Return to Olaf Tryggvason

Olaf Haraldsson and London Bridge

In the Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson writes that Olaf Haraldsson came to England with Thorkell the Tall. Although Olaf is not mentioned in English sources, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does record Thorkel's arrival in 1009, saying that "there were more of them than ever before, from what the books tell us, had been in England in any king's time."

It was a wearying time of treachery and defeat, with no respite for the hapless English from the harrying and raids of the Vikings. London often was attacked "but praise be to God that it still stands sound, and they always fared badly there." In 1010, the English were defeated at Ringmere in East Anglia. As the chronicler so ruefully remarked,

"when they [the Vikings] were in the east, then the army was kept in the west: and when they were in the south, then our army was in the north. Then all the councillors were ordered to the king, and it had then to be decided how this country should be defended. But whatever was then decided, it did not stand for even one month. In the end, there was no head man who wanted to gather an army, but each fled as best he could; not even in the end would one shire help another."

The next year, Æthelred sued for peace, promising the Vikings tribute and provisions. "And for all this truce and tribute they journeyed none the less in bands everywhere, and harried our wretched people, and plundered and killed them." The town of Canterbury was betrayed, and its archbishop seized and martyred when he refused to have himself ransomed. Pelted with the bones and heads of cattle, the piteous man finally was dispatched with an axe. More tax was paid and, finally, the Vikings dispersed. Thorkell and his fleet stayed behind, however, and allied himself with Æthelred, to be paid by a levy, the heregeld or army money.

In 1013, Sweyn Forkbeard again invaded England, perhaps to punish Thorkell for his desertion. This time, the countryside submitted to him. Only London, where both Æthelred and Thorkell were confined, held out. When the Vikings attacked the town, "many of his host were drowned in the Thames because they did not trouble to find a bridge." Still, Sweyn was recognized as ruler of the country, and Æthelred and Emma, his queen, were forced to take refuge with her brother, the duke of Normandy. Five weeks later, however, Sweyn died, and in 1014 his son Cnut was declared king, prompting Æthelred to return to England and reclaim his kingdom, the hope being that he would rule more judiciously this time.

He was supported by Olaf Haraldsson—at least as recounted by Snorri in St. Olaf's Saga for 1009; other sources have him on the side of the Danes. Between London town and Southwark, there was a bridge over the Thames "broad enough for two carts to pass one another" (XII), supported by piles rammed deep into the river bed and fortified at either end. Unable to dislodge the Danes, Æthelred sought to destroy the bridge, itself, which Olaf said he would attempt if aided by the other chieftains.

Fitting his ships with a stout wicker roof, he had them rowed up to the bridge, where, under a barrage of stones and arrows, the men "fastened cables around the piles which supported the bridge; then with all their ships rowed downstream with all their might" (XIII). Under the weight of the defenders and great mounds of collected stones, the pilings gave way and the bridge collapsed. Æthelred then stormed the fort at Southwark and those in the tower on the other side, aware that the river no longer could be blockaded (and so defended), surrendered, acknowledging Æthelred as king, who would rule until his own death in 1016.

When the Romans invaded Britain in AD 43, the native tribes had hidden in the swamps and forests of the Thames estuary, hoping that the intruders eventually would leave and sail back to Gaul. But, as the Romans advanced inland to the west, the local chieftains did confront them, only to be defeated or forced to capitulate, whereupon "The Britons retreated to the River Thames in the area where it empties into the Ocean and at flood-tide forms a lake" (Dio, Roman History, LX.20.5). This was where the flood tide still flowed against the river current, and so was farthest upstream that cargo could be delivered from the sea. It was there, too, that the river could be forded (at Thorney Island, Westminster). Dio relates that the Britons easily crossed, pursued by the Romans' German allies, some of whom swam across while others used a bridge farther upstream, trapping the Britons between them (LX.20.5-6).

By the end of the decade or early 50s, a waterfront had been constructed and possibly a bridge, with a garrison and then a settlement established on the northern bank. Within the next decade, Londinium had become a busy trading center, with "its crowd of merchants and stores" (Tacitus, Annals, XIV.33.1). In AD 60, the Britons revolted, led by Boudica, queen of the Iceni. The town was burned to the ground and those inhabitants who could not flee with the departing soldiers, massacred (XIV.33.1; Dio, LXII.1-12). If the wooden bridge was destroyed then as well, it soon was rebuilt, as was the waterfront. In time, there would be a forum, basilica, and city walls—all of which were abandoned by the Romans when they left Britain in about AD 410. There would not be another bridge for half a millennium, when the Saxons put one across the river in about AD 944, possibly after a terrible storm that year which was said to have destroyed fifteen-hundred houses. It was this bridge, rebuilt several times more after fires, storms, or damaging tides, that was pulled down by Olaf.

St. Olaf's Saga, written several hundred years later (in about 1230), is the earliest account of the bridge's collapse, which may have been the historical antecedent for the English nursery rhyme "London Bridge is falling down." It became more popular with the publication of Samuel Laing's translation of the Heimskringla in 1844 (revised and reissued in 1889). There, he renders the skaldic verse quoted by Snorri as "London Bridge is broken down / Gold is won and bright renown!" (XII). By the time the Heimskringla was republished by Everyman's Library in 1964 (after several previous editions, beginning in 1915), the lines have been changed to "London Bridge is broken down / By thee, O warrior of renown" (XII), the editor freely admitting in her introduction that "The verses have been much revised." To be sure, a more accurate translation is "You broke the bridge of London / Stout-hearted warrior," but it is curious that the revision still is attributed to Laing, who died in 1868.

Ashdown translates the Old Norse as "You broke down London's bridge," recognizing that the words bryggjur ("bridge") and Lundúna ("London") do not introduce the poem nor, given its convoluted word order, even are on the same line. That Laing moves them to the beginning of his own translation ("a spirited and exceedingly free rendering of this stanza" as Ashdown phrases it) no doubt was done deliberately to evoke the familiar nursery rhyme, which had been known since the mid-eighteenth century (with variations almost a century older). It is the later Scottish version, according to the Opies, that renders the line "Broken bridges falling down, falling down, falling down."

The first stanza translated by Laing and quoted in his translation of the Heimskringla was written by the skald Ottar the Black. In the original it reads

Enn brauzt[u], éla kennir
yggs, gunnþorinn bryggjur,
linns hefir lönd at vinna,
Lundúna, þér snúnat.

Olaf Haraldsson (St. Olaf) died in 1030 and Norway was ruled by the young son of Cnut. Such was the tyranny of his reign, however, that in 1035 Olaf's illegitimate son Magnus, who had fled to Russia, was invited to return. In 1042, he was elected king of Denmark, as well.

The woodcut is by Morris Meredith Williams and illustrates The Northmen in Britain (1913) by Eleanor Means Hull.

References: Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway (1964) translated by Lee M. Hollander; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation (1961) edited by Dorothy Whitelock; Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla: Part One: The Olaf Sagas (1915/1964) translated by Samuel Laing (Everyman's Library); "London Bridge and the Archaeology of a Nursery Rhyme" (2002) by John Clark, London Archaeologist, 9(12), 338-340; English and Norse Documents Relating to the Reign of Ethelred the Unready (1930) by Margaret Ashdown; Heimskringla eda Sögur Noregs Konunga: Saga Ólafs Hins Helga Haraldssonar, Vol. II (1869) [edited by Nils Linder and Carl Richard Unger]; "Fact or Folklore: The Viking Attack on London Bridge" (2005) by Jan Ragnar Hagland and Bruce Watson, London Archaeologist, Spring, 328-332; Londinium: A Biography, Roman London from its Origins to the Fifth Century (2018) by Richard Hingley; Agricultural Records A.D. 220–1977 (1978) by J. M. Stratton and Jack Houghton Brown (an annalistic chronicle updated from Records of the Seasons, Prices of Agricultural Produce, and Phenomena Observed in the British Isles published in 1883 by Thomas H. Baker, who could have appropriated the earlier dates of his chronology from any number of nineteenth-century chronicles, including a later edition of The Tablet of Memory; Shewing Every Memorable Event in History from the Earliest Period to the Year 1807); The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1997) edited by Iona and Peter Opie; The Games & Diversions of Argyleschire (1901) by Robert Craig Maclagan.

Return to Top of Page