When three thousand people died on London Bridge

IMG_6737London Bridge is falling down…  So says an old nursery rhyme. The city’s oldest bridge has certainly had a turbulent history. But it was just over seven 750 years ago that London Bridge witnessed a horrific calamity not equalled since.

Today’s 1970s bridge is a bog standard affair. Big road bridge, wide pavements, minimal number of spans. Rewind to the medieval period and in 1212, Londoners were gazing in awe at the first stone bridge to cross the Thames. It had taken 30 years to build but what a feast for the eyes!

Made up of about twenty arches that forced the river to gush like a torrent through them. It was a triumph of 13th century engineering. And on top were houses, shops and water wheels with a hustle and bustle of people all day long.

The stone bridge had replaced an earlier timber bridge that had come to grief in a fire that had swept through London in the year 1136. A man called Peter of Colechurch was tasked with constructing a new bridge that would be more resistant to fire. Some accounts claim he diverted the river Thames to achieve this medieval architectural miracle – though many doubt this was possible to any significant scale.

Along the bridge, Londoners built shops and houses, water wheels and even a chapel. The city was confident it now had a link to the southern shore that was indestructible. How wrong they were. Fire was an ever present threat in a city made largely of wood. And even though the bridge itself was stone, the houses being thrown up along its span were of brick, wood and highly combustible thatched roofs.

On the 12th July, 1212, a fire broke out on the Southwark side of the new bridge. It crept along to the old church of St Mary Overie. Soon it had consumed the area we now call Borough Market. Londoners from the north side of the river moved on to the bridge to either help or just gawp. Unfortunately for them, cinders or sparks ignited the very combustible roofs of houses on the London side of the bridge.

You get the picture? People on London Bridge were now caught between a fire at both ends. And none of them could swim. Plus there’s no fire brigade to speak of. And the bridge is jam-packed with houses and other buildings. Smoke is swirling around and panic sets in. There’s a grim choice: stay on the bridge and get burnt alive or jump in the river, which is gushing through the small arches.

Some Londoners with boats tried to rescue people but it was all to little avail. According to John Stow, a historian of the city writing 350 years later, the bodies of three thousand partly burnt people were found while many were completely incinerated or swept away by the river. Some historians doubt this figure and think it was lower. But there’s little doubt this was a major calamity and remembered for many centuries afterwards.

 

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Richard Rose – London chef – boiled to death

Never let it be said that the Tudors lacked a sense of humour – especially when it came to one of their favourite pastimes: execution.

Anne Boleyn - paid a cook to poison a bishop?
Anne Boleyn – paid a cook to poison a bishop?

Smithfield, where I worked for a few years in the 1990s, was for centuries a meat market. It was also a place where people were put to death – most famously Braveheart or William Wallace to be more precise. But by the late Middle Ages, most executions had moved on to Tyburn.

However, Smithfield would still play host to the burning of heretics, especially under “Bloody” Queen Mary who sent about 277 people up in smoke for being Protestants. She was an ardent Catholic.

During the reign of Mary’s father, the great religious upheavals of the Reformation got underway. The tide switched between Catholic and Protestant as Henry VIII declared himself head of the church in England, deposed the Pope’s authority but couldn’t quite decide how far to go down the Protestant path. It was tough reading his majesty’s mind but worse if you deliberately decided to disagree on religious matters.

Bishop John Fisher decided to disagree very publicly about the king usurping the pope’s authority. So it was rather suspicious when Fisher’s cook was revealed as something of a poisoner.  The terrible truth came to light at a dinner thrown by Fisher, who was Bishop of Rochester, at his palace.

His cook, Richard Rose, concocted a pottage that was intended to be Fisher’s last supper. Unfortunately, the bishop didn’t eat the meal but two of his guests wolfed it down and died in agony. As did the grateful poor of Lambeth to whom the bishop handed out his leftovers as a fatal act of charity. Rose was apprehended, dragged to Smithfield and then cooked in front of a baying crowd.

Given the religious ferment of the time, some wagging tongues accused the second wife of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, of having a hand in the poisoned gruel. Had the Protestant queen paid Rose to poison the Catholic bishop? There’s no evidence to support this. And the decision to boil Rose suggests that the king had zero tolerance for low-born types trying to murder his prelates, no matter what their theological views.

POSTSCRIPT: Ten years later, a servant girl called Margaret Davis was also boiled to death for trying to poison her mistress and some other people.