The Streets of Southwark

 

The Streets of Southwark

 

Early Medieval Southwark: The Danes and King Canut

 

Imagine eleventh century England, and imagine for a moment a fleet of Danish longships making a slow progress along Keyworth Street. They would not be under sail or manned by oarsmen. Instead they would be pulled along a shallow waterway by men with ropes. It soulds like an extravigant early medieval fantasy, but there is a possibility that it actually happened. In the year 1016 Canut, son of Sweyn Forkbeard and Princess Gunhild, invaded Britain with the aim of becoming King. One of the cities he needed to capture was London, so he sailed up the Thames with his fleet of longships, perhaps 10,000 men in up to 200 of longships. The big problem was that the Britons had built a bridge at London Bridge, replacing the old Roman one, and this was so well defended that Canut's fleet of ships could not pass.

 

According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, first written in the late ninth century but updated up until the twelfth century, Canut solved this problem by constructing a canal across south London from Rotherhithe to Lambeth, a distance of about four miles. Canut's canal, or Canut's Trench as it has been called, would let his ships make their way across the marshes of south London to rejoin the Thames at Lambeth. This would enable him to encircle London and cut off communications from the west. He could then lay siege to London and eventually capture it. This he suceeded in doing. The line of his canal would take him right through the middle of St George’s Fields and perhaps even through the LSBU campus.

 

At first glance it seems improbable that such a canal could have been constructed, because the job looks just too big for the resources available to Canut, but in reality it was possible. This is because the whole of the area from Rotherhithe to Lambeth was marshland mostly underwater at high tide, but with a series of islands or eyots, that is, bits of gravel outcrops that formed dry land surrounded by water channels. At high tide many of these waterways would have been deep enough to take a shallow draft ship like a Danish longship, particularly if pulled along with ropes. Only those parts of higher and firmer ground would have had to have been cut through. For example, Canut would have approached St George's Fields from the east, coming along the line of the present Rockingtham Street, which to this day drops several feet below the level of the surrounding area and which was almost certainly under water in the past. He would then need to cut through the higher ground of Newington Causeway to gain entrance to Keyworth Street and the low marshes of Lambeth beyond. The exact course is a matter of speculation, but it almost certainly would have run east to west somewhere between Rockingham Street in the south and Union Street to the north.