Londoners riot at the building of Somerset House

Somerset House today is an 18th century hulk of a building used for art exhibitions and offices. Previous it housed civil servants working for the Inland Revenue. And before that, it began as a Tudor palace built by an arrogant and unpopular aristocrat.

Edward Seymour wasn’t famous for being humble or tactful. He was very much a creature of his turbulent age. He was the first Earl of Hertford and his sister became the third wife of Henry VIII. Unlike the previous beheaded wife, Anne Boleyn, Edward’s sister Jane gave Henry the son he craved but then died shortly after childbirth.

Edward Seymour

That son ascended to the throne when Henry VIII died – at the age of only nine. So, Edward Seymour became the Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector. With his new found power – effectively ruling England – he decided it was a time to have a palace that befitted his new status.

Somerset House would spring up in the area between the city of Westminster and the city of London. This strip along the river – now a road called the Strand – had always been home to the palaces of bishops and princes. But Edward wanted a particularly huge palace.

So he started tearing down other people’s palaces!

In order to build Somerset House, he bulldozed (or the Tudor equivalent) the residences of the bishops of Lichfield, Llandaff and Worcester. And incorporated their masonry into his fabulous new home. But that wasn’t going to suffice.

He then knocked down the nearby church of St Mary’s for more materials. And then Somerset’s men tore down a chapel in St Paul’s churchyard; robbed more stone from the church of St John of Jerusalem near Smithfield and then wrecked the Strand Inn near the Temple.

Still, Edward Seymour cast his greedy eye around and wondered what else he could demolish. So, the ambitious noble ordered his masons to start tearing bits off St Margaret’s church in Westminster – a much loved place of worship. And that’s what finally got to Londoners.

They formed the Tudor equivalent of a human chain around St Margaret’s and drove off Somerset’s masons. This didn’t help Somerset’s popularity and his star began to wane. Building stopped on Somerset House and the man himself was eventually dragged to the scaffold to have his head chopped off.

When three thousand people died on London Bridge

London Bridge as you see it today is a modern construction. It’s hard to imagine the medieval bridge that once stood nearby crowded with houses. Even more fantastic is the old story that up to three thousand people may have died as a result of a fire on the bridge.

Even allowing for some medieval hyperbole – it seems there was a huge disaster in the 13th century. Frankly, looking at artist impressions of old London Bridge, I’m amazed it didn’t fall down every other week. It looks rickety as hell.

Before I go any further with this blog post – we are talking about London Bridge here and not Tower Bridge. Please don’t get the two confused. It drives Londoners bonkers. Tower Bridge is that iconic Victorian two level construction further down stream.

London Bridge is the oldest of all the bridges – but what you see today is the latest in several iterations.

London 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.