The medieval London Bridge

This illumination from sometime before 1483 is the earliest known depiction of London Bridge, which appears in the background beyond the Tower of London. The illustration is within a book, Des Nouvelles d’Albyon (News from England), a collection of poems by the Duke of Orleans who had been captured at the Battle of Agincourt and held for ransom for twenty-five years. He can be seen composing his poems in the Tower in the foreground of the illustration. Courtesy of the collection of Hawk Norton.

A bridge stood across the Thames at London from the time of the Romans and was subsequently replaced several times during Saxon times. London Bridge remained the only crossing over the Thames in the London area until the construction of Westminster Bridge in 1750.

One of the earliest records that mentions the bridge was a decree by King Ethelred, who ruled Wessex from 865 until 871: “Whoever shall come to the bridge in a boat, in which there are fish, he himself being a dealer, shall pay one half-penny for toll, and if it be a larger vessel, one penny”.

The origin of the well-known nursery rhyme London Bridge is falling down was a legendary battle for control of the city in 1015. London and Southwark were then occupied by Vikings. The Saxon King Aethelred was said to have sailed up the Thames with his ally King Olaf of Norway to recapture the city. According to the Norse saga Heimskringla, written in about 1230, London Bridge was “so broad that two waggons could pass each other upon it. On the bridge were raised barricades, both towers and wooden parapets… and under the bridge were piles driven into the bottom of the river… King Olaf and the Northmen’s fleet with him, rowed quite up under the bridge, laid their cables around the piles which supported it and then rowed off with all the ships as hard as they could down the stream. The piles were thus shaken in the bottom and were loosened under the bridge… The bridge gave way; and a great part of the men fell into the river, and all the others fled”. The Vikings surrendered and London was taken. Archaeologists have unearthed quite a few ancient skeletons along London’s riverside but as yet none from that period around the bridge. Could the battle really have taken place or was it one of London’s many myths?

From 1077 until 1136 London suffered eight great fires, and in 1091 a great storm, each of which caused damage to the bridge. The cost of repairing and maintaining the bridge fell upon Londoners and those living in neighbouring counties. The last of the wooden bridges was completed in 1163 under the supervision of Peter the Bridge Master, the chaplain of St.Mary Colchurch. Clergy were often connected to construction work during the medieval period and the Church throughout Europe was associated with bridge-building. Thomas Becket had been baptised in St.Mary Colchurch and Peter was head of what became known as the Fraternity of St.Thomas, or the Master and Brethren of the Bridge of London.

In 1176 Peter began construction of a new bridge slightly upstream to the west, in line with Fish Street Hill, in the position it occupied for the next seven hundred years. Although repaired many times over the centuries, it always remained a remarkable structure. As well as being the gateway into the city, it was one of its great sights, a place of occasional ceremony, pageantry and historical events.

Peter’s new bridge was built of much more durable stone, which had not been typical for centuries, since the Roman period. It was not, however, unique because at about the same time St.Benézét was building his great bridge across the Rhône at Avignon. The work lasted for over thirty years and after Peter’s death London Bridge was completed by three London merchants in 1209.

The foundations of the new stone bridge were constructed by ramming wooden stakes into the river bed and infilling with rubble. Kentish ragstone from the River Medway, Purbeck stone from Dorset and Reigate stone from Surrey were all used. With nineteen broad-pointed arches, ranging from fourteen feet to thirty-two feet in width, it was for many years the longest stone bridge in England. Nine hundred and twenty-six feet in length and forty feet in width, it stood sixty feet above the water level. London Bridge became an impressive sight, the most magnificent such structure in Britain, although shorter than that at Avignon and Rouen.

The bridge was erected on piers that in turn stood on starlings set close together. They formed a barrier to the incoming and outgoing tides, creating a weir effect. That made it difficult to navigate, even for vessels small enough to fit between the piers. Taking a boat through while the tide was flowing was described as ‘shooting the bridge’ and could be very dangerous. In his Chronicle of London, William Gregory describes an incident in about 1428: “The vij [5th] day of Novembyr the Duke of Northefolke wolde have rowed thoroughe the brygge of London, and hys barge was rentte agayne the arche of the sayde brygge, and there were drowned many men, the nombyr of xxx [30] personys and moo of gentylmen and goode yemen [yeomen]”.