The medieval London Bridge —Page 2

This illumination from sometime before 1483 is the earliest known depiction of London Bridge, which appears in the background beyond the Tower of London. Billingsgate seems to be shown between the Tower and the bridge. 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. The book was possibly produced in Bruges, thus showing how a foreigner imagined London. Courtesy of the collection of Hawk Norton.

With the outgoing tide held back, the slower-moving water upstream froze over in cold winters, such as in 1262, allowing for the possibility of frost fairs. The river froze over for fourteen weeks in the cold winter of 1410 and again in 1434 when ships had to unload at Gravesend. Ice floes could cause serious damage to the bridge. In 1281 the ice on the frozen river was so thick that it caused five of the arches to collapse.

A drawbridge of about twenty-eight feet in width, between the sixth and seventh piers from the southern end, could be raised twice each day, when the tide was high, to allow for the passage of ships. This allowed passage for vessels to the dock upstream of the bridge at Queenhithe. The amount of tolls collected indicates that around two thousand ships passed through the bridge each year. Yet by the 15th century that had reduced to about once every three days, perhaps because tall boats were less likely to pass the bridge by then. The drawbridge could also be raised on the occasions that London came under attack. It was operated from a stone tower on its northern side, variously known as the ‘Great Gate’ or ‘Traitor’s Gate’. The original tower was rebuilt in 1426 from the legacy of the late Richard Whittington.

At the Southwark end of the bridge stood a tower with a gate to provide additional protection for London. It was closed to Simon de Montfort and his men in 1263 but battered down, allowing his army to enter the city. According to the Elizabethan historian John Stow: “This gate, with the tower thereupon, and two arches of the bridge, fell down…in the year 1436; towards the building whereof divers charitable citizens gave large sums of money.” It was damaged again in 1471 during the attack on London by ‘Bastard’ Falconbridge and his army in the Wars of the Roses.

It may well be that Peter’s motivation in creating the bridge was the establishment of a new church, which appears to have been planned from the beginning. St.Thomas of the Bridge was built on the downstream side in the centre of London Bridge, dedicated to Becket, who had been canonised only three years before construction began. The church consisted of an upper chapel, raised slightly above road level, and a crypt built into the bridge. The lower level appears to have been completed at an early stage, with the upper part added in the latter part of the 14th century when records show a large amount of work was carried out. Peter died in 1205, before his work in building the bridge was completed, and he was buried in the crypt. By the mid-14th century four chaplains were engaged at St.Thomas of the Bridge. The chapel survived until 1549 when it was converted into a private dwelling.

The bridge was badly damaged and its original chapel destroyed in a fire that started at Southwark and spread right across to the northern bank in July 1212. A large crowd that gathered to witness the conflagration became trapped and many died as a result of burns or drowning.

Shortly after the opening of the bridge – certainly by 1221 – the chapel was joined by shops with accommodation, something that was not unusual across medieval Europe. The bridge became an extension of the city and a busy and colourful commercial street as much as a river crossing. In 1460 the bridge wardens were receiving rents from around one hundred and thirty properties. Over the centuries these structures were rebuilt as they decayed. With a large passing trade, the Bear inn opened at the foot of the bridge on the Southwark end in 1319 where it remained for three hundred years.

The cost of building and maintaining the bridge was probably financed in various ways. Since Saxon times land had been bequeathed to predecessors of Peter’s bridge and income was received in rents from those estates. Funds for the rebuilding came in part from a tax on wool imposed by Henry II. Additionally, St.Thomas was a very topical issue at the time of construction and no doubt there were a number of individuals and public bodies enthusiastic to help fund a bridge containing a chapel dedicated to him. Richard, Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Hugo di Petraleone, papal legate to England, were contributors. Numerous private benefactors are recorded from the early 13th century. Rents were received from houses and shops on the bridge, as well as from tolls for traffic and the passage of ships through its drawbridge. Within London the stallholders of Stocks Market, on the site of the present Mansion House, paid their rents to the bridge wardens until the mid-16th century.

The bridge was managed and maintained by wardens based at Bridge House on the riverbank adjacent to the Southwark end of the bridge. The Bridge House trust was subordinate to, but pre-dated, the Corporation of the City of London, with Londoners appointing two wardens each year from amongst its leading citizens. The first warden of the new bridge was Peter of Colechurch. Upon his death his successor was appointed by King John and subsequently by the mayor, aldermen and Common Council. Wardens were elected or re-elected each Michaelmas.