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Fact or folklore: the Viking attack on London Bridge

Fact or folklore: the Viking attack on London Bridge

By Jan Ragnar Hagland and Bruce Watson

London Archaeologist, Vol.10:12 (2005)

Introduction: One of the most dramatic events in London’s history is the Viking attack, led by Óláfr (or Olaf) Haraldsson on London Bridge. However, as it is not mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, some historians doubt it took place. Brooke summed up the problem of the historical authenticity of the attack thus: “How much of this vivid scene belongs to the age of St Olaf, how much to imagination playing on the old wooden bridge in its last days at the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries, is a nice question. What is certain is that Æthelred returned, and that in the confused campaigns which followed London remained the key to his power; it is equally certain that St Olaf’s memory was kept alive in London by the dedication of six churches to him, one, in Southwark, very close to the bridge he is supposed to have pulled down”.

We wish to reexamine the historical context and date of this alleged attack in the light of new research. Also we wish to reconsider the work of the poet or skáld, Ottarr the Black, who was the first person to describe this event. Clark recently reviewed the linguistic origins of the London Bridge nursery rhyme, debunking the popularly held belief that it enshrines an English folk memory of the Viking attack.

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