Tuesday, September 17, 2019

A Bridge for the Ages: London Bridge in the Time of Tudors

by Dean Hamilton

The most prominent geographical feature of London has always been the River Thames, and consequently, one of the most important and storied places in London has been that singular point of river crossing – London Bridge. Part transportation route, part linchpin for the storied city’s economy, history and social development, London Bridge is an iconic location.

Extant in multiple forms since the Roman’s first threw a makeshift pontoon bridge over the river in 52 CE, the bridge has seen many variations and changes over the centuries. The Saxons recorded throwing a witch off the structure in 730 AD, in all probability not the first nor the last to meet their deaths in the cold waters below.

Torn down, burnt, repaired, destroyed, swept asunder by floodwaters and invaders, it lacked any real permanence until the late 12th C when it was finally re-built in Kentish rag-stone. Stretching almost 900 feet in length, a series of stone arches were built upon 19 starlings set into the river bed. The bridge was an estimated 30 feet in width and was home to a chapel (the Chapel of St Thomas on the Bridge, dedicated to Thomas Becket, the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury), a drawbridge, several defensive gatehouses, a public latrine, watermill and by 1338, more than 138 shops.

By the Tudor era, the number of shops had risen to more than 200, with buildings towering almost seven stories in places, including rooftop “penthouses” and river terraces in the more expensive abodes.  John Stow’s “Survey of London” (published in 1598) noted “large, fayre and beautifull buildings, inhabitants for the most part, rich Marchantes, and other wealthie Citizens, Mercers and Haberdashers.

London Bridge, Agas Map, 1561
Passage through the bridge itself was narrow, overhung and obscured by the structures to the point that you could walk a significant stretch of the passage without ever realizing you were on a bridge. Near the centre of the bridge was Nonsuch House, a fanciful pre-fabricated wooden palace built without nails, using peg construction. Originally built in the Netherlands, it was carefully broken down, transported to London and re-constructed on London Bridge, replacing the rotting drawbridge fortifications in 1579.

It should be noted that these various bridge premises were “rented” rather than owned, with the rents in question applied to help pay for repair and bridge maintenance, as were the tolls for passage (both over and under) for people and goods.  The bridge wardens kept scrupulous accounts of monies collected and payments essayed for all types of work and maintenance from 1381 to 1538, an impressive and almost unbroken set of accounts.

From Bridge House Rental, Account for 1537-8: “To Ambrose Wolloys for 1 barrel of tar for ropes and the cement boat, 4s. 8d.” and “To William Lynger of Surrey for 3,000 paving tiles, 42s.

1632 oil painting "View of London Bridge" by Claude de Jongh
Despite the creation of a more permanent stone structure, work on the bridge was almost continual. Stone arches on occasion collapsed, wooden structures burned or became dilapidated. In 1213, the wooden buildings surmounting the bridge caught fire and an estimated 3,000 people were burned or drowned, many of whom flooded onto the bridge initially as spectators to watch a blaze in Southwark, only to be surrounded when the flames spread to the northern end of the bridge and trapped them. Other accidents were somewhat more peculiar, including in 1481 when the public privy overhanging the river collapsed, plunging five men to their deaths.

Danger existed below the bridge as well. The 19 starlings upon which the stone arches were built collectively blocked an estimated 45% of the river flow at high tide, causing a surging, roaring tidal rush of water through the archways.  Running these inadvertent rapids at times by boat, “shooting the bridge” became a dangerous pastime and gave rise to the saying “wise men walked and only fools went under”. Over time, silting in the tidal river narrowed the passages further, coupled with the addition of watermills and gristmills in 1581 and 1588.

“The barge of the Duke of Norfolk, starting from St. Mary Overie’s, with many a gentleman, squire, and yeoman, about half-past four of the clock on a November afternoon, struck (through bad steering) on a starling of London Bridge, and sank. The duke and two or three other gentlemen fortunately leaped on the piles were saved by ropes cast down from the parapet above; the rest, however, perished.”

The most singular feature of the bridge was probably the Great Stone Gateway in Southwark, which was decorated with the heads of executed traitors and criminals. Originally it was the drawbridge tower that held this grim decoration, but after it fell into disrepair, the heads were re-located to the Southwark end to greet any travelers coming up the Surrey road. The heads that decorated the bridge included at points such luminaries as William Wallace, Jack Cade, Thomas Moore (Henry VIII’s Lord High Chancellor of England), and Guy Fawkes, among many others, both high and low. Paul Hentzner, a German lawyer who visited in 1598 noted,

"On the south is a bridge of stone eight hundred feet in length, of wonderful work; it is supported upon twenty piers of square stone, sixty feet high and thirty broad, joined by arches of about twenty feet diameter. The whole is covered on each side with houses so disposed as to have the appearance of a continued street, not at all of a bridge. Upon this is built a tower, on whose top the heads of such as have been executed for high treason are placed on iron spikes: we counted above thirty”.

Details of London Bridge, Panorama of London (1616) by Claes VanVisscher

The bridge was a transient place for many Londoners, representing an escape from the daily grind of work, family and responsibility.  Southwark was technically outside the purview of the often strict Puritan aldermen that ran the Corporation of London, and as such became home to many of the more lurid social and entertainment activities. Bear-baiting and bull-baiting rings were a staple, joined later in 1587 by the Rose Theatre, the first of the Southbank playhouses. In 1598 the famous Globe Theatre joined the Rose, to be followed by the Hope Theatre in 1614. The area abounded with inn-houses, taverns, bowling alleys, gaming dens and most infamously, brothels, many of which were located on lands owned by the Bishop of Winchester, who subsequently collected the rents and payments and lent the Southbank prostitutes their derisive nickname of “Winchester Geese”.

1616 Visscher Panorama of London, Southwark detail, showing the Globe Theatre and The Bear Garden (Note: Visscher apparently got them reversed).

Bridges have always represented a crossing point, a demarcation of sorts, a boundary that sorts a city into places that often reflect a changed ethos. The Left Bank of Paris is one example. Southbank itself was often regarded as a vice-ridden source of danger, both exotic and manifest. The bridge was a common target for any military designs on London, a direct route into the heart of the city that was used multiple times by invaders. Jack Cade, the famous rebel “Captain of Kent”, charged his makeshift army across London Bridge in 1450, cutting the drawbridge ropes to prevent the citizens of London from raising the bridge against him. Shakespeare noted in Henry VI Part II:

“Jack Cade hath gotten London bridge:
The citizens fly and forsake their houses;
The rascal people, thirsting after prey,
Join with the traitor, and they jointly swear
To spoil the city and your royal court.”

London Bridge has earned an iconic status over time, regularly echoing its way through fiction and popular culture. You can find it popping up in William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, with the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge covered with a sprawling shantytown reminiscent of the densely packed bridge of the Thames. It makes another appearance as the Long Bridge of Volantis in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series Game of Thrones. London Bridge seems to lurk in the popular imagination, a ghost of a bygone era that almost anyone can appreciate as a unique and evocative setting.

London Bridge, unlike many of London’s Tudor-era buildings, survived the Great Fire of 1666, losing only about 1/3 of it’s buildings before the fire hit a previously fire-damaged section it could not leap across. What fire failed to do, the relentless London traffic and commerce did however, with the last tenant departing in 1762 as the buildings were razed and the bridge rebuilt and widened. In 1831 a new bridge was constructed and the old medieval structure was at last demolished. The new bridge was eventually sold in 1967, dismantled and rebuilt in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

It famously lives on in rhyme, the earliest variation of which is believed to date back to the Danes. Old London Bridge is now a distant memory but one with stolid persistence.

London Bridge is broken down. —
Gold is won, and bright renown.
Shields resounding,
War-horns sounding,
Hild is shouting in the din!
Arrows singing,
Mail-coats ringing —
Odin makes our Olaf win!
-          1844 translation of the Norse saga the Heimskringla, verse by Óttarr svarti, celebrating the destruction of London Bridge by Olaf II of Norway in 1014.


Dean Hamilton was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He spent the first half of his childhood chasing around the prairies and western Canada before relocating to Toronto, Ontario. He has three degrees (BA, MA & MBA), reads an unhealthy amount of history, works as a marketing professional by day and prowls the imaginary alleyways of the Elizabethan era in his off-hours. Much of his winter is spent hanging around hockey arenas and shouting at referees. He is married, with a son, a dog, and a small herd of cats.

He is the author of the gripping Elizabethan era thriller series The Tyburn Folios.

His first book THE JESUIT LETTER was an Editor's Choice Selection of the Historical Novel Society (HNS) and was short-listed for the HNS Indie Award as well as a semi-finalist for the M.M Bennetts Award.

His new book THIEVES' CASTLE was released on August 27, 2019 and is currently available in print and e-formats on Amazon. 

Twitter: @Tyburn__Tree

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