recognized as Scandinavian because of the distinct Ringerike-style of decorating.
The Ringerike style is thought to have begun in medieval Norway where it was used widely to decorate both runestones and tombstones. The characteristics of this decorative style are its swirling tendril-like shapes that produce intricate patterns, and depictions of strange mythological beasts with the features of snakes, dragons, and wolves.
St Paul’s Ringerike-style Viking Tombstone
Perhaps the most famous find from the Viking-period in London is a tombstone decorated in Ringerike-style found in the old churchyard of St Paul’s Cathedral. The object was found in 1852 by a group of workers digging the foundations of a new warehouse. Experts believe it shows a fierce beast, typical of pagan Norse mythology. The left-hand edge has two-line writing in the runic alphabet saying in old Norse: ‘Ginna and Toki had this stone laid’.
There are also traces of old paint on the stone, suggesting the art was once brought to life with red and black hues. What’s interesting about this is that pagan art was allowed to be used on a tomb in a churchyard, even though both Cnut and England as a whole were Christian. This could suggest a tolerant rule under the Danes, with pagan believers being buried alongside Christians on consecrated ground.
Southwark – “Little Norway” in London
The Sagas relate that the Norsemen fortified a trading post on the south side of London Bridge that they called “Sydvirke” (Sudrvirki), or the southern fortification. Through gradual changes in pronunciation, Sydvirke became Southwark, which is the name of the Borough today.
Like already mentioned, the Church of St Olav was established right next to London Bridge on the south bank of the river in Southwark. St Olav also gave name to the local parish Southwark St Olave existed until 1904 when it was included in Bermondsey. Worth mentioning is the main street through the area Tooley Street, Tooley being a corruption of the name of St Olave.
A Viking in Hackney?
Hackney derives its name from Old English ‘Hacan ieg’ meaning ‘Haca’s Isle’. It is believed that the name was an early form of Haakon, which is a name still in use by the Norwegian royal family. Haakon’s island was a piece of land surrounded by water somewhere along the River Lea. Viking long-boats could easily have navigated up the Lea from the Thames.