1014 and all that

1014 and all that

A history of Borough Market

Defined by a bridge
Borough Market has existed in one form or another for around 1,000 years. Its precise start date is impossible to pin down: there was no official opening, no ribbon-cutting ceremony, not even a brief mention in a chronicle. The best date available, and the one used as the basis for the Market’s millennium celebration, is 1014.

Borough, then as now, was a place defined by its position at one end of London Bridge—for centuries, the only route across the river into the capital. It is likely that London’s first post-Roman bridge was constructed here in the mid-990s, partly to bolster the city’s defences against Viking raiders who routinely sailed up the Thames to kick seven shades of wattle and daub out of the locals.

Violence and uncertainty
Southwark at the turn of the millennium was, like much of the country, a place scarred by violence and political uncertainty. In 1013 the Anglo-Saxon king, Ethelred the Unready, was chased out of London by the fearsome Danish warrior-king Sweyn Forkbeard. Ethelred fled to Normandy, but Sweyn’s rule proved short-lived: in February 1014, weeks after taking the crown, he dropped dead.

Buoyed by this turn of events, Ethelred returned from exile to reclaim the throne by force from Sweyn’s son Canute. To combat the scary Vikings, Ethelred’s ruse was to hire a load of scary Vikings of his own, forking out a fortune on mercenaries such as Olaf Haraldsson. Olaf would later become king of Norway and—surprisingly, given his propensity for ultra-violence—a fully-fledged saint (his name was taken up by St Olave’s Church, which stood on Tooley Street until 1926).

A market town
St Olaf’s story was recounted in epic detail by Snorri Sturluson, one of the greats of medieval Scandinavian literature, in a famous collection of sagas called the Heimskringla. Snorri tells the (probably apocryphal) tale of how Olaf, in his assault on the Danish defences, slung strong cables around the legs of London Bridge and used the force of the Thames current to pull it down—a key moment in Ethelred’s victorious campaign.

The passage begins:

“First they made their way to London, and so up into the Thames, but the Danes held the city. On the other side of the river is a great market town called Southwark...”

And there we have it: a great market town, in 1014. It’s not much, but it’s the best we’ve got.