The Bridges of London
Old London Bridge
begun 1176, completed 1209, demolished 1832
The first stone crossing of the River Thames at London, the bridge we now call Old London Bridge was the longest inhabited bridge in Europe.
The bridge was commissioned by Henry II and designed by Peter of Colechurch (Peter de Colechurch), who had experience, since he was responsible for the previous rebuilding in timber. It took 33 years to complete but that was only the beginning, as there were to be many additions and changes in the 622 years it was to stand.
Old London Bridge had a very colourful history and came to form an intrinsic part of the London's identity. It was covered with shops and houses from the beginning and these grew in number and scale until they towered over the traffic below. The bridge's structure had a major effect on the flow of the river.
Having commissioned the bridge, Henry II did not live to see it completed in 1209, nor did the bridge's architect, Peter de Colechurch, who died in 1205.
The wooden bridge becomes stone
The problem with wooden bridges over wide strong-flowing rivers such as the Thames at London is their relative fragility. They have to be repaired or even replaced quite often. They can be swept away in storms or catch fire.
There were at least eight great fires in London between 1018 and 1133, and it seems likely that the bridge was affected by some of these. We know that William the Conqueror's son, William Rufus (1087-1100) had to rebuild the bridge. And we know that his successor, his brother Henry I (1100-1135), introduced a special tax to finance bridge repairs.
In 1163, Peter of Colechurch supervised the rebuilding of the timber bridge (after the fire of 1133), presumably its last rebuilding before the stone bridge was commissioned 13 years later. It seems a short time, so perhaps the cost of regular repairs was becoming too burdonsome and this influenced the decision to rebuild in stone.
Unfortunately, we do not know exactly how the timber bridges looked. However, we do know about the stone bridge. Kentish ragstone was chosen for its construction. It had 19 arches resting on 20 timber piers or starlings. A more detailed description is given in the Timeline entry: Old London Bridge
Finding the money to build it
The bridge wasn't just a long time in the making, it was also expensive. Its commissioner, Henry II, sought help from all quarters. He imposed taxes on all wool and sheepskins specifically to fund it.
As we have said, Henry died before the bridge was complete. So it was left to his successor, Richard the Lion Heart (1189-99) to carry on with the work. He spent little money on the project, preferring to spend everything on his crusades. He even offered to sell London itself!
The bridge was still not complete by the time Richard was killed in 1199 and his brother John (1199-1216) became king. John rescued the project by giving land to the City of London on which it could charge rents. The money raised went towards completing the bridge. It was John's idea to build houses and shops on it as a source of further revenue.
With other urgent demands on the royal purse in particular the cost of both the war with France and the Welsh Uprising (1211) John was strapped for cash. In the end, he was forced to borrow money from the city's merchants to finish the bridge. In exchange for the loan, they were granted bridging rights over the Thames at London, which was to have significant consequences for the city.
A distinctive structure
Old London Bridge's distinctive feature the extraordinary number of buildings constructed on it took shape right away. Dwellings started to go up as soon as the bridge was complete and by the time we get to the 14th century, there are 198 buildings, all providing rental revenue.
The naturalist Thomas Pennet in Some Account of London wrote: "I well remember the street on London Bridge, narrow darksome and dangerous to passengers from the multitude of carriages; frequent arches of strong timber crossed the street, from the tops of the houses, to keep them together, and from falling into the river. Nothing but use could preserve the rest of the inmates, who soon grew deaf to the noise of falling waters, the clamours of the watermen, or the frequent shrieks of the drowning wenches."
A major feature of the bridge was the effect it had on the Thames. The location of the bridge's 19 timber pier supports (starlings) was determined by riverbed conditions and this meant that they were varied in spacing across the river. Consequently, the arch spans varied in size too and boats navigating the arches encountered different currents and river conditions at each one. Some were more dangerous than others. Over the years, boatmen christened the arches with various names, such as Gut Lock and Long Entry.
At the southern end of the bridge was a span without an arch and here a drawbridge was installed. At this point a toll was gathered from people wanting to cross the bridge. Many merchants opted to avoid the toll by moving cargo up and down the river in small boats.
Navigating through the bridge in a boat could be very dangerous because the closeness and number of starlings backed up the river water, creating rapids. In some places the drop in water height from one side of the bridge to the other was more than the height of a man. Many people lost their lives 'shooting' the bridge and "Drowned at the bridge" became a common entry in the registers at nearby graveyards.
Some Londoners presumably did as Cardinal Wolsey did. On his frequent visits to Greenwich to see Henry VIII, he would have his barge stopped above the bridge and get out and travel to Billingsgate by mule, where he would rejoin his barge providing it had successfully negotiated the rapids.
The installation of various water mills in later years didn't help the water flow either. At its worst, it has been estimated that the bridge reduced the flow of the river by 80%.
The bridge and the Church
Besides houses, shops and a drawbridge, the bridge also had a chapel, located on the ninth pier from the north bank. It was built in stone and dedicated to St Thomas é Becket.
The Church supported the building of bridges and it had a special reason for doing this. It was widely believed in the Middle Ages that since river crossings were dangerous they attracted the devil. Bridges, in the view of the Church, provided a means of combating his work. Bridges with chapels on them or near them were thought to be especially potent.
It was common for bridge builders, such as Peter of Colechurch, to have trained as a priest as well as an architect (or the equivalent at the time). Indeed, the word 'Pontefact' refers to one who has attained these combined qualifications. Encouraged by the Church, people frequently left money in their wills for bridge building and maintenance.
This last factor was to have a significant influence on the history of bridge building in London. Merchants left money to the City of London's Bridge House Estates to maintain the bridge. This, combined with the income Bridge House earned from rents, tolls and the various properties it owned in the City, made the organisation a powerful lobby controlling the movement of goods across the only bridge and looking to ensure that no rival bridges were built.
When further bridges were built (after 1729), Bridge House eventually joined in. Indeed, Bridge House is still around today and it maintains all the road bridges between Blackfriars Bridge
and The Tower. Its most recent achievement is the Millennium footbridge
, opposite St Paul's Cathedral.
A place to stick heads
Old London Bridge
was Medieval London's principal thoroughfare. As such it became the prime location for sticking up the severed heads of rebels and traitors. The ghoulish practice added to the bridge's appeal, making it something of a tourist attraction.
The first head to be stuck up was that of Sir William Wallace in 1305, the Scottish patriot immortalised in the 1995 film Braveheart. Until 1577 severed heads were stuck on poles on the drawbridge gate in the centre of the bridge. Later, after the drawbridge was removed, the heads were stuck on posts at the stone gate at the south end of the bridge. It was a custom that continued throughout the medieval period and into Charles II's reign (1630-85).