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).

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London-Bridge2

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.