The medieval London Bridge —Page 3

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.

Henry III, no friend of the citizens of London, confiscated the income from the bridge or granted it to others at various times during his reign. In 1269 he conferred the income and responsibility for maintenance to his unpopular wife, Eleanor of Provence. On a famous occasion in July 1263, staying at the Tower of London for protection, she attempted to travel upriver by royal barge to the greater safety of Windsor Castle. As her barge was passing under the bridge the people of London pelted her with so many eggs and stones that she was forced to retreat back to the Tower. The incident was said to have motivated her son, Prince Edward, to seek revenge on Londoners fighting at the Battle of Lewes the following year.

Eleanor kept the income from the bridge for herself, starving it of funds needed for repairs. After Henry’s death, the citizens complained to Edward I that she was neglecting maintenance work and he passed responsibility back to the City. He issued an appeal for funds, stating “that the Bridge of London is in so ruinous condition that not only the sudden fall of the bridge, but also the destruction of innumerable people dwelling upon it, may suddenly be feared”.

The Bridge House trust employed a full staff for maintenance and to collect rents and tolls. The senior officers comprised the Clerk of Works, Renter and (from 1496) the Comptroller. Others included the clerk of the drawbridge, numerous carpenters, masons and various labourers and servants. The bridge also owned several barges with staff to operate them.

The Scottish leader William Wallace was executed at Smithfield in 1305 and his body cut into pieces, with parts displayed around London. The head was stuck on a long pole and displayed from the drawbridge tower of London Bridge, starting a gruesome custom that lasted until the 18th century. Famous heads to be exhibited there included John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, and Sir Thomas More. During the reign of Elizabeth I the heads were transferred to above the entrance-gate at the south end of the bridge.

The drawbridge was ordered to be raised by Mayor William Walworth in 1381 to prevent entry into the City by Wat Tyler and his rebels during the Peasants’ Revolt after they had set fire to Southwark. Jack Cade led an army of Kentish men in a rebellion against Henry VI in 1450. They were initially supported in their grievances by citizens of London and given passage across the bridge into the City. Shakespeare recalled the event in Henry VI: “Jack Cade hath gotten London Bridge”. However, Cade’s men subsequently carried out looting and murders and lost London’s support. A battle occurred on the bridge, during which some of its houses were set on fire and men, women and children killed, until the rebels dispersed. Cade was captured by the Sheriff of Kent. Killed in the skirmish, his head was also displayed on the bridge.

A further battle took place the following May in which several men were killed. Thomas Neville (the ‘Bastard Falconbridge’) took advantage of the political upheavals and led an army of men from Kent intent on plundering within London. They were beaten off and pursued down the Thames but not before fourteen of the bridge’s dwellings were destroyed.

In 1389 Lord Welles, England’s ambassador to Scotland, challenged any Scotsman present at a banquet to a joust. Sir David de Lindsey took up the challenge, which took place on London Bridge in the presence of King Richard II on St.George’s Day the following year. The joust was won by the Scotsman on the third charge. After ensuring Welles recovered from injury, Lindsey sailed back to Scotland and was later made Ambassador to England.

The bridge was the location of major royal events. These included when the Black Prince entered London in 1357 after the Battle of Poitiers with his prisoner King John II of France. Richard II was invited to cross on his way to Westminster in 1392 as a mark of appeasement by the citizens of London who had displeased him during a dispute. The great pageantry that took place was repeated three years later when Richard brought home his new bride, the daughter of the King of France. In a repetition of the entry of the Black Prince, Henry V crossed the bridge on 1415 with great ceremony when he returned victorious from the Battle of Agincourt, together with the captured Duke of Orléans and the Count of Vendôme.

Sources include: Charles Welch ‘History of the Tower Bridge’ (1894, courtesy of the collection of Hawk Norton); Peter Matthews ‘London’s Bridges’; Gustav Milne ‘The Port of Medieval London’; Caroline M.Barron ‘London in the Later Middle Ages’; Christopher Brooke ‘London 800-1216’; John Schofield ‘London 1100-1600′; Liza Picard ‘Elizabeth’s London’; John Pudney ‘Crossing London’s River’.

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