October 17, 2016
Of course, the Great Fire of London in 1666 is only one of numerous fires which have occurred in London (although it was no doubt the greatest in terms of destruction). But among others was a fire in 1212 which has been described as London’s worst in terms of the death toll which some have put as high as 3,000 (although it’s generally believed it’s unlikely to have been that high).
The fire, which only came some 77 years after another great conflagration destroyed a stretch of the city reaching from Westminster to St Paul’s Cathedral in 1135, began in Southwark on 10th July (hence it’s also known as the Great Fire of Southwark). Crossing London Bridge, it went on to destroy a large part of the City itself.
As well as destroying buildings on London Bridge including houses and the chapel (the structure itself, having recently been rebuilt in stone, survived somewhat intact although it only remained in partial use for some time afterward), also destroyed the Southwark church known as St Mary Overie (precursor to today’s Southwark Cathedral) as well as many buildings around Borough High Street.
There were apparently numerous deaths – the story goes that many of them occurred when a mass of people poured onto London Bridge from the City as they attempted to cross to Southwark to help put out the fire (or perhaps just gawk at it).
They were trapped in the middle of the bridge when, with the south end was already ablaze, the north end caught fire from sparks. As well as suffering fatally from the effects of flames and smoke, people were apparently crushed in panic and others were pushed off the bridge to drown in the River Thames (along with some of the boat crews who tried to rescue them).
And, just as the Great Fire of 1666, the fire of 1212 did result in some building reforms including the placement of a ban on the use of thatch for rooves.
June 20, 2016
Now the name of a dock on Bankside (pictured below), St Mary Overie (also spelt as Overy) also forms part of the formal name of Southwark Cathedral, more properly known as The Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie.
The simple version of the name’s origins is that it simply means St Mary “over the river” (that is, St Mary on the south side of the Thames) which was used in relation to a priory founded there in the Norman era by two knights (it’s to this foundation that what is now Southwark Cathedral owes its origins, something we’ll take a more detailed look at the nunnery in an upcoming Lost London post).
But there’s also another, more romantic version, of the name’s origins. That story, as it’s told on a plaque located at the dock (pictured above), goes back to before the Norman founding of priory, back to the days when, before the building of London Bridge, a ferry ran between the two banks of the River Thames.
The man responsible for the ferry was John Overs, a “notorious miser”, who decided to save money by feigning his death and thus plunging his household into mourning, saving that day’s provisions. As one may imagine, however, Overs was not a popular man and his servants, instead of fasting in their mourning, held a feast in celebration of his death.
In rage, the old master leapt out of his bed and a servant, terrified and imaging some sort of demonic manifestation, struck him fatally with an oar on the head.
Overs’ daughter, Mary, sent for her lover so that he may come and together with her claim her father’s inheritance but such was his haste, he fell from his horse and broke his neck. So overcome was Mary by her misfortunes that she founded a convent into which she subsequently retired (this was subsequently ‘refounded’ by the two Norman knights).
The dock, meanwhile, is today the berthing place of the Golden Hinde II, a sea-worthy replica of the flagship in which Elizabethan explorer Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe (for more on the ship, see our earlier post here).
April 15, 2016
Famed for its mention in Geoffrey Chaucer’s iconic 14th century work, The Canterbury Tales, The Tabard Inn once stood on Borough High Street in Southwark.
The inn was apparently first built for the Abbot of Hyde in 1307 as a place where he and his brethren could stay when they came to London and stood on what had been the main Roman thoroughfare between London and Canterbury.
It became a popular hostelry for pilgrims making their way from the Chapel of St Thomas á Becket on London Bridge to the saint’s shrine in Canterbury Cathedral and was one of a number of inns which eventually came to be built in Southwark at the London end of the pilgrim route.
It’s in this context that it earns a mention in Chaucer’s 14th century work as the pilgrims set off on their journey.
The inn passed into private hands following the Dissolution and in 1676, 1o years after the Great Fire of London, burned down in a fire which devastated much of Southwark (the back part of it had been damaged by fire a few years earlier). Earlier patrons may have, it’s been suggested, included the Bard himself, William Shakespeare.
It was subsequently rebuilt as a galleried coaching inn and came to be renamed The Talbot (it’s been suggested this was due to a spelling mistake by the signwriter). Its neighbour, the George Inn, still stands in Talbot Yard (it was also apparently burnt down and rebuilt after the 1676 fire).
Business for the coaching inns dropped away, however, with the coming of the railways and the building was converted into stores before eventually being demolished in 1874.
A plaque to the inn can be seen in Talbot Yard (named for the inn’s later incarnation) – it was unveiled by Terry Jones in 2003.
December 31, 2015
2016 is fast approaching and to celebrate, we’re looking back at the 10 most popular posts we published in 2015. Today, we present our most popular and second most popular articles posted this year…
2. Our second most popular article, posted in August, was another in our Lost London series and this time looked at a long-lost feature of Old London Bridge – Lost London – Chapel of St Thomas á Becket.
1. And we are finally there – the most popular of our posts published this year was run in conjunction with the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. Part of our LondonLife series, it took a look inside King Henry V’s rarely opened chantry chapel in Westminster Abbey – LondonLife – A rare glimpse inside King Henry V’s chantry chapel.
November 18, 2015
Little is known of Jack Cade until the former soldier from Kent led an uprising against the rule of King Henry VI during the Hundred Years War with France. And London was a key site of fighting during the uprising.
Cade, who adopted the name John Mortimer and who some claimed to have been a relative of Richard, Duke of York, was said to have been a veteran of the war who led rebels protesting against the king’s rule amid the general state of disorder affecting England at the time which saw such abuses as lands being illegally seized and a lack of confidence in courts to rule fairly. There was also some discontent over the loss of lands of Normandy.
While many of the rebels were peasants, the rebellion – which rose in late May or early June, 1450 – was also supported by nobles and churchmen who were protesting what they saw as poor governance.
Led by Cade, who also attracted the title ‘Captain of Kent’, were camped on Blackheath in what is now the city’s south-east by mid-June and there apparently presented an embassy from the king with a list of grievances.
Thomas, Lord Scales – authorised by the king to raise troops, subsequently marched out to Blackheath but Cade and his rebels retreated into the forests of Kent and managed to lure the royal troops into an ambush.
Cade and the rebels returned to Blackheath while back in London the Royal soldiers turned mutinous, angered over the defeat. They were disbanded to protect the City and the king retired to Kenilworth Castle, effectively abandoning London to the rebels (despite the offer of the Lord Mayor and aldermen to resist the rebels).
Cade then marched on London itself, reaching Southwark on 2nd July (apparently using the now vanished White Hart Inn as his HQ). He forced his way over London Bridge the next day, cutting the drawbridge ropes personally with his sword to ensure it couldn’t be raised again
Such was the support the rebels had in London, that resistance was initially minimal. Following his entry to London, Cade struck the famous London Stone (pictured above – for more on it, see our earlier post here) with his sword, declaring “Mortimer” was now lord of the city.
While initially under tight control, Cade gradually lost control of many of his followers who turned to looting. Meanwhile, to head off an attack on the Tower of London – where Lord Scales had retreated – he handed over the hated Lord Treasurer, James Fiennes, Lord Saye, and his son-in-law William Crowmer, Under Sheriff of Kent (they had apparently been imprisoned in the Tower by the King for their own protection such as their unpopularity). Both were beheaded – Fiennes at Cheapside, Crowmer at Mile End – and their heads placed on poles on London Bridge.
The king’s supporters in the Tower had regrouped by early July and, with the rebels, while initially welcomed by many, now clearly having outstayed their welcome, they and city militias drove the rebels from the streets and had taken back the northern half of London Bridge (another bloody battle over the bridge) when William of Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester, arrived with promises of pardon for the rebels on behalf of the Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, John Kemp.
His forced much reduced, Cade – a pardon in his pocket under Mortimer’s name only – moved back into Kent and continued to cause trouble. He was, however, captured by the new Sheriff of Kent, Alexander Iden, on 12th July, – one version says this took place near Heathfield in Sussex at a hamlet now known as Cade Street. In any event, Cade was mortally wounded during the struggle and died en route to London.
His corpse, however, completed the journey and Cade was hanged, drawn and quartered and his head placed atop a pole on London Bridge.
While the rebel ringleaders were later captured and killed, in the most part King Henry VI honoured the pardons he had granted.
The story of Cade’s rebellion features in William Shakespeare’s play, King Henry the Sixth.
October 28, 2015
We’ve touched on this story before but it’s worth a revisit as part of this series. London changed hands several times during the later half of the first millennium as the Anglo-Saxons fought Vikings for control of the city, meaning the city was the site of several battles during the period.
One of the most memorable (or so legend has it, there are some archaeologists who believe the incident never took place) was the battle in 1014 in which London Bridge – then a timber structure (today’s concrete bridge is pictured above) – was pulled down. A story attributed to the Viking skald or poet Ottarr the Black but not found in Anglo-Saxon sources, the event, if it did take place, did so against the backdrop of an ongoing conflict between the Danes and Anglo-Saxons.
Anglo-Saxon London had resisted several attempts at being taken by the Vikings – a fire was recorded in the city in 982, possibly caused by a Viking attack – and in 994, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that a fleet of 94 Danish and Norwegian ships were repelled with prejudice. Further attacks was driven back in 1009 and it wasn’t until 1013 that the city finally submitted to Danish rule after Sweyn Forkbeard had already claimed Oxford and Winchester.
But Sweyn, the father of the famous King Canute (Cnut), didn’t hold it long – he died on 3rd February the following year.
The deposed Anglo-Saxon King Æthelred II (also spent Ethelred, he was known as ‘the Unready’) – who had been forced to flee from London, which he used as his capital, to what is now Normandy thanks to Sweyn’s depredations – is said to have seized his chance and along with the forces of his ally, the Norwegian King Olaf II, he sailed up the Thames to London in a large flotilla.
The Danish had taken the city, occupying both the city proper and Southwark, and were determined to resist. According to the Viking account, they lined the timber bridge crossing the river and rained spears down on the would-be invaders. (The bridge, incidentally, had apparently been built following the attack in 993, ostensibly to block the river and prevent further incursions further upstream – there is certainly archaeological evidence that a bridge existed in about the year 1000).
Not to be beaten, Æthelred’s forces, using thatching stripped from the rooves of nearby houses to shield themselves, managed to get close enough to attach some cables to the bridge’s piers, pulling the bridge down and winning the battle, retaking the city.
There’s much speculation that the song London Bridge is Falling Down was inspired by the incident but it, like much of this story itself, remains just that – conjecture (although Ottarr’s skald does sound rather familiar).
The bridge was subsequently rebuilt and King Æthelred died only two years later, on 23rd April, 2016. The crown subsequently passed to his son Edmund Ironside but he too died after ruling for less than a year leaving Viking Canute to be crowned king.
October 5, 2015
This year marks the 710th anniversary of the execution of Scottish rebel William Wallace in Smithfield so we thought we’d take a quick look at the circumstances of that event – made famous in recent times through the movie Braveheart.
For some eight years, Wallace had been a thorn in the side of the King Edward I, promoting active resistance to his rule in Scotland after Edward forced the abdication and usurption of the crown of John Balliol.
Following a crushing defeat at the Battle of Falkirk on 22nd July, 1298, however, Wallace went to France where he attempted to gain French support for rebellion in Scotland but the effort proved ultimately futile and Wallace, back in Britain but refusing to submit to English rule, remained on the run.
At least until he was captured on 5th August, 1305, by Sir John Monteith, who had been made Sheriff of Dumbarton by King Edward I, at Robroyston near Glasgow.
Taken to Carlisle, he was bound hand and foot before being taken south to London in chains.
Wallace’s trial took place on 23rd August that year at Westminster Hall and, despite his protestations that he couldn’t be guilty of treason having never sworn loyalty to the English Crown, a guilty verdict was handed down along with the sentence of a traitor’s death – being hung, drawn and quartered.
Taken to the Tower of London, Wallace was stripped naked and then strapped to a wooden hurdle which was dragged by two horses through the streets via Aldgate to The Elms at Smithfield where he was hanged on a gallows.
Cut down while yet living, he was disembowelled and castrated and his entrails burnt. Wallace was then decapitated and his body cut into quarters which were sent to Berwick, Newcastle, Stirling and Perth as a warning against treason. His tarred head, meanwhile, was put on a pike and set above London Bridge.
A memorial to Wallace can now be found on the wall of St Bartholomew’s Hospital at West Smithfield (pictured – for more on that, see our earlier post here).
September 29, 2015
London photographer Ian Wylie captures the “supermoon” rising over Canary Wharf in London’s east on Sunday, ahead of the lunar eclipse in the early hours of Monday. As seen from London Bridge at 6:54pm – 20 minutes after moonrise and six minutes after sunset. A supermoon occurs when the moon reaches the closest part of its orbit to Earth and hence appears larger than normal. This week’s supermoon coincided with a lunar eclipse – in which the moon passes behind the Earth through its shadow (also known as an umbra) – which later made the moon appear red (a lunar eclipse is also known as a “blood moon”). Last seen in 1982, the phenomena will apparently not be visible again until 2033. PICTURE: © Ian Wylie/Flickr
August 21, 2015
Known informally as the Chapel on the Bridge, the Chapel of St Thomas á Becket was located in the middle of London Bridge and, as the name suggests, was dedicated to the ill-fated archbishop of Canterbury.
Founded in 1205, the stone chapel was among the first buildings constructed on the bridge by priest-architect Peter de Colechurch in 1176, who was actually buried beneath the chapel (for more on him and the construction of the bridge, see our earlier posts here and here).
Facing downstream and located on a wider than normal pier – the 11th pier from the Southwark end of the bridge and the ninth from the City end – the original chapel was built in the early English Gothic style and consisted of an upper chapel with a groined roof and columns and vaulted lower chapel or undercroft. Standing some 40 foot high, it would have towered over the shops and residences on the bridge. There is some suggestion it was damaged by fire in 1212 and may have had to have been extensively repaired.
It’s name ensured its popularity – Becket was martyred in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, apparently on the orders of King Henry II, and, canonised just three years later, had quickly become the focus of a popular religious cult in his home town of London. The chapel also became renowned as a wayside stop for pilgrims to receive the saint’s blessing before making their way to Canterbury where his shrine was located.
But it wasn’t just pilgrims who had an attachment – the chapel was apparently popular among watermen who, when the tide allowed them, were known to tie up their craft on the chapel pier and ascend to the undercroft through a lower entrance.
The chapel – which apparently had two priests at the beginning as well as a number of clerks although the number of priests is known to have climbed as high as five in the 14th century – was nominally under the control of the priest of the church of St Magnus-the-Martyr, located at the City end of the bridge. The reality seems to have been however, that the priests and other “Brothers of the Bridge” enjoyed considerable freedom in their roles, including, after 1483, obtaining the right keep alms taken during services provided he made a generous contribution to the parish finances. Like most who worked on the bridge, the priests and “clerks of the chapel” would likely have lived on it.
Relics housed in the chapel apparently included fragments of the True Cross and a number of chantries were built inside the chapel in the 14th century – it’s believed this may have led to some overcrowding and been one of the reasons for a major rebuilding of the chapel – this time in the Perpendicular Gothic style – between 1384 and 1397.
The chapel survived until the Dissolution when, in 1548, the priest was ordered to close it up and it was desecrated and later converted into a dwelling (later still, parts of it were used as a warehouse). It was demolished over succeeding years – by the late 18th century just the lower chapel remained – with the final remnants removed in the early 1800s.
Some bones in a small casket were disinterred in from the chapel undercroft during this process in the early 19th century. Although these were rumoured to be those of de Colechurch, analysis found them to be part of a human arm bone, a cow bone and goose bones. (Other accounts suggest most of Peter’s bones were tossed into the Thames and that a small number were even sold at auction).
There’s a stained glass window commemorating the bridge in St Magnus-the-Martyr Church today (pictured above).
June 29, 2015
We recently ran a piece on the building of the first stone London Bridge (see our earlier post here) and so we thought it timely to take a look at the life of the builder, priest and ‘architect’ Peter de Colechurch.
Not a lot is known about the life of de Colechurch – although we do know he took his name from the fact he the chaplain of St Mary Colechurch, a church which once stood at the junction of Poultry and Old Jewry (and was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666).
The stone London Bridge wasn’t his first attempt at bridge-building – in 1163 he had supervised the rebuilding of the wooden London Bridge after a fire some 30 years before.
His role in building the subsequent stone bridge remains a little unclear but he was known to have been in charge of the building works themselves and also headed the fundraising and it is believed he headed a guild responsible for the upkeep of the bridge known as the Fraternity of the Brethren of London Bridge.
His seal depicts a priest celebrating mass at an altar with the Latin Sigillum Petri Sacerdotis Pontis Londoniarum (Seal of Peter Priest of London Bridge).
The chapel on the bridge was dedicated to St Thomas á Becket and it’s suggested that he and de Colechurch would have known each other – Becket had been christened at St Mary Colechurch in 1118.
Sadly, de Colechurch did not live to see the stone London Bridge completed – he died in 1205 and was buried under the floor of the chapel on the bridge.
Some bones in a small casket were disinterred in from the chapel undercroft in 1832 – now in the Museum of London, these were rumoured to be those of de Colechurch although after analysis the bones were found to be part of a human arm bone, a cow bone and goose bones. (Other accounts suggest most of Peter’s bones were tossed into the Thames and a small number sold at auction).
The current London Bridge, which spans the River Thames linking Southwark to the City, is just the latest in several incarnations of a bridge which originally dates back to Roman times.
This week, we’re focusing on first stone bridge to be built on the site. Constructed over a period of some 33 years, it was only completed in 1209 during the reign of King John, some six years before the signing of the Magna Carta.
Construction on the bridge began in 1176, only 13 years after the construction of an earlier wooden bridge on the site (the latest of numerous wooden bridges built on the site, it had apparently built of elm under the direction of Peter de Colechurch, chaplain of St Mary Colechurch, a now long-gone church in Cheapside).
It was the priest-architect de Colechurch who was also responsible for building the new bridge of stone, apparently on the orders of King Henry II. While many of the wealthy, including Richard of Dover, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave funds for the construction of the bridge, a tax was also levied on wool, undressed sheepskins and leather to provide the necessary monies – the latter led to the phrase that London Bridge was “built upon woolpacks”. King John, meanwhile, had decreed in 1201 that the rents from several homes on the bridge would be used to repair it into perpetuity.
The bridge, which featured 20 arches – a new one built every 18 months or so, was apparently constructed on wooden piles driven into the river bed at low water with the piers of Kentish ragstone set on top. It was dangerous work and it’s been estimated that as many as 200 men may have died during its construction.
The bridge was almost completely lined with buildings on both sides of the narrow central street. These included a chapel dedicated to St Thomas á Becket – a stopping point for pilgrims heading to the saint’s shrine in Canterbury, as well as shops and residences (although, apart from the chapel, we know little about the original buildings). There was also a drawbridge toward the southern end and the Great Stone Gate guarding the entrance from Southwark.
Peter de Colechurch died in 1205, before the bridge was completed. He was buried in the undercroft of the chapel on the bridge.
Three men subsequently took on the task of completing the bridge – William de Almaine, Benedict Botewrite and Serle le Mercer who would go on to be a three time Lord Mayor of London. All three were later bridge wardens, the City officials charged with the daily running of the bridge itself.
One of key events on the bridge in the years immediately after its completion was the arrival of Louis, the Dauphin of France, in May, 1216. Louis had been invited to depose John by the rebellious barons after the agreement sealed at Runnymede fell apart and in 1216, he and his men marched over London Bridge on their way to St Paul’s Cathedral. (We’ll deal with this in more detail in a later post).
What became known as ‘Old London Bridge’, which stood in line with Fish Street Hill, survived the Great Fire of 1666, albeit badly damaged, but was eventually replaced with a new bridge, known, unsurprisingly as ‘New London Bridge’, which opened in 1831. Designed by John Rennie, this bridge was later replaced by one which opened in 1971 (Rennie’s bridge was sold off and now stands in Lake Havasu City, Arizona).
For a detailed history of Old London Bridge, check out Old London Bridge: The Story of the Longest Inhabited Bridge in Europe.
It’s Trafalgar Square but not as we know it. In a new Wednesday series we’re looking at eight proposed structures in London that were never realised and first up, is a proposal which would have seen a 300 foot high pyramid on what has become one of the city’s most iconic sites.
The stepped pyramid was the brainchild of an early 19th century Tory MP, Colonel (later General) Sir Frederick William Trench, and was designed in 1815 as a grand military and naval memorial to the Napoleonic Wars with each of the structure’s 22 steps apparently dedicated to a different year of the war.
Apparently drawn up by architects Philip and Matthew Cotes Wyatt – of the famous Wyatt architectural dynasty, the pyramid – which would have been taller than St Paul’s Cathedral and pretty much covered the entire space now occupied by the square – was, according to Nick Rennison’s The Book of Lists, costed at £1 million, a figure Sir Frederick – a veteran of the wars – apparently thought was not unreasonable.
But it didn’t prove a popular design with the public and got no further than the drawing board.
Among Sir Frederick’s other unrealised dreams was an elevated railroad running between London and Hungerford Bridges, an immense new royal palace which would have covered much of the West End, and an embankment – ‘Trench’s Terrace’ – along the north bank of the Thames. An embankment was, of course, later built, but not until after his death in 1859.
October 7, 2014
A small flock of sheep made their way across London Bridge this week as the Freemen of the City of London exercised their ancient prerogative to drive sheep over the span. A reported 600 Freemen from the City’s 110 livery companies took part in the annual drive along with a score of sheep – all in an effort to raise for the Lord Mayor’s Appeal. There’s a permanent reminder of the tradition of driving sheep in the heart of the City in Paternoster Square near St Paul’s Cathedral where Dame Elisabeth Frink’s bronze sculpture of Shepherd and Sheep can be found (pictured above).
Some of 16 hybrid images showing London’s bridges old and new which have been released by the Museum of London Docklands to mark the recent opening of the museum’s new free art exhibition Bridges. The images have been created using historic photographs showcased in the exhibition which opened last Friday and runs until 2nd November. The photographs were taken by renowned late 19th and 20th century photographers, including Henry Grant, Henry Turner, Sandra Flett, Christina Broom, Roger Mayne and George Davison Reid. Above is Tower Bridge, taken by Christina Broom (c. 1903–10) from Shad Thames Jetty. For more, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk/docklands/. PICTURE © Christina Broom/Museum of London.
Albert Bridge (unknown photographer), Chelsea. Glass lantern slide, c. late 19th century. © Museum of London.
Vauxhall Bridge from Cambridge Wharf (taken by Albert Gravely Linney), 1928. Taken from the north bank of the Thames. © Albert Gravely Linney/Museum of London
Looking north across London Bridge (taken by George Davison Reid), c. 1920s. Taken from inside on the 5th floor of No1 London Bridge. © George Davison Reid/Museum of London
Richmond Bridge, glass lantern slide, c. late 19th century. Taken from the south side of the river. © Museum of London.
Held during particularly cold winters when the River Thames froze over, ‘frost fairs’ had been part of London’s history, from the Middle Ages up until the last one was held in February 1814, two hundred years ago last month.
The five day revelry started on 1st February and took place on a stretch of the river between Blackfriars and London Bridge (it was the medieval London Bridge in particular – with its 19 arches and wide piers – which helped to slow the river enough to freeze, something unlikely to happen again with the current bridge).
People began to venture out onto the ice and an impromptu fair started taking shape as tents and booths were established selling all manner of food including roast ox, drinks including alcohol like gin as well as hot chocolate, tea and coffee, and souvenirs to take advantage of the passing traffic (a piece of gingerbread from the fair is a star attraction at the Museum of London’s current exhibition on the fair – pictured right). Some of the tents were known by names (similar to a pub sign), such as the Moscow and the Wellington.
Other attractions recorded include children’s play equipment, a gambling den, and printing presses which produced keepsakes to mark the occasion. There were even reports of sightings of an elephant crossing the river.
Several people apparently died at the fair having sunk beneath the ice by the time the snow turned to rain and the ice began to break up. An engraving of the frost fairs by Richard Kindersley can be found on a pedestrian walkway underneath the Southwark end of Southwark Bridge.
The dates for Frozen Thames: Frost Fair 1814 at the Museum of London have been extended until 21st April (there is an accompanying exhibition, Frozen Thames: Frost Fair 1684 running concurrently at the Museum of London Docklands). Admission is free. For more, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk.
MAIN PICTURE: A view of the river Thames, 1814, George Thompson © Museum of London. This print shows the 1814 Frost Fair from the south bank of the Thames, with St Paul’s in the background.
February 10, 2014
This year we’re launching a new regular edition to Exploring London in which we take a brief look at a moment in the city’s long and colourful history.
First up, we travel back exactly 1,000 years to 1014. The story – recorded in Viking Skaldic poetry but apparently not in Anglo-Saxon sources – goes that during the ongoing conflict between the Danes and Anglo-Saxons, the Danish had taken the city, occupying both the city proper and Southwark. At that stage, there was a timber bridge crossing the Thames.
Desperate to regain the city (the Viking ruler Sweyn died on 3rd February that year – this may have been why the attack was launched), the Anglo-Saxon King Æthelred (known to history as ‘the Unready’) and his Norwegian Viking allies apparently under King Olaf II sailed up the Thames in a large flotilla.
Despite meeting fierce resistance from the Danish occupiers – they lined the bridge and attacked the invasion force with spears – the attackers, apparently using thatching stripped from the rooves of nearby houses to shield themselves, managed to get close enough to attach cables to the bridge’s piers and then pull the bridge down.
There’s much speculation that the song London Bridge is falling down was inspired by the incident but it, like much of this story itself, remains just that – conjecture (but it’s still a nice story!)
The bridge was subsequently rebuilt and King Æthelred died only two years later, on 23rd April, 2016. The crown passed to his son Edmund Ironside but he too died after ruling for less than a year before the Viking Canute was crowned king.
For more on the history of London Bridge, see our earlier posts Lost London – London Bridge and Lost London: Gates Special – The Stone Gate, London Bridge.
PICTURE: Not the original London Bridge
November 25, 2013
Often noted as the second greatest English dramatist of his generation (after that Shakespeare guy), the playwright Ben Jonson stands tall in his own right as one of the leading literary figures of the late 16th and early 17th century.
Born in 1572, Jonson was educated at Westminster School in London and possibly went on to Cambridge before he started work as a bricklayer with his stepfather and later served as a soldier, fighting with English troops in The Netherlands.
It was on his return to London that he ventured into acting – among his early roles was Hieronimo in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedie – and by 1597 he was employed as a playwright.
While one of his early play-writing efforts (The Isle of Dogs, co-written with Thomas Nashe) led to a term of imprisonment in Marshalsea Prison in 1597 (he was also briefly imprison about this time for killing another actor in a duel, escaping a death sentence by pleading “benefit of the clergy”), the following year – 1598 – the production of his play Every Man In His Humour established his reputation as a dramatist. Shakespeare, whom some suggest was a key rival of Jonson’s during his career – is said to have been among the actors who performed in it.
Further plays followed including Every Man Out Of His Humour (1599), his only tragedy Sejanus (1603), the popular Volpone (1606) and The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614) and it was during these years, particularly following the accession of King James I in 1603, that he became an important figure at the royal court).
His political views continued to cause trouble at times – he was again imprisoned in the early 1600s for his writings and was questioned over the Gunpowder Plot after apparently attending an event attended by most of those later found to be co-conspirators – but his move into writing masques for the royal court – saw his star continue to rise.
All up he wrote more than 20 masques for King James and Queen Anne of Denmark including Oberon, The Faery Prince which featured the young Prince Henry, eldest son of King James, in the title role. Many of these masques saw him working with architect Inigo Jones, who designed extravagant sets for the masques, but their relationship was tense at times.
In 1616 – his reputation well established – Jonson was given a sizeable yearly pension (some have concluded that as a result he was informally the country’s first Poet Laureate) and published his first collection of works the following year. Noted for his wit, he was also known to have presided over a gathering of his friends and admirers at The Mermaid Tavern and later at the Devil’s Tavern at 2 Fleet Street (Shakespeare was among those he verbally jousted with).
Jonson spent more than a year in his ancestral home of Scotland around 1618 but on his return to London, while still famous, he no longer saw the same level of success as he had earlier – particularly following the death of King James and accession of his son, King Charles I, in 1625.
Jonson married Anne Lewis – there is a record of such a couple marrying at St Magnus-the-Martyr church near London Bridge in 1594 – but their relationship certainly wasn’t always smooth sailing for they spent at least five years of their marriage living separately. It’s believed he had several children, two of whom died while yet young.
Jonson, meanwhile, continued to write up until his death on 6th August, 1637, and is buried in Westminster Abbey (he’s the only person buried upright in the abbey – apparently due to his poverty at the time of his death).
For an indepth look at the life of Ben Jonson, check out Ian Donaldson’s Ben Jonson: A Life.
September 9, 2013
The street, which is just 180 metres long, bears the same name as a great Roman road which ran all the way from Dover through London to the long gone Roman town of Viroconium (now known as Wroxeter in Shropshire).
The Roman road followed, to some extent, the route of an ancient Celtic pathway. But while the Celtic pathway crossed the Thames at Westminster, the Roman road, once the bridge was constructed, crossed at London Bridge and headed through London, apparently taking in this surviving piece.
The building itself – located on the intersection with Bow Lane – is said to have been constructed from old ship’s timbers by none other than Sir Christopher Wren in 1668. The upstairs rooms were said to have been used as a drawing office during the construction of Wren’s masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral. It may have also been used as pub by the workmen building the cathedral – in fact it’s said to have been the first pub built after the Great Fire of 1666.
The pub is part of the Nicholson group. For more on it, check out www.nicholsonspubs.co.uk/yeoldewatlingwatlingstreetlondon.
PICTURE: Duncan Harris/Wikipedia
Erected in 1956 by “Scots and friends at home and abroad”, a plaque located on the wall of St Bartholomew’s Hospital overlooking the former execution ground commemorates the “Scottish patriot” Wallace, saying that from the year 1296 “fought dauntlessly in defence of his country’s liberty and independence in the face of fearful odds and great hardship”. It goes on to note that he was “eventually betrayed”, captured and executed “near this spot”.
Elsewhere the memorial reads: “His example, heroism and devotion inspired those who came after him to win victory from defeat and his memory remains for all time a source of pride, honour and inspiration to his countrymen”.
Having co-led the Scottish to victory against the army of King Edward I at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, Wallace was later knighted for his efforts and subsequently served as a Guardian of the Kingdom of Scotland.
Following his defeat at English hands in the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, he escaped and continued to evade capture until he was apprehended near Glasgow in August 1305. Brought to London where he was put on trial in Westminster Hall. Summarily found guilty of treason, he was stripped naked and dragged to Smithfield and it was there that he suffered the horrible death of being hung, drawn and quartered.
And while the 1995 movie, Braveheart, had Wallace crying out “Freedom” as he died, his last words are actually not recorded. His tarred head was subsequently displayed on a pike atop London Bridge while his limbs were sent to towns including Stirling in Scotland.