Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Old London Bridge by Katherine Pym

Old London Bridge 1745
Old London Bridge was a world unto itself. Not considered London, it was a Liberty, or suburb. People were born, lived, married, and died there, some without stepping off the Bridge the whole of their lives. 

Built in the years between 1176-1209, began by King Henry II, the first Plantagenet king of England, and finished during the reign of King John (who was forced to sign the Magna Carta), it was a massive structure that acted like a dam. It stood stalwart against heavy tides, ice during cold winters, and prevented invading ships to pass upriver. 
Ice Fair on Thames with Bridge in background
So strongly built, the Old London Bridge lasted 622 years before being pulled down in 1830's. The location of the current London Bridge is some 180 feet upriver from the old. 

It was a stone structure of 19 arches and a wooden drawbridge. Houses, shops, churches and other assorted buildings stood on the bridge. The anchors holding the bridge in place were called starlings. Massive and feet-like, they were comprised of broken stones and rubble. The starlings compressed the river flow into one-third of its width, causing the tides to rush through the arches like heavy waterfalls. The rush of water going out to sea could be as high as 6-8 feet, depending on the phase of the moon. 

It brought out the reckless, usually young men, to 'shoot the bridge'. Boats would gain speed and if the water wasn't too high wherein heads scraped the tops of the arches, or be drowned, they'd fly through and shoot out the other side, over London Pool. After a moment or two dangling above the Pool they'd drop like a rock to the water. Many died upon a wager, or from mishap by getting pulled into the fast current.

If one were lucky, the wherriman pulled his boat to the river's edge. His passenger got out to walk around the end of the bridge, where he'd catch another wherry in the Pool and finish his journey. 

The bridge had a row of houses on either side of its length with shops at road level. This made the actual road from London to Southwark no more than 12 feet across. Sources state there were about 140 shops at one time, the two story chapel of St Thomas a Becket, Nonesuch House, and the gatehouse (no name). The bridge, with its heavy flow of water, sported water-wheels, corn-mills, and on the London side the water works that supplied running water into surrounding houses. 

Heads on Pikes over London Bridge

Then, there was the gateway at the Southwark side where heads of traitors were displayed. The Keeper of the Heads had full managerial control over this section of the Bridge. He impaled newly removed heads on pikes, and tossed the old ones into the river. When the original bridge was pulled down, workers found skulls in the mud. 

Sometimes, reality is stranger than fiction. While researching the Bridge, I came across the following: 

Sir Thomas More 
When King Henry VIII demanded Catholicism no longer be the favorite religion of the land, Sir Thomas More refused to follow his liege. As a result he was beheaded. His body was placed in a coffin and his head put on a pike above London Bridge. After the allowable time frame where the Keeper of the Heads knew seagulls had feasted and nothing should remain but putrid flesh and hollow eye sockets, Sir Thomas' daughter beseeched him not to throw her father's head in the river. Instead, she requested the Keeper give her the head so she may join it with the body, and they be interred together. 

The Keeper agreed, but was amazed when he removed the head. It remained pink and whole as if still alive... 

Reference: Old London Bridge, the Story of the Longest Inhabited Bridge in Europe by Patricia Pierce, Headline Book Publishing, 2001.