Problems of definition | CONTINUITY OR CREATION? | Wiks, burhs, and ports
Planned/planted towns | Growth of self-government | Urban economy | Urban society
Sources of our knowledge | further reading
|Origins: continuity or creation?|
The rebirth of an organized society and its community centres following the disintegration of the Roman Empire is obviously a key theme in the history of European civilization. Quite a few English cities and towns can trace their history and their names back to the Romans, but the question is whether there was continuous and organized settlement at those locations? It is now believed that in most Roman cities, although habitation may have continued after the legions withdrew and through to the period of Anglo-Saxon settlement, social order and organization in the towns was not maintained.
However, the walled Roman cities offered some refuge and were not entirely abandoned. Although the society of the Germanic immigrants was not so highly organized as to make urbanization an important feature of it, they could appreciate the value of the fortifications, and a few of their settlements were established within or adjacent to the Roman sites. Colchester provides an example of an ancient settlement, converted by the Romans into a walled colony and administrative centre, where there was probably a brief break-down in society (despite continued, if sparse, occupation) in the fifth century, prior to the arrival and settlement of Saxons there by the end of that century. In most of the Roman towns where Saxons or later invaders settled it does not seem that settlement patterns simply adopted the gridlike street patterns of the Roman colonies; there is not a close correspondence of the lines of Roman and medieval streets, except insofar as gateways through the Roman walls or to a lesser extent lines of surviving Roman buildings (even if ruinous) had a deterministic effect on the placement of streets.
It would be risky, however, to categorize even those settlements as "towns"; our knowledge of the early Saxon settlements at those sites is poor. Not only government but also long-distance commerce had been severely disrupted, and what was left of trade was not enough to stimulate forms of settlement that we might want to describe as truly urban; in fact, economic breakdown (reflected in the discontinuation of money circulating) may have encouraged migration out of towns, back to a life of subsistence on the land. On the other hand, the survival of the Roman road system connecting towns could have helped at least some communities hang on until England became more peaceful and the economy revived; some towns were just too well-located to go under. The obvious example is London: at the hub of the Roman road system, with sea access for foreign merchants, and with a bridge across the Thames. Yet even in London's case the walled Roman city appears to have been depopulated and it was immediately to the west that the Saxons established their trading wik in the sixth century, later adding a defensive ditch; although the threat of the Vikings subsequently encouraged a shift back into the western end of the walled area, south of the cathedral that had been built there in the early seventh century.
As London's case exemplifies, the role of the Christian church in maintaining some measure of local or even regional (diocesan) administrative organization and leadership may have been a factor in the continued role of a few towns, such as Canterbury and possibly York and Winchester. On the other hand, in some other cases a disaggregation of functions occurred, with commercial, governmental and religious elements being dispersed among non-urban settlements within the same administrative region. As Anglo-Saxon England crystallized into kingdoms, the process of centralizing power and seeking to impose that power through fortified settlements or regional administrative centres likely encouraged interest in existing towns and in either the foundation of new ones or the patronage of settlements that gave added impetus to their evolution into towns. Colchester again provides a possible example of the former, while Ipswich an example of a settlement established by the Wuffing dynasty (probably from Sweden) and shown favour by the royal family as it extended its control over East Anglia; Ipswich in fact may be the oldest Anglo-Saxon town foundation in England. On the other hand, some argue that the conversion of towns into administrative centres was a disincentive to their commercial function which, in the case of Winchester at least, may have decentralized somewhat to smaller settlements in the neighbourhood.
In the absence of good archaeological evidence for all but a few places, the physical survival of many of the Roman towns cannot be assigned a large, if any, role in the urbanization of medieval England, not least because that survival was not paralleled by the continuation of Roman urban society or institutions.