LONDON BRIDGE AND ITS HISTORY by Edward Rutherford, ..... A must read.

“Upon London Bridge, the heads of traitors
were stuck on spikes for all to see. National
triumphs were marked by gorgeous
processions over the water. The bridge was
the focal point of the city and for all

- Edward Rutherford, London: The Novel
< From Anglo-Saxons to a Norman Invasion
The Guilds and Livery Companies >

Until Medieval times, the only way to cross the Thames from
London on the north bank to the southern suburb of Southwark
was by ferry or a rickety wooden bridge.

 In 1176 all that

 After successive wooden bridges were destroyed by
fire, Henry II commissioned the building of a permanent stone

 It took 33 years to complete and was to last – give
or take repairs and remodelling – more than 600 years.

The finished bridge was quite a sight. It was 275m long,
supported on 20 gothic arches.

It featured a central chapel, a
host of shops and houses (the rent from which funded its
construction and upkeep), gates, a drawbridge – even
waterwheels and a mill.

The houses were up to seven storeys
high and jutted over the river by as much as 2m on either
side. Many practically touched in the middle, making the
bridge more of a tunnel in places.

Ironically, the bridge didn’t make crossing the Thames much
less arduous. Although the bridge was about 8m wide,
buildings reduced the space for traffic to just 4m – room for
only one narrow lane north and one south.

These were shared
by horses, carts, livestock and pedestrians. Crossing the
bridge could take as long as an hour.

Things weren’t much better by ferry. The narrowness of the
arches and the later addition of waterwheels created a dam
effect. The water level on one side of the piers could be
several metres below that on the other and shooting the rapids
connecting the two was a dangerous game played only by the
most skilled watermen. Drownings were common.

Fire was another hazard of life on the bridge.

 The worst came
in 1212 when sparks from a house fire at the Southwark end
started another at the north end.

Trapped in the middle, people
jumped in desperation into waiting rescue boats, sinking many
in the process.

 It’s thought that at least 3,000 people died.
As if that wasn’t enough, parts of the bridge collapsed on
several occasions, including 1281, 1309, 1425 and 1437.

1281 collapse happened when expanding ice from the frozen
Thames literally crushed five of the arches.

 Queen Eleanor –
unpopular at the best of times – was blamed for
misappropriating bridge revenues and failing to use them for

 This gave rise to a rewrite of the popular rhyme
“London Bridge is falling down”: the original was based on a
Norse saga, but the addition of “my fair lady” was a clear dig
at the Queen.

But it was unwise to oppose the monarchy too much in
medieval England – as the heads of traitors on spikes above
the bridge’s stone gatehouse attested.

The first unfortunate to
have his tar-soaked head displayed in this manner was
Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace, in 1305.

 In 1450,
rebel Jack Cade suffered the same fate after a terrible night of
rioting on the bridge that left hundreds dead.

The terrifying
practice continued until 1678 and included the heads of
Thomas More, Guy Fawkes and Oliver Cromwell.

The medieval London Bridge wasn’t demolished until
1831 when a new bridge, designed by John Rennie,
replaced it. By then, the old bridge had served London
for over 600 years.

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