Spanning Centuries: Until 1729, London Bridge Was the Capital's Only Crossing over the Thames and a Microcosm of the City It Served, Lined with Houses and Shops on Either Side. on the 800th Anniversary of Its Original Construction, Leo Hollis Looks at the History of an Icon

By Hollis, Leo | History Today, July 2009 | Go to article overview

Spanning Centuries: Until 1729, London Bridge Was the Capital's Only Crossing over the Thames and a Microcosm of the City It Served, Lined with Houses and Shops on Either Side. on the 800th Anniversary of Its Original Construction, Leo Hollis Looks at the History of an Icon


Hollis, Leo, History Today


Every city has its foundation stones, often wrapped up in myth, conjecture and odd truths: Rome was created out of the walls built by Romulus on the Palatine Hill; Paris was born of an artificial island midstream of the Seine; London emerged out of a river crossing.

In AD43 soldiers of the army of the Emperor Claudius chased their routed enemy up the river following the gruesome Battle of the Medway in Kent. According to the Roman historian Cassius Dio, as the natives crossed the river, darting between the shingle islets and mud banks, the legionnaires continued their pursuit:

   German units swam across, and others
   crossed a little higher upstream by a bridge.
   They attacked the British on all sides and
   cut off many of them; but rash pursuit led
   them into trackless marshes, where many
   were lost.

The Roman soldiers held back and set up a temporary camp, waiting for the rest of the troops, elephants and war engines. They would soon cross the river on a temporary pontoon of boats and continue the hunt on the north side. London was born of this crossing, as merchants who followed the soldiers settled on the Thames's northern bank. Even before the settlement was given a name, it had a bridge.

This year sees the 800th anniversary of the building of the stone bridge of London, completed in 1209. It is this bridge--of nursery rhyme and popular image--that spanned the Thames for over 500 years. Of all the major anniversaries that fall this year, it is the one most likely to be forgotten, but is among the most important. For without London Bridge there would be no London.

The bridge was a place of movement and transfer, of exchange and barter, where the sacred and the profane lived as neighbours, the power of the crown, the City elders and the church all jostling upon the narrow crossing. If ever one needed an image with which to comprehend the anxious diversity of London, one need look no further than its most iconic bridge.

By the 12th century, London was the undisputed capital of England and its major trading centre. In the words of the cleric William Fitzstephen writing in 1173, 'to this city from every nation under heaven merchants delight to bring their trade by sea'. Masts thronged the Pool of London to the east of the wooden bridge. By this time the importance of the structure had been firmly established. There were regular collections and tolls for its upkeep; land had been donated to provide revenue for repairs; a guild had been set up for its civic maintenance. There was even an attempt to use the income from religious indulgences to pay for repairs but clearly the fear of purgatory was not enough to provide adequate funds so a further tax on wool was levied. In 1163 a programme of improvements was overseen by Peter de Colechurch, the first recorded holder of the title of Warden of the Brethren of the Bridge. In 1176 he oversaw the construction of the first stone pier for what would, over the next 33 years, become London Bridge. De Colechurch would not live to see his commission completed.

The new stone bridge was 900 ft (270 metres) long, set upon 20 piers, or 'starlings', that spanned the river from the gravelly banks of Southwark to the northern shore. It is probable that each pier was built in turn and that they were not evenly spaced, possibly because of the uncertain lie of the river bed. The process of erecting the structures must have seemed miraculous as each rose out of the tidal waters. Archaeologists have confirmed that large elm timbers were first driven into the mud to create three layered barriers that diverted the water, leaving a trench that the masons filled with Kentish rag and rubble, upon which the stone arches would be set. The bridge was the longest in Europe at the time. It was King John who decided that the bridge needed to pay for itself and that houses, shops and chapels should line both sides of the structure. …

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Spanning Centuries: Until 1729, London Bridge Was the Capital's Only Crossing over the Thames and a Microcosm of the City It Served, Lined with Houses and Shops on Either Side. on the 800th Anniversary of Its Original Construction, Leo Hollis Looks at the History of an Icon
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