special feature
What difference?
The story of London is the story of its
infrastructure and the bridges over the River Thames are a key part of that story. Find out the reasons for their construction and the difference they made to the city.
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Bridge construction
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1066 - 1484
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The Bridges of London
introduction |  infrastructure is destiny |  the Romans |  Anglo-Saxon period
Medieval period |  Old London Bridge |  the growth of London |  more bridges at last
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The Medieval Period  ... 1066 - 1484
The last successful invasion of the whole country came in 1066 from France — the Norman Invasion. This event marks the beginning of the Medieval period.
Early in this period, London's only bridge over the Thames — still located at the spot chosen by the Romans — was repaired and rebuilt many times, always in timber. Early Norman London was effectively the walled city of the Anglo-Saxons. It was largely built of timber and at least four major fires devastated it between 1077 and 1136. The bridge suffered fire damage on ten occasions.
Then, in 1176, Henry II (1154-1189) ordered a stone bridge to be built. And so the bridge we refer to as Old London Bridge was born.
It is now more than a thousand years since the Romans founded the first bridge over the Thames at London. Old London Bridge is its newest replacement, and its stone construction is destined to make it last. It will remain in place for more than 600 years and become one of the sights of Europe. We explore the story of this remarkable structure, with its houses and shops, in more detail on the next page ... the story of Old London Bridge >
The river was the main transport route in the Medieval period. The royal palaces and London's grand houses came to be built on its banks and the boatmen serving the population thrived. It wouldn't be until the horse and carriage arrived much later (in the mid 17th century) that people saw the need for more bridges.
There were also financial and commercial pressures working against the building of further bridges. The City of London (through Bridge House Estates) ran Old London Bridge as a commercial operation, collecting rents on its buildings and tolls on trade crossing it. It was in their interests to block further bridge construction.
Here is some background ....
The Normans
William Duke of Normandy, who had been promised the English Throne by Edward the Confessor, invaded England in 1066 when he heard that Edward had changed his mind and given the throne to Harold Godwinsson.
William defeated Harold at Hastings. The Saxons fled to London and mustered the citizen militia at Blackheath. However William defeated them a second time, driving them back across the river.
William occupied and then razed Southwark but did not press his attack across the wooden bridge to London. Instead, he crossed the river miles upstream at the ford at Wallingford (just south of Oxford and generally only fordable in summer).
He then laid siege to London and eventually took the city. He made it his capital and immediately started improving the city's defences, including building the Norman keep that we call the White Tower, at the Tower of London.
Defending London
Old London Bridge was completed in 1209. As the bridge was the only route north-south in London's vicinity, it was necessary that it be part of the defences of the city. The new stone bridge became, in effect, a city gate. There was a fortified stone gatehouse on the southern end, another between the second and the third arch, and a third defensible gateway at the north end.
However, the first threat London faced came not from the south — the direction the defences pointed — but from the river itself. During the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), the French and Spanish fleets launched attacks against English coastal towns such as Plymouth and Gravesend. London prepared to defend itself and placed militia along the banks of the Thames. Cannons were positioned on the bridge.
In then end, though, London wasn't attacked by the French or Spanish but by English rebels .....
Peasants Revolt
Between 1377 and 1380, during the time of the Hundred Years' War, poll taxes were introduced to pay for the army. This prompted Wat Tyler's Peasants' Revolt in 1381. The rebels marched on London from the south and by the time they reached Blackheath their numbers had swelled to 100,000.
This time Old London Bridge's defences were facing the right way and the drawbridge was raised against them. Wat Tyler and his followers stormed the first gatehouse and secured occupation of the south end of the bridge. He threatened to burn all the houses up to the drawbridge.
Meanwhile on the north side, many Londoners supported the revolt — they too had to pay the poll tax. With rebels baying for blood at both ends of the bridge, Alderman Walter Sybyle lowered the drawbridge and let the mob in. The rebels went on a killing rampage.
They burnt the Palace of Savoy, seized the Tower of London, executed the Archbishop of Canterbury and stuck his head on the bridge. The 14-year-old King Richard II (1367 - 1400) came out to meet Wat Tyler at Smithfield. While they were talking the Lord Mayor of London, William Walworth, attacked and killed Tyler. When the rebels saw their leader defeated they fled back across the bridge. Tyler's head took the place of the Archbishop's.
Sixty nine years later (1450) Jack Cade raised a similar revolt against an increase in taxes. Rebel fury was further fuelled by Britain's recent defeat in the Hundred Years' War. Cade chose his moment well. The army was in Kent, marching back from France, and London was largely undefended.
Cade stormed London, cutting the drawbridge ropes on his way in, and looted the city. The fact that he could not later raise the drawbridge and defend himself was his undoing. The army moved up from Kent and Michael Gough, an Agincourt veteran, led an assault on the bridge. The battle raged all night along its entire length.
Cade was on the point of winning when the London townsfolk came to Gough's rescue and attacked the rebels from the rear. The rebels were driven off and drifted away back to Kent. Cade's head, like Tyler's before him, ended up stuck on London Bridge.
introduction |  infrastructure is destiny |  the Romans |  Anglo-Saxon period
Medieval period |  Old London Bridge |  the growth of London |  more bridges at last
the modern city |  MAPS |  reading list

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Old London Bridge Old London Bridge
London, UK | 1176 / 1209
... The first Thames bridge in London to be built in stone