My intent is to allow the reader to walk down the lanes of old London (before it burned to the ground in the Great Fire of 1666) and feel as if you are actually there. You can smell and touch the nuances of London. You'll know what it's like to work your way through the City and its the conflicting laws where religion played in important part of everyday life. So sit back and enjoy the ride.

Oh, and then there's my French Revolution novel.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Old London Bridge

Old London Bridge looking from Southwark (approx 1616)

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 and ice during cold winters, and prevented invading ships to pass upriver.

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 to shoot out the other side, over London Pool. After a moment or two dangling over the Pool they'd drop like a rock to the below water. Many died upon a wager, or from mishap by getting pulled into the fast current.

If one was lucky, the wherriman pulled his boat to the river's edge, and his passenger got out to walk around the bridge. 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, two story chapel of St Thomas a Becket, Nonesuch House, and the gatehouse (no name). The bridge with its heavy flow of water wheels, corn mills, and on the London side sported the water works.
Heads on pikes
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: 

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 wherein the Keeper of the Heads knew gulls 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.

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

For more information on the Old London Bridge, see my novels of London 1660's.

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


  1. Can you imagine having grown up, lived and died there without ever having stepped foot on the soil of England? Amazing.

    1. Pretty amazing isn't it? Then when one left the Bridge on the Southwark side, s/he always patted the statue of the bear for good luck.