People who lived on London Bridge

To look at London Bridge now you see….well…..a bridge with traffic on it. But go back three centuries or more and the bridge was full of houses and some illustrious tenants. During the reign of Henry VIII, the court painter Holbein lived there. Two hundred years later, another artist – Hogarth – was a resident. They saw London Bridge in its Tudor and Georgian manifestations. It would have been remarkably similar during both periods.

Nonesuch Palace
Nonesuch Palace

The only highway for hundreds of years across the Thames was made up of about nineteen irregular arches with the original stones being laid in around 1176. Incredibly, this structure would last with many modifications until 1831 By that time, the medieval bridge and its Tudor houses had gone into a severe decline. The narrowness of the arches created fierce rapids and were not navigable by larger vessels.

From the Middle Ages, there was a stone chapel to St Thomas a Becket at the centre of the bridge. At either end were towers and the one facing Southwark was decorated with the severed heads of traitors. One of those heads under Henry VIII belonged to John Houghton, the last prior of the London Charterhouse who wouldn’t take the oath recognising King Henry as head of the Church of England. For that, he was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn gallows. An old story had it that the keeper of the tower who supervised these grisly human remains was an old cripple who would play his lute at night accompanied by his pet owl.

The mad lute player who looked after the heads on London Bridge
The mad lute player who looked after the heads on London Bridge

In the sixteenth century, a large wooden building called Nonesuch House (as there was none such like it) appeared on the bridge. It was basically a wooden kit made in the Netherlands and then assembled in situ using just pegs to keep the whole thing together. It was surmounted by onion domes and sundials.

By the eighteenth century, the bridge was something of a death trap. The houses were on the verge of collapse and hung over the street blocking out the daylight. Timber beams slung across the top storeys stopped them collapsing on top of carts and coaches below. There were no footways and the whole thing was clogged up permanently – proving impossible to cross.

The only shops were needle makers and booksellers. One of the latter was Crispin Tucker, who both sold and wrote books and was visited by Alexander Pope and Dean Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels). Nonesuch and the St Thomas chapel were in a bad state and used as warehouses.

The prince who wanted an execution in front of his own house

Oliver Cromwell and his puritan revolution were a thing of the past. The monarchy was restored. Charles II and the Restoration were in full swing.

But in 1683, there were some aristocrats who didn’t like the way things were going in the royal court. King Charles and his brother James, the Duke of York, were suspected of being crypto-Catholics bent on restoring the old religion to England.

Charles was secretive in his sympathies but James left no doubt that he was an ardent Catholic. Some leading politicians took the view that James had to be blocked from ever becoming king. Some went a step further and concluded that both Charles and James must be killed.

Lord William Russell before Jack Ketch botched his execution
Lord William Russell before Jack Ketch botched his execution

The resulting Rye House Plot was uncovered and several peers of the realm including Lord William Russell were put on trial.

Almost inevitably, Russell was found guilty. Being found guilty of treason meant death. The only problem for the king was that Russell and his views had some support with the London mob.

So an execution at Tower Hill could have led to a riot in favour of the condemned man. There were already rumours of an attempt that would be made to rescue Russell while on the way from Newgate prison to the executioner’s block.

The Duke of York, the king’s brother James, came up with a novel solution. He hated Russell’s guts. After all, Russell and his friends had wanted to exclude James from the royal succession.

Therefore – James asked Charles – could Russell possible be executed at his front door in Southampton Square? James and his buddies would therefore be able to watch Russell’s head depart from his shoulders over an agreeable claret from an upstairs window. The king decided this was a bit indecent.

Instead, Russell was taken down Holborn to be decapitated in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. I worked at a digital agency on that London square for ten years – a big idyllic space in the centre of the city. Today, you can see office workers taking a lunchtime stroll or the tennis courts being used by the more energetic in the mornings. But on the 21st July, 1683 – Londoners would have been there to watch Russell meet his maker.

The Duke of York wanted the execution at his front door
The Duke of York wanted the execution at his front door

As Russell was led down Holborn, some of the crowds insulted him while others wept. By all accounts, he sang psalms most of the way. Looking at the mass of people who’d gathered for their fun day out watching his beheading, Russell said he looked forward to being in better company very soon.

Regrettably, his executioner wasn’t going to despatch him so quickly. Jack Ketch made a total mess of the job taking at least two axe strikes to get Russell’s head off. He later penned a pamphlet blaming Russell for distracting him!! Ketch later took five strikes to behead the Duke of Monmouth – so he had form.

James, Duke of York, never got to have that execution at his front door. But he did go on to become king for four years. As expected, he pursued policies sympathetic to Catholics. And for that, he was duly overthrown.

Politicians with Russell’s leanings invited a Dutch prince, William, to invade England and become king instead – which he duly did.