Gates of London Bridge

Until the 18th century London Bridge was the main entrance into the City of London from the south. It therefore had two sets of gates for defensive purposes and the collection of tolls.

The first London Bridge dated from the time of the establishment of London by the Romans in the 1st century AD, providing access to and from the city across the Thames from the south. It was made of wood and no doubt rebuilt and repaired several times during the following thousand years and more. The old wooden bridge was replaced by one of stone around the turn of the 13th century with shops and houses across it. There were regular fires and the houses were periodically replaced, the last of which were demolished in 1762. London Bridge was the only crossing over the river until the 18th century, which made it a busy place, and the narrow passageway caused great congestion. The bridge, and its successors, continues to be maintained by the Bridge House Estate, which in 1282 was formally established by royal charter.

London Bridge was defensively extremely important and entry across it was well protected by two gates. On the southern, Southwark side was the Great Stone Gate and the Drawbridge Gate was located closer to the City end of the bridge. Tolls to enter the City were taken at the Great Stone Gate.

The drawbridge was necessary for ships to pass through the bridge, as well as for defensive purposes. As vessels gained in size over time fewer of them could fit through the space, with the result that most docked downstream of the bridge. By the 16th century it was rarely in use and was no longer maintained.

The heads of executed enemies of the monarchs were displayed on pikes over the gateway as a warning to others not to oppose the Crown. The first is reputed to be that the Scottish leader William Wallace. From then until the 16th century the heads were displayed above the Drawbridge Gate, and thereafter above the Great Stone Gate. Some of the most famous heads were those of the rebel Jack Cade (1450), Sir Thomas More (1535), and Cardinal John Fisher (1535). The practice of displaying heads on London Bridge endured until the 1670s, after which it continued at Temple Bar.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth the Drawbridge Gate was demolished and replaced by the large Nonsuch House. The Great Stone Gate was demolished in 1760, along with the other city gates. The royal coat of arms from the gate was purchased by a nearby tavern and can still be seen on the outer wall of the Kings Arms pub at Newcomen Street at Southwark.

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Sources include:

  • Alan Brooke ‘Gates of the City of London’

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