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 changed. After successive wooden bridges were destroyed by fire, Henry II commissioned the building of a permanent stone crossing. 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. The 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 repairs. 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.