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.