London Bridge has existed for almost as long as the City itself, and, for most of London's history, was the only fixed crossing point of the Thames below Kingston (sixteen miles to the west). The Roman General, Aulus Plautius, may well have established a pontoon bridge here in 43 AD, to facilitate the passage of the Emperor Claudius, with his war elephants, on their way to accept the surrender of British tribes at Camulodunum (Colchester). A more substantial Roman bridge was subsequently put in place to channel road traffic, including troop movements, from the north, east and west, southwards towards the key channel ports of Richborough and Chichester.
It was King Henry II, as part of his penance for the deadly sin of wrath (specifically, the murder of his former friend and advisor, Thomas Becket), who established a religious guild, "The Brethren of the Bridge," in 1176, to oversee the construction and maintenance of a new stone bridge, which was not completed until 1209, during the reign of his son, King John. At the heart of this new project was a chapel, dedicated to the memory of Saint Thomas (he had been canonised in 1173). There were, in fact, two chapels, one above the other: the uppermost accessible from the bridge itself (where most of Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims would have prayed before crossing the bridge into Southwark); the lower chapel accessible to the humbler fishermen and ferrymen at the level of the river.
|Remains of the vaulting of the lower Chapel of Saint-Thomas-on-the-Bridge, revealed during building works in the 19th Century, engraving by Edward William Cooke (image is in the Public Domain).|
It was King John, short of funds, who first rented out space on the bridge itself for merchants to build houses and commercial premises, and, by the mid-Thirteenth Century, most of its surface was occupied by buildings. Defence and taxation were among the key considerations in the design of the bridge, which had a fortified bastion at either end, and a drawbridge that could be raised, either to keep rebels from crossing into the city, or, at slack tide, to allow merchant vessels to enter and leave the upper part of the Pool of London.
|Old London Bridge in 1632, Claude de Jongh (image is in the Public Domain).|
The bridge was supported by nineteen arches which, together, slowed down the flow of the Thames to such an extent that the water above it could easily freeze over during the course of a cold winter. In the aftermath of heavy rainfall, on the other hand, and at the ebb tide, "shooting the bridge" in small craft became a dare for foolhardy boatmen, at risk both of being dashed against the stone piers, and of being pelted with ordure from the public and private latrines above.
|Panorama of London in 1543, 19th Century engraving by Nathaniel Whittock, from an original by Antony van den Wyngaerde, Bodleian Library (Image is in the Public Domain).|
|London Bridge in 1616, by Claes van Visscher, showing the heads of executed criminals impaled above the southern bastion (image is in the Public Domain).|
The "Brethren of the Bridge" was dissolved in the course of the Protestant Reformation, and their chapel converted to secular use, although some, at least, of its members must surely have had the satisfaction of seeing the head of their nemesis, Thomas Cromwell, impaled on a pike on the southern bastion of the bridge. The buildings on the bridge were demolished in 1756, in order to speed up the flow of traffic.
"Old London Bridge" was finally demolished in 1825, to make way for a new stone bridge, designed by Sir John Rennie, which opened in 1831. It was Rennie's bridge, in turn, that was sold to the American oil-baron, Robert McCulloch, in 1967, and re-erected at Lake Havasu City, Arizona, making way for the current road bridge, designed by Lord Holford, and opened in 1972.
|The opening of Rennie's New London Bridge in 1831 (image is in the Public Domain).|
|London Bridge, c 1900. Photo: John L. Stoddard (image is in the Public Domain).|
Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.