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Walter Besant: War and the destruction of London, a city lone and widowed


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

British writers on peace and war

Walter Besant: Wisdom and war


Walter Besant
From London

“Why should I delay? Still the invaders flocked over. Of one nation all came – men, women, and children – leaving a desert behind. In the year of our Lord 500, the whole of the east and most of the south country were in the hands of this new people. Now this strange thing has been observed of them. They love not towns, and will not willingly dwell within walls for some reason connected with their diabolical religion; or perhaps because they suspect magic. Therefore, when they conquered the country, they occupied the lands indeed, and built thereon their farm-houses, but they left the towns deserted. When they took a place they utterly burned and destroyed it, and then they left it, so that at this day there are many once rich and flourishing towns which now stand desolate and deserted. For instance, the city and stronghold of Rutupiæ, once garrisoned by the Second Legion; this they took and destroyed. It is reported that its walls still stand, but it is quite deserted. So also Anderida, where they massacred every man, woman, and child, and then went away, leaving the houses in ashes and the dead to the wolves; and they say that Anderida still stands deserted. So, also, Calleva Atrebatum, which they also destroyed, and that, too, stands desolate. So, too, Durovernum, which they now call Cantwarabyrig. This they destroyed, and for many years it lay desolate, but is now, I learn, again peopled. So, too, alas! the great and glorious Augusta [later to be London], which now lies empty, a city lone and widowed, which before was full of people.

“When Cantia fell to the Jutes we lost our trade with that fair and rich province. When the East Saxons and the Angles occupied the east country, and the South Saxons the south, trade was lost with all this region. Then the gates of the Vicinal Way and that of the Bridge were closed. Also the navigation of the Lower Thames became full of danger. And the prosperity of Augusta daily declined. Still there stood open the great highway which led to the middle of Britannia and the north, and the river afforded a safe way for barges and for boats from the west. But the time came when these avenues were closed. For the Saxons stretched out envious hands from their seaboard settlements, and presently the whole of this rich country, where yet lived so many great and wealthy families, was exposed to all the miseries of war. The towns were destroyed, the farms ruined, the cattle driven away. Where was now the wealth of this famous province? It was gone. Where was the trade of Augusta? That, too, was gone. Nothing was brought to the port for export; the roads were closed; the river was closed; there was nothing, in fact, to send; nay, there were no more households to buy the things we formerly sent them. They lived now by the shore and in the recesses of the forest, who once lived in great villas, lay on silken pillows, and drank the wine of Gaul and Spain.

“Then we of the City saw plainly that our end was come; for not only there was no more trade, but there was no more food. The supplies had long been scanty, and food was dear; therefore those who could no longer buy food left the town, and sallied forth westward, hoping to find a place of safety, but many perished of cold, of hunger, and by sword of the enemy. Some who reached towns yet untaken joined the warriors, and received alternate defeat and victory, yet mostly the former.

“Still food became scarcer. The foreign merchants by this time had all gone away; our slaves deserted us; the wharves stood desolate; a few ships without cargo or crew lay moored beside our quays; our churches were empty; silence reigned in the streets. Now, had the enemy attacked the City there would have been no resistance, but no enemy appeared. We were left alone – perhaps forgotten. The marshes and moors which surround the City on all sides became our protection. Augusta, to the invader, was invisible. And she was silent. Her enmity could do no harm, and her friendship could do no good. She was full of rich and precious things; the Basilica and the Forum, with the columns and the statues, stood in the midst; the houses contained pictures, books, baths, costly hangings; yet the Saxon wanted none of these things. The City contained no soldiers, and therefore he passed it by, or even forgot its existence.

“There came the day when no more provisions were left. Then those who were left, a scanty band, gathered in the Basilica, and it was resolved that we should leave the place, since we could no longer live in it. Some proposed to try escape by sea, some by land. I, with my wife and children, and others who agreed to accompany me, took what we could of food and of weapons, leaving behind us the houses where our lives had been so soft and happy, and went out by the western gate, and taking refuge where we could in the forest, we began our escape. Mostly we travelled by night; we passed burning towns and flaming farmsteads; we encountered hapless fugitives more naked and miserable than ourselves. But finally we arrived in safety at the town of Glevum, where we have found shelter and repose.

“Every year our people are driven westward more and more. There seems no frontier that will stop them. My sons have fallen in battle; my daughters have lost their husbands; my grandchildren are taught to look for nothing but continual war. Should they succeed in reaching our City, the old will perish; but the young may take flight across the river Sabrina, and even among the mountains of the West – their last place of flight. Should they be driven from the hills, it will be into the sea. And of Augusta have I learned nothing for many years. Wherefore am I sure that it remains desolate and deserted to this day.”

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