London Bridge

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London Bridge

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A Brief History

From the time the first wooden bridge in London was built by the Romans in 52 CE until 1729 when Putney Bridge opened, London Bridge was the only bridge across the Thames in London. During this time, several structures were built upon the bridge, though many were either dismantled or fell apart. John Stow’s 1598 A Survey of London claims that the contemporary version of the bridge was already outdated by 994, likely due to the bridge’s wooden construction (Stow 1:21).
Stow’s first record of a fire burning down the wooden bridge is in 1136 (Stow 1:22). We have record of a wooden bridge in the same place for two hundred and fifteen years, before a bridge of stone was begun in 1176 (Stow 1:23).
Because London Bridge was the only way to cross the Thames without a boat and the wooden bridges of the past were rickety and sometimes unsafe, the construction of the stone bridge was important to the city of London. In 1176, the new stone bridge was begun slightly to the west of the wooden bridge to allow construction of the new bridge while the old bridge was still in use (Stow 1:23). Commissioned by King Henry II, partially funded by Richard of Dover, Archbishop of Canterbury and designed by Peter of Colechurch, the stone bridge was 20 feet wide and 300 yards long and was supported by 20 arches curving to a point in Gothic Style (The Peter De Colechurch Bridge; Stow 1:23). The arches were 60 feet tall and 20 feet distant from one another (Stow 1:26). This process of construction was not a short one. The construction of the bridge in its early-modern state was begun in 1176 under King Henry II, and finished under King John I, and the designer of the bridge, Peter of Colechurch died during the thirty-three year construction and was buried in the Chapel of Saint Thomas Becket on the bridge. The project was finished in 1209 (Stow 1:23).
Detail from Claes Jansz Visscher’s London, reprinted ca. 1885. MAP L85c no.7 copy 3 (Digital Image File 12941). Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
Detail from Claes Jansz Visscher’s London, reprinted ca. 1885. MAP L85c no.7 copy 3 (Digital Image File 12941). Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

New Construction

While most modern bridges provide only crossing for traffic of one kind or another, buildings were built upon London Bridge in attempt to help repay the enormous cost of the construction (Stow 23). The first building built on the bridge was a , built on the east side of the bridge and south side of the river (Stow 23-4). The bridge in this iteration lasted for over six hundred years (although it needed serious repair several times), and it had gatehouses, a drawbridge and… street houses to provide rent for the upkeep of the bridge” (The Peter De Colechurch Bridge). By 1358, the bridge had already been covered with 138 shops, which sold various goods to those crossing the bridge. The number of shops adorning the bridge consistently grew over time, at one point pre-Great Fire reaching a number of 200, several with up to seven stories, and many that would hang over the river by measures of feet. These shops would not be permanent owners of their space on the bridge but rather would rent their places at various rates. has data for Bridge House rentals from 1381-1538 available through the British History Online project, accessible here. For example, rent in 1401 varied from four pounds to eight pounds yearly, with a total income for the year totaling approximately 500 pounds for all rentals. he cost of the construction was astronomical, as instead of being constructed of wood like its earlier iterations, this version was made of stone. In what would prove to be an unsuccessful attempt to offset the cost of construction, King Henry II placed a tax upon both wool and sheepskin, and King John licensed building plots. Neither of these tactics fully recouped the cost of construction, and in 1284 the City of London acquired the charter of maintenance for the bridge through loaning money to the royal purse in attempt to further recover the cost of construction.
The Colechurch bridge, while proving to be quite resilient, did have its issues: namely, fire. Fire was a consistent issue for the earlier wooden bridge, but fire was not a problem solved by its newer stone construction. On July 10, 1212, a fire started in Our Lady of the Canons Church on the south side of the Thames. Strong winds whipped sparks to the north end of the bridge, leaving the people on the bridge stranded between the fires (Stow 24). Boats came to the bridge for a rescue attempt; but tragically, so many jumped on each boat that every boat sank, bringing the death toll to around three thousand (Stow 24). Additionally, in response and in an attempt to help fund restoration of the bridge after the 1212 fire, King John placed tolls levied onto foreign merchants toward the funding of these repairs. To further fund repairs, King Henry III permitted certain monks to travel the country to collect alms to be dedicated specifically to the bridge repair fund. These monks were exclusively members of the . In addition to the collection of alms by the Brethren of the London Bridge, a toll was charged to those crossing the bridge. The costs assigned to cross the bridge, informing us that in the year 1281 a crossing cost every man on foot, with merchandise, to pay one farthing; every horseman, one penny; every pack carried on horseback, one halfpenny (Thornbury 1: 9). These tolls, while a reasonable rate, were doubtlessly an important component in the recuperation of the money spent on the bridge’s construction considering the number of citizens crossing the bridge each year.
In addition to destructive fires, the Bridge saw other destructive conflicts. Due to the fact that the bridge was the sole manner for an infantry-based army to cross the Thames, London Bridge was the site of many battles. In 1450, Jack Cade attempted to take the city of London, but the residents of the bridge overcame him and his followers (Stow 25). In 1471,1481, and 1553 other battles and sieges were conducted on London Bridge, but because of the on both ends of the bridge, none of the potential invasions were successful in taking London (Stow 25-6).
The bridge was also the site of celebration and ceremony. Thornbury also writes of the return of King Richard II in 1392, stating:
In 1392, when Richard II returned to London, reconciled to the citizens, who had resented his reckless extravagance, London Bridge was the centre of splendid pageants. At the bridge-gate the citizens presented the handsome young scapegrace with a milk-white charger, caparisoned in cloth of gold and hung with silver bells, and gave the queen a white palfrey, caparisoned in white and red; while from every window hung cloths of gold and silver. The citizens ended by redeeming their forfeited charter by the outrageous payment of £10,000
(Thornbury 12). This event serves to highlight just how important London Bridge was to the culture of Early Modern London in addition to its importance as a river crossing. By adorning the bridge so extravagantly to celebrate the return of the King, the city displayed the importance of the bridge as a culture and physical crossing.

Shooting the Bridge

The Colechurch Bridge had some deficiencies, the largest of which was its negative effect on the navigability of the Thames. Because the Thames is a tidal river, the current changes direction with the tides. The arches across the river were not equidistant, and this caused the river to develop spots that were not only difficult but in some places dangerous to navigate when going under the bridge. The bargemen who worked the river had their favorite spots to cross depending on the tidal level. They called it shooting the bridge in the same way that people today shoot rapids.
The dangers of shooting London Bridge were exemplified as early as 1428 (in the same reign—Henry VI): The barge of the Duke of Norfolk, starting from St. Mary Overie’s, with many a gentleman, squire, and yeoman, about half-past four of the clock on a November afternoon, struck (through bad steering) on a starling of London Bridge, and sank (Thornbury 13). The duke and two or three other gentlemen fortunately leaped on the piles were saved by ropes cast down from the parapet above; the rest, however, perished.
Upon close inspection of John Norden’s illustration, it is possible to see the currents that surround the arches that support the bridge. These currents are what necessitated the act of shooting the bridge. It is also possible to see small boats about to shoot the bridge.
The view of London Bridge from east to weste by John Norden () From the Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image CollectionDigital Image File 7497). Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
The view of London Bridge from east to weste by John Norden (1548-1625) From the Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image CollectionDigital Image File 7497). Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

London Bridge Experience

Crossing London Bridge during the early modern period was unlike crossing any bridge that we have today. The majority of the twenty-foot wide bridge was taken up with structures on either side. Because London Bridge was the only way to cross the Thames that did not involve a boat, it was the primary way that carriages, wagons, and horses crossed the river, making traffic both thick and dangerous. Since there were no sidewalks on the bridge, pedestrians needed to be at least as aware of other traffic as they were in the narrow, winding roads of London. The structures on either side were so large that they needed to be buttressed from the river below and had to be connected across the bridge with wood for support; otherwise, they would either fall into the river or crash down on the bridge. The structures above the shops…leaned so far over the street that Mistress A could pass a sausage to Mistress B across the road without leaving her house (Cushman 128). While not connecting the structures in such a way as to provide protection from the rain or snow, this connection must have given the bridge a claustrophobic feeling. In addition to the traffic and narrowness of the bridge, in 1304 London began putting traitors’ heads on poles attached to the gate house. The first person with this ignoble honor was William Wallace. The practice of displaying heads on London bridge (as depicted in Claes Visscher’s illustration, shown above), seems to have continued for centuries. Perhpas most notably, the head of Sir Thomas More was displayed on the bridge in 1535, following which Thomas Cromwell’s head was displayed following his execution in 1540. James Shapiro notes that Shakespeare’s relative, John Somerville, along with Edward Arden, had their heads mounted on stakes atop London Bridge (Shapiro 142) as punishment for their involvement in Catholic conspiracy against Queen Elizabeth I’s life in 1583. The displaying of heads on the bridge functions as a symbolic testament to political authority. In terms of early modern theatrical culture, many playgoers would have had to cross the London Bridge to reach The Swan, The Globe, and The Rose in Southwark, perhaps adding additional dimensions of significance to a plays staged in their respective theatrical venunes, especially those dealing with execution and treason.
While the bridge was generally a place of business, residence, and a way to cross the Thames, it was also a site for spectacle, rebellion, and fire. In 1390, there was a joust on the bridge pertaining to the honor of the Scottish people. In 1471 Thomas Neville (the Bastard of Faulconbridge) burned down thirteen houses on the bridge. In 1481, one of the houses fell into the Thames, drowning five men. Given the traffic on the bridge and the number of people who lived on it, this is a surprisingly low number.
During the Great Fire of London in 1666, the bridge was one of the few places in the heart of London not completely decimated. Because of an earlier fire that occurred in 1633, most of the houses on the bridge were spared. The fire had left a large break between buildings that had not been completely rebuilt by the time of the great fire, which meant that while forty-three houses burned down, the rest of the bridge remained sound. Had the gap from the previous fire not happened, all of the structures on the bridge would have caught fire, and there is a very real possibility that the fire could have crossed into South London.
Over the years, citizen traffic increased on the bridge, and as traffic increased, the bridge became considerably more dangerous. In 1722, a keep left rule was instituted to help with congestion. By 1763, it could take several hours to cross London Bridge, and in order to relieve this congestion, the houses and shops that lined the bridge were torn down, allowing traffic to use the entire twenty feet, changing the experience of crossing the bridge. Due to age, modification, and damage from ice, a new London Bridge was commissioned in 1821, and building was begun on June 15, 1825 (The Rennie Bridge). The most recent incarnation of London Bridge was begun in 1967 with an act of Parliament and officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1973 (2000 Years of London Bridge).


Cite this page

MLA citation

London Bridge. The Map of Early Modern London, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 20 Jun. 2018,

Chicago citation

London Bridge. The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed June 20, 2018.

APA citation

2018. London Bridge. In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London. Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from

RIS file (for RefMan, EndNote etc.)

Provider: University of Victoria
Database: The Map of Early Modern London
Content: text/plain; charset="utf-8"

ED  - Jenstad, Janelle
T1  - London Bridge
T2  - The Map of Early Modern London
PY  - 2018
DA  - 2018/06/20
CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  -
UR  -
ER  - 


RT Web Page
SR Electronic(1)
A6 Jenstad, Janelle
T1 London Bridge
T2 The Map of Early Modern London
WP 2018
FD 2018/06/20
RD 2018/06/20
PP Victoria
PB University of Victoria
LA English
OL English

TEI citation

<bibl type="mla"> <title level="a">London Bridge</title>. <title level="m">The Map of Early Modern London</title>, edited by <editor><name ref="#JENS1"><forename>Janelle</forename> <surname>Jenstad</surname></name></editor>, <publisher>U of Victoria</publisher>, <date when="2018-06-20">20 Jun. 2018</date>, <ref target=""></ref>.</bibl>



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