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.

God Deliver Us from the Wild Northmen!

This was a prayer added to the church litany during the so-called “Dark Ages” as Viking marauders raided monasteries and farmsteads along the coasts of England in the 800s and 900s CE. ┬áIn 834, Londoners witnessed Danish longboats heading up the Thames. These were pirates, looking for booty. But by 1003 CE, the Vikings were no longer just plundering, the Scandanavian hard men now fancied their chances at ruling the place.

King Swein of the Danes marched through southern England and headed for London. Unable to breach the old Roman walls, he camped his forces in Southwark on the south bank of the Thames. The only way to cross the river and access the city was via London Bridge, the city’s one bridge up until the eighteenth century. The bridge Swein encountered had been built in 994 and was made up of wooden planks, roughly hewn.

King Olaf
King Olaf – pulled down London Bridge

The Saxons, who had been ruling England more or less since the Romans had departed, now mustered an army under Ethelred the Unready and his ally, King Olaf of Norway. For some reason, the Norwegians had fallen out with the Danes! They rushed Southwark but were repulsed with some loss of life. They then decided to oust the Danes from the bridge where they were encroaching.

Olaf took his boats and – according to a later Icelandic chronicle – protected them with wicker shields from stones being rained down by Danes on the bridge. Unfortunately, the stones were hurled with enough force from above to kill many men and damage the boats. But, Olaf’s forces slowly managed to get through the attach ropes to the piles of the bridge. They’d calculated correctly on the tides and the boats were able to pull the bridge’s foundations away with the whole structure crashing into the water.

As the Icelandic chronicler put it in praise of Olaf:

And thou hast overthrown their bridges, O thou Storm of the sons of Odin! Skilful and foremost in battle!

Olaf went on to be canonised as a saint for his role in Christianising Norway (though some historians dispute his importance in this regard). There is still a Saint Olaf’s church in the City of London that dates back to those far off times.