The Roman Empire ended its persecution of Christians in about 313AD, a century or so before its soldiers abandoned Britain altogether. Christianity here slowly grew in numbers and visibility throughout the fourth century, but was still very much a minority faith when the Romans went home in 410AD. Most Britons continued worshipping the old pagan gods, who seemed to serve them perfectly well.
The historian Mary Boast believes that the disruption following Rome’s withdrawal may have pushed crowded, anarchic Southwark to the point where it became unsafe for civilian occupation. Presumably, that means the various local warlords were fighting to see who could gain control of the area, whose bridge access alone made it well worth having. Any lingering residents risked becoming collateral damage, so only those with no other choice would have stuck around.
Evidence from this era is very scarce, but it does seem that Southwark had been at least partially tamed by about 550AD, when the seven Saxon kingdoms known as the Heptarchy began their 200-year rule. The Saxons were an oral rather than a written culture, but we do have references to bustling wharves and trading docks along the Thames during their time. By 850AD, Christianity had tightened its grip enough for the Bishop of Winchester – later canonised as St Swithin - to build a monastery at Southwark, near the southern end of the bridge. This building later became the nunnery of St Mary Overie, the first in a string of transformations which made it more and more important to the borough’s life as time went on.
In 871AD, the invading Vikings took occupation of London, giving the brothels that still flourished in Southwark a whole new clientele. “The Danes would certainly have had regard for the maintenance of any institutions of pleasurable convenience on Bankside during the lulls in the fighting,” Burford writes. “The customers’ nationality did not concern the whores or their masters. It was the cash that counted.”
From the girls’ point of view, in fact, the new clients were something of an improvement. John of Wallingford’s Chronicle, written in the 12th Century, describes the Danish mercenaries stationed in East Anglia when London was over-run. “[They] caused much trouble to the natives of the land,” he writes. “For they were wont, after the fashion of their country, to comb their hair every day, to bathe every Saturday, to change their garments often and set off their persons with many such frivolous devices. In this manner, they laid siege to the virtue of married women and persuaded even the daughters of the nobles to be their concubines.”
The Danish occupation of London ended in 886AD, leaving King Alfred with the job of rebuilding the city they’d sacked. It was his renewal of the dilapidated wooden wharves and bank reinforcements in Southwark which gave the area its modern name. Alfred’s “Suthringa Geweorche” (Surrey Works), became “Sudwrca” (South works) and finally “Southwark”. (13)
By the year 1000, there was already a Saxon mint in Southwark, suggesting again that some order had been restored. As a recognised borough – that is to say, a fortified town in its own right – Southwark remained independent from London, with the right to make its own laws. There were other boroughs scattered around London too, but Southwark had a military importance to the city which put it in a category of its own. It became known not merely as a borough, but The Borough – a nickname Londoners still use for the area today.
Southwark’s people took their independence seriously and none more so than Godwin, Earl of Wessex, who owned a lot of property in the town. In 1052, he mounted a challenge against King Edward the Confessor, anchoring his ships off Bankside in a show of force. But the Anglo Saxon Chronicles tell us that “his band continually diminished the longer he stayed” and it’s thought that’s because they were unable to resist slipping off to Southwark’s nearby whorehouses. The rebellion succeeded in forcing Edward to end Godwin’s exile abroad, but got no further than that.
One of Godwin’s beefs with Edward had been the Normans’ increasing influence in the English court, which culminated in William the Conqueror’s invasion of 1066. William’s cavalry chased the remnants of King Harold’s fleeing army all the way to London, where the city’s fortifications forced them to turn back. Frustrated, the invaders burnt the churches and inns along Borough High Street, but seem to have left the riverside brothels untouched. Like the Vikings before them, perhaps they felt these establishments were too good to waste. (14, 15)
One account has it that William himself owned brothels in Rouen, a business venture that carried no hint of stigma at the time. European royalty and nobles in every country thought nothing of renting property on their land to brothel-masters and were happy to openly take the income this produced. The other major landlord of that era was the Christian Church, which did exactly the same thing. But raking in the cash these rents provided did not stop the bishops simultaneously condemning anyone whose sexual morality they found wanting. “It was the Norman Conquest that really cemented the power of the church in England,” the BBC website says. “The medieval period in Britain is really a story of how Christianity came to dominate the lives of the ordinary people. From the cradle to the grave and every stage in between, the Church could be your ally or your foe and ultimately your passport to heaven or hell.” (16)
Marriage then had little to do with romantic notions of love, but was a hard-headed calculation between two families who each believed they had something to gain from the union. It was understood that young men must be permitted to sow their wild oats, but essential this didn’t endanger the family’s plans. “If you were a young buck or a nobleman – an alderman’s son, say – you couldn’t have a sexual relationship with your social equals for the simple reason that it would cause a scandal if it came out,” the Southwark historian Patricia Dark told me. “Obviously, if you got married, that would be fine. But if you get married to the girl next door because you’ve knocked her up, you probably aren’t going to be generating any advantage for your family. Whereas, if you take your hormones off to Southwark and deal with your needs that way, you still have the freedom to enact a better marriage. Whenever possible, you’re trying to marry up.”
Two hundred years of more or less unbroken warfare had created thousands of widows and orphans in the English countryside and devastated much of the farmland they needed to survive. The conscription and slaughter of the Crusades, which began in 1097, hit rural areas far harder than the towns too, because the noblemen leading this charge to the Holy Land used farm workers from their own estates to drag along as cannon fodder. Many of the women left behind in England’s villages had no option but to trudge into the nearest large town, hoping to eke out a living there however they could - and for many that meant just one thing. “Women of doubtful virtue abounded,” Walter de Hemingburghe wrote after visiting a medieval fair. “The price was a packet of lace needles.”
There would never again be enough legitimate work for the hordes of poor women flooding into urban areas. Southwark’s brothels were where many women in this position finished up and the Church’s new dominance there meant it would rule every aspect of their lives. (17)