Old London Bridge from Southwark c.1630. Unknown artist.
Old London Bridge. Claude de Jongh
There had been many manifestations of the bridge prior to this particular one, among them a wooden one which had been brought down by a tornado in 1091, but it is this particular one most people think of when Old London Bridge is mentioned. Designed by Peter de Colechurch, a priest, chaplain and architect, building work begun in 1176 and was commissioned by Henry II who was suffering pangs of guilt since the murder of his old friend Thomas Becket. To this end one of the first buildings on the bridge was a chapel dedicated to Thomas – The Chapel of St Thomas the Martyr on the Bridge – and the starting point for pilgrimages to Thomas’ shrine at Canterbury. This chapel was completed in 1209 and was in use until 1548 when it was dissolved and begun a new life as a dwelling place, surveyers being instructed by the Common Council that the chapel upon the same bridge ‘be defaced and be translated into a dwellyng-house with as moche spede as they convenyentlye may‘. The upper story was demolished in 1747 when it continued in use as a warehouse until final demolition in 1832.
London Bridge in the 17th Century. Getty images.
Antiquated, in a run down state, and at 600 years old, the old bridge had reached its sell by date at the time of its demolition and of course it was inevitable but at the same time, a place so steeped in history, is surely a tragic loss. This bridge had seen some of the most memorable occasions in London’s history and there could have been few Londoners who had not crossed over at some time in their lives. It was the site of pageants, jousts, battles and even coronation processions. It consisted of 19 arches of varying widths with piers supported on great starlings and crossing just over 900 feet of water. The Southwark end was protected by the Great Stonegate which had a portcullis which could be closed and barred. At the seventh arch from the southern end was a functional drawbridge before the Drawbridge Gate, where a toll keeper collected tolls from passengers on the bridge and from ships which required the drawbridge to be raised. It was upon Drawbridge Gate that the heads of traitors were displayed.
The bridge as it appeared in 1209 before the houses were built with the Chapel of St Thomas in the centre. Getty Image
The earlier bridges had regularly been the focal points for invasions by marauding Vikings but things remained more or less peaceful for our bridge until the arrival of Wat Tyler and his Kentishmen in 1381. However, as we know, things did not go to plan for him. Things seem to have been relatively peaceful for some time after although a ‘great’ joust took place in 1395 between David, Earl of Crawford of Scotland and Lord Wells of England, the outcome of which Lord Wells found himself ‘borne out of his saddle‘ at the third course. Presumably they all went home then. However, Jack Cade and more Kentishmen arrived in 1450. In the year 1471, The Bastard of Falconbridge besieged the bridge, burnt the gate and all the houses of which there were 13 at that time. Sir Thomas Wyatt in 1553, with even more Kentishmen – what is it with Kentishmen? – marched from Deptford towards London only to find out the bridge gates had been shut. As they say man makes plans and the gods laugh
GREAT FIRE OF 1212
On the night of 10 July 1212, and only 4 years after the completion of the bridge, a fire occurred in Southwark on the south side of the bridge. Pretty soon the bridge was heaving with ‘a great magnitude of people‘ who had either gone there to watch or to try to help. By a tragic mischance the wind blew and the northern end of the bridge became engulfed in fire. The fire that was raging in Southwark then spread onto the southern approach of the Bridge and the people were trapped. Ships came in a rescue attempt but to no avail as they were sunk by the sheer number of panicked people attempting to board them. Stow tells us over 3000 people perished on that awful night from a combination of fire and shipwreck (2).
HENRY Vs FUNERAL CORTEGE
Henry V died on the 31 August 1422 in Vincennes in France not quite seven years after his great victory at Agincourt. His funeral cortege snaked its slow way from Dover to Westminster Abbey passing over the Bridge. His effigy lay on top of his coffin on a chariot drawn by four horses. It can be imagined the grief stricken crowds and sombre silence as the warrior king was taken to his final resting place. His heir was but a babe of 9 months. Its well known how that story panned out and I’ll not go into it here. Suffice to say that day must be counted as among the saddest in the Bridge’s long history.
QUEEN ELIZABETH WOODVILLE’S CORONATION PROCESSION 24 MAY 1465
Queen Elizabeth Wydeville Royal Window Canterbury Cathedral.
The Coronation Procession of Edward IV’s consort, Elizabeth Wydeville or Woodville, as she is more commonly known, entered London via the bridge at Bridge Foot accompanied by an assemble of dignitaries (who had met her at Shooters Hill) and been instructed to appear ‘in suche apparel as is according to youre astate and honour‘ (3) One can only hope that someone remembered to remove the heads of traitors from the Drawbridge Gate where they were displayed. As it transpired the marriage of Edward and Elizabeth turned out to be a bigamous one, he already being married to another, Eleanor Butler nee Talbot. This bigamous Wydeville marriage was to become the tragic rock that the House of York tragically foundered upon but this story is covered fully elsewhere and I shall not go into it here. Returning to that day the procession must have been a sight to behold. Accounts of the costs incurred that day are extant today so we do know, among other things, that a room was hired overlooking Bridge Foot from a shoemaker called Peter Johnson and from there a choir sung to the queen – costing the sizeable sum of 6s 8d. An enormous amount of work was undertaken to get the bridge decorated after which the workmen headed to The Crown, an alehouse at the Southern approach to the bridge where the costs of their food and drink, paid for by their employer, amounted to £2 6s 10d. Among the other expenses incurred that day include :- One ounce of saffron for dying the flax to make the hair for the angels and maidens 10d, 900 peacock feathers for making the angels wings 21d, 3 pounds of flax bought and used in the likeness of hair for the angels and maidens 9d. For the cleansing done at the drawbridge at the approach of the queen 3s 4d. For the carriage of forty five loads of sand sprinkled on the bridge against the approach of the queen, for each load 4d 15s.
A close up of a view of Bridge Foot 1616. The Crown Alehouse can be seen directly to the right of the gateway. Claes Jansz Visscher 1586-1652 (4)
Londoners and anyone interested in the history of London should be grateful to John Stow who left behind so much information about medieval London including the Bridge before so much of it disappeared. His statue in St Andrew Undershaft, City of London. Note the quill which is replaced every five years.
The beginning of the end of the Old Bridge came in the late 18th century when the buildings were removed to enable the road to be widened. Inevitably this led to the decision to build a new London Bridge 30 metres upstream, which upon completion our lovely old bridge, on which so much history had taken place, was demolished in 1832. I wonder what Peter de Colechurch would have said if he had known when he begun the building of his wonderful bridge that it would stand and endure for 600 years. The Demolition of Old London Bridge, 1832, Guildhall Gallery, London
1)A Survey of London 1598 p.42 John Stow
2) ibid p43
3) The entry of Queen Elizabeth Woodville over London Bridge 24 May 1465 Anne E Sutton & Livia Visser-Fuchs. This is a very detailed article , which I have drawn heavily from here, covering everything anyone would need to know about the procession.
4) Thanks to the Know Your London blog for drawing my attention to the closeup of the engraving.
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