Tag Archives: London Bridge


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Another in the  series of posts taken from  my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” …


Considerably less is known about this period of history than either the succeeding or indeed even the preceding one, such that it is often referred to as the “Dark Ages”.  One of the reasons we know so little is that the Saxons appear to have built almost exclusively using perishable materials such as timber, wattle-and-daub, and thatch, which typically leave very little archaeological record.

What is known is that there was essentially a hiatus in the occupation of London between when the Romans left, in the  fifth century, and when the Saxons arrived in numbers at the turn of the sixth and seventh (archaeological evidence points to a Saxon presence in the city, although not a full-scale occupation, from around 430-450).

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When the Saxons did arrive, they chose for some reason to make  their principal  settlement about a mile to the west (upstream), and without the walls, of the  old Roman City of Londinium, around what is now Aldwych in the City of Westminster, and they named it Lundenwic.

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Lundenwic became  subject to increasingly frequent and savage raids by the Vikings in the ninth century.  On the wings of dragons  they came in 839, axes agleam, and according to the Old English “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”, went  only after “great slaughter”.  And back they came in 851 “and stormed … London”, and again in 872 “and there chose their winter-quarters”.

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Then in 878, Alfred the Great emerged from the fastnesses of Athelney to defeat the Vikings at the Battle of Edington in Wiltshire, and subsequently to force them to withdraw into what became known as the Danelaw in the  north and east of the country  (east of the River Lea in London).   Eight years later, in 886, according to Asser, a monk and later Bishop of Sherborne, in his “Life of King Alfred”, written in 893, he “restored the [Roman] city of London [Londinium] … splendidly … and  made it habitable again … ”; and moved the  Saxon settlement to within its perimeter and river walls, and renamed it Lundenburg.  In the process, he  set out the street plan that still in essence survives to this day.  He then “entrusted it  [and command of its burgwara or militia] to the care of [his son-in-law] Ethe(l)red, ealdorman of the Mercians”, to hold it under him.

The raids continued, though.  In 994, again according to the “Chronicle”, “[the Danish King] Swein [Forkbeard] came into London …  with 94 ships, and they proceeded to attack the city stoutly and wished also to set it on fire … .  But the holy Mother of God showed her mercy to the citizens on that day and saved them from their enemies”.

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In   1013, the city fell again to the Danish Vikings, albeit again only temporarily, being retaken in 1014 by the English King Ethelred “The Unready”, in alliance with the Norwegian Viking Olaf, Olav or Olave  Haraldsson.  According to the Norse “Olaf Sagas”, Olaf  destroyed the Saxon incarnation of London Bridge and the Danish  Viking army assembled on it by pulling it down with ropes tied to his long-boats.  The  court poet Ottar Svarte wrote, in the eleventh century, and Snorri Sturluson rewrote, in the thirteenth: “London Bridge is broken down.|Gold is won, and bright renown.|Shields resounding, war-horns sounding,|Hild is shouting in the din!|Arrows singing, mail-coats ringing-|Odin makes our Olaf win” (many believe this ode to be the origin of the much-loved nursery-rhyme “London Bridge is falling down”).   Olaf later converted to Christianity, and, as King Olaf II, introduced the religion to Norway in 1015.  He went on to be martyred fighting heathen Danish Vikings at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030, and to be canonised by the  English Bishop of Selsey, Grimkell or Grimketel in 1031 (the local canonisation was later confirmed by Pope Alexander III in 1164).  In the later Middle Ages, his tomb, in the most northerly cathedral in Christendom, in Nidaros [Trondheim], became an important pilgrimage site, and the centre of a widespread “cult of Olav”.  Interestingly, a  number of churches in and around the City of London are  or were dedicated to him,   including  St Nicholas Olave, St Olave Broad Street, St Olave Hart Street, St Olave Jewry and St Olave Silver Street in the City, St Olave in Southwark, and St Olave in Rotherhithe.

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Then, in 1016, the Viking Cnut, son of Swein Forkbeard, son of Harald Bluetooth, decisively defeated in battle the Saxon Edmund “Ironside”, son of Ethelred and Aelgifu of York,  to become King of England as well as Denmark; and in 1017 he married Ethelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, one of the more remarkable women of the age, wife of two Kings, mother of two more, and in her own right an influential political as well as an important dynastic figure, as described in the “Encomium Emmae Reginae”.  Cnut was in turn succeeded by Harold “Harefoot”, his son by Aelgifu of Northampton, in 1035, and  Hardicanute, his son by Emma,  in  1040.


Finally, the Saxon Edward “The Confessor”, son of Ethelred and Emma,   became King when the Viking Hardicanute died, leaving no heir, in 1042; and the ill-fated Harold Godwinson, Harold II, in 1066.

London Bridge Waterworks (1582)

An engineering drawing of the water wheel

On this day, December 24th,  in 1582, the Dutchman Pieter Maritz’s London Bridge Waterworks began supplying fresh water from the Thames to private houses in the City of London.  His rather rickety-looking apparatus actually worked well, and indeed, in the original demonstration to City officials, forced a jet over the spire of the church of St Magnus the Martyr!   It was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, but thereafter replaced by his grandson, and  it continued in use, after a fashion, until the early nineteenth century.

An eighteenth-century paiting of Old London Bridge showing the water wheel

Some of the many executions in Tudor and Stuart London

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On this day in 1541, according to the account given by Charles Wriothesley in his “Chronicle of England during the Reigns of the Tudors …”:

The Executions of Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham

“Culpeper [Thomas Culpeper, Gentleman of the Privy Chamber] and Dereham [Francis Dereham, Secretary to Henry VIII’s fifth wife Catherine Howard] were drawn from the Tower of London to Tyburn, and there Culpeper, after an exhortation made to the people to pray for him, he standing on the ground by the gallows, kneeled down and had his head stricken off; and then Dereham was hanged, membered, bowelled, headed, and quartered [for high treason against the King’s majesty in misdemeanour with the Queen].  Culpeper’s body buried at St Pulchre’s church by Newgate, their heads set on London Bridge”.

Also on this day in 1541, according to Wriothesley:

“Rafe Egerton, … one of my Lord Chancellor’s servants, and … Thomas Herman, sometime servant with Fleetwood, one of my Lord Chancellor’s gentlemen, were drawn from the Tower … to Tyburn, and there hanged and quartered for counterfeiting the King’s Great Seal”.

The Execution of John Roberts

And on this day in 1610, the Roman Catholic Priest – and since 1970 Saint – John Roberts was taken to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn for contravening the “Act Forbidding Priests to Minister in England”.  In the event, the crowd, who revered him for the work he had done among them during an outbreak of  the plague in 1603, saw to it that he died by hanging and was spared  the suffering of drawing  and quartering.  What could be  salvaged of his body was taken to the Benedictine priory he had founded at Douai in northern France.  One of his finger bones is preserved as a holy relic in Tyburn Convent.

London’s “Little Ice Age” and the Great “Frost Fairs”

The Frozen Thames in 1677

On this day in 1434 a severe frost set in in London that was to last until the February of the following year, and the Thames froze over.

Further records indicate that in all the river froze  over  nearly forty  times between 1142 and 1895, and that it became the site of impromptu “Frost Fairs” in 1564-65, 1683-84, 1715-16, 1739-40, 1788-89 and 1813-14.

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In 1683-84 an entire street of stalls was set up on the frozen river, together with a press printing souvenir papers, one of which, entitled “A Winter Wonder of the Thames Frozen Over with Remarks on the Resort thereon” asked “ … [W]ho’d believe to see revived there in January, Bartholomew Fair?”.  The ice was evidently so thick that it was even possible to roast an ox on it!    In 1788-89, there was, according to the all-knowing Encyclopaedia of London, “one continual scene of merriment and jollity” on the frozen river from Redriff to  as far up as  Putney.

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And in 1813-14, thousands  attended the greatest fair of the nineteenth  century, although only after navigating a gap in the ice created by temporarily unemployed watermen, who demanded a fee of twopence for their assistance!  Then, in 1831, the  demolition of the Old London Bridge, which had  nineteen arches, and the construction of the new one, which only had five, allowed  the rate of flow of the river  to increase to the extent that it became  much less susceptible to freezing  over.

Readers interested in further details are referred to The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys (Union Books, 2007), and Frost Fairs on the Frozen Thames by Nicholas Reed (Lilburne Press, 2002).

Henry V’s triumphal return to London after Agincourt (1415)

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Image courtesy of “Look and Learn” (www.lookandlearn.com)

On this day in 1415 took place Henry V’s triumphal return to  London after his famous  victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt on October 25th.  An anonymous author wrote the following eye-witness account:

“[T]he citizens went out to meet the king at the brow of Blackheath, … the mayor and … aldermen in scarlet, and the … lesser citizens in red cloaks with red-and-white party-coloured hoods, to the number of about 20000 … . And when the king came through the midst of them … and the citizens had given glory and honour to God, and congratulations to the king … the citizens rode before him towards the city, and the king followed … .

When they arrived at the … bridge … there placed on the top of the tower was  an enormous figure, with … the keys of the city hanging from a staff in his … hand … .

… And when they reached the … aqueduct in Cornhill they found the tower hidden under a scarlet cloth stretched in the form of a tent, on spears hidden under the cloth.  Surrounding … were the arms of St George, St Edward, St Edmund and of England, … inset with this pious legend: ‘Since the king hopes in the Lord and in the mercy of the highest, he shall not be moved’.  Under a covering was a band of venerable white-haired prophets, … who released, when the king came by, sparrows and other small birds in great cloud as a …  thanksgiving to God for the victory He had given …, while [they] sang in a sweet voice … [a] psalm … .

Then they went on to the tower of the conduit at the entrance to Cheapside which was decked with an awning of green … and erected to resemble a building.

… And when they came to the [Eleanor] cross in Cheapside … it was hidden by a beautiful castle of wood … .

… And when they came to the tower the conduit at the exit to Cheapside towards St Paul’s, … above the tower was stretched a canopy sky-blue in colour … and the top … was adorned by an archangel in shining gold … .  Below … was a figure of majesty represented by a sun darting out flashing rays … .

… Such was the dense throng of people in Cheapside … that a bigger or more impressive crowd had never gathered before in London.

But the king himself went along, amidst … the citizens, dressed in a purple robe, not with a haughty look and a pompous train … but with a serious countenance and a reverend pace accompanied by only a few of his most faithful servants; following him, guarded by knights, were the captured dukes, counts and the marshal.   From his silent face and … sober pace it could be inferred that the king … was giving thanks and glory to God alone and not to man.  And when he had visited the sanctuary of SS Peter and Paul, he rode away to his palace of Westminster, escorted by his citizens”.

The “Sheep Drive” over London Bridge

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Today is the day of  the annual “Sheep Drive”  over London Bridge, with Freemen of the City of London ceremonially exercising their historical right, dating back to the Middle Ages,  to drive sheep over the bridge without payment of a toll.  Nowadays, the ceremony, which is organised by the Worshipful Company of Woolmen, also serves to raise money for charitable causes.

The Great Fire of London (Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, 1666)


On this fateful day in 1666, Samuel Pepys in his diary:

“ …  Jane called us up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire … in the City.  So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown, and went to her window; and thought it to be … far enough off,   and so went to bed again … .  … By and by Jane comes and tells me that … the fire …  is now burning all down Fish Street, by London Bridge.  So I made myself ready … and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places … ; and … did see the houses at  that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side of the end of the bridge … .  So down, with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant … , who tells me that it begun … In the King’s bakers in Pudding-lane, and hath burned  St Magnus’s church and most … of Fish-street already.  So I down to the water-side, and there got a boat and … there saw a lamentable fire.   …  Every body endeavouring to remove their goods, and …  bringing them into lighters that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one … stairs, by the waterside, to another.   … Having staid, and in an hour’s time seen the fire rage every way, and nobody, to my sight, endeavouring to quench it, but to remove their goods, and … the wind mighty high and driving it into the City, and everything, after so long a drought, proving combustible … : I to White Hall, … and did tell the King [Charles II] … what I saw; and that, unless his Majesty did command houses to be pulled down [to create fire-breaks], nothing could stop the fire.  The King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor [the singularly ineffectual Thomas Bloodworth]” and command him to … pull down  [houses].  At last met my Lord Mayor … .  To the King’s message he cried, like a fainting woman ‘Lord, what can I do?  I am spent: people will not obey me.  I have been pulling down   houses; but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it’”.

And John Evelyn wrote:

“This fatal night … began that deplorable fire, neere Fish-streete … : … I … with my Wife & Sonn … went to the bank side in Southwark, where we beheld that dismal spectacle, the whole Citty in dreadfull flames … and … consumed … from the bridge … down to the three Cranes, & so returned exceedingly astonishd, what would become of the rest”.