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   Chapter 2 PART III.

The History of London By Walter Besant Characters: 4915

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Abroad, the Roman Empire was breaking up. The whole of Europe was covered with war. Revolts of conquered tribes, rebellions of successful generals, invasions of savages, the murders of usurpers, the sacking of cities. Rome itself was sacked by Alaric; the conquest of one country after another made of this period the darkest in the history of the world. From over the seas no help, the enemy blocking the mouth of the river, all the roads closed and all the farms destroyed.

There came a day at length when it was at last apparent that no more supplies would reach the City. Then the people began to leave the place: better to fight their way across the country to the west where the Britons still held their own, than to stay and starve. The men took their arms-they carried little treasure with them, because treasure would be of no use to them on their way-their wives and children, ladies as delicate and as helpless as any of our own time-children as unfit as our own to face the miseries of cold and hunger and nakedness-and they went out by the gate of Watling Street, not altogether, not the whole population, but in small companies, for greater safety. They left the City by the gate; they did not journey along the road, but for safety turned aside into the great forest, and so marching across moors and marshes, past burned homesteads, and ruined villages, and farm buildings thrown down, those of them who did not perish by the way under the enemies' sword or by malarious fever, or by starvation, reached the Severn and the border of the mountains where the Saxon could not penetrate.

There was left behind a remnant-after every massacre or exodus there is always left a remnant. The people who stayed in the City were only a few and those of the baser sort, protected by their wretchedness and poverty. No one would kill those who offer no defence and have no treasures; and their condition under any new masters would be no worse. They shut the gates and barred them: they closed and barred the Bridge: they took out of the houses anything that they wanted-the soft warm mantles, the woollen garments, the coverlets, the pillows and hangings, but they abode in their hovels near the river banks; as for the works of art, the pictures, statues, and tesselated pavements, these they left where they found them or for wantonness destroyed them. They fished in the river for their food: they hunted over the marshes where are now Westminst

er, Battersea, and Lambeth: the years passed by and no one disturbed them: they still crouched in their huts while the thin veneer of civilisation was gradually lost with whatever arts they had learned and all their religion except the terror of the Unknown.

Meanwhile the roofs of the villas and churches fell in, the walls decayed, the gardens were overgrown. Augusta-the proud and stately Augusta-was reduced to a wall enclosing a heap of ruins with a few savages huddled together in hovels by the riverside.

For the East Saxon had overrun Essex, the Jute covered Kent and Surrey, the South Saxon held Sussex, the West Saxon held Wessex. All around-on every side-London was surrounded by the Conqueror of the Land. Why, then, did they not take London? Because London was deserted; there was nothing to take: London was silent. No ships going up or down the river reminded the Saxon of the City. It lay amid its marshes and its moors, the old roads choked and overgrown; it was forgotten; it was what the Saxons had already made of Canterbury and Anderida, a 'Waste Chester,' that is, a desolated stronghold.

Augusta was forgotten.

This is the story that we learn from the actual site of London-its position among marshes, the conditions under which alone the people could be maintained.

How long did this oblivion continue? No one knows when it began or when it ended. As I read the story of the past, I find a day towards the close of the sixth century when there appeared within sight of the deserted walls a company of East Saxons. They were hunting: they were armed with spears: they followed the chase through the great forest afterwards called the Middlesex Forest, Epping Forest, Hainault Forest, and across the marshes of the river Lea, full of sedge and reed and treacherous quagmires. And they saw before them the gray walls of a great city of which they had never heard.

They advanced cautiously: they found themselves on a firm road, the Vicinal Way, covered with grass: they expected the sight of an enemy on the wall: none appeared. The gates were closed, the timbers were rotten and fell down at a touch: the men broke through and found themselves among the streets of a city all in ruins. They ran about-shouting-no one appeared: the City was deserted.

They went away and told what they had found.

But Augusta had perished. When the City appears again it is under its more ancient name-it is again London.

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