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.
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
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.
Londoners do some very odd things but taking a dead man’s head to the pub is probably one of the more unusual. Read on!
There’s a monument that many office workers pass under every day that they’d never realise has a ghoulish past. It’s an innocuous old gateway that leads from the front of St Paul’s cathedral into Paternoster Square. A lovely old thing with two statues on either side. What’s not to like?
Templar Bar – a ghoulish secret
Only you have to imagine this gateway – Temple Bar – in its original location. For centuries, it bestrode Fleet Street as the westernmost entrance to the City of London. The spot is now marked by a late Victorian monument – a sort of pillar – with a dragon on top. The reason for Templar Bar’s removal was that by the 1870s, the 17th century gateway was causing serious traffic jams with its narrow arches. So it was taken apart stone by stone and re-erected in a park owned by a brewer for many years before being moved to its current spot in 2004.
The ghoulish part of its history is that Temple Bar was more often than not surmounted by the heads of traitors on spikes in the eighteenth century. Sir Christopher Wren had designed the arch to replace one incinerated in the Great Fire of 1666. The statues on it, by the way, are of Queen Elizabeth I and James I on one side and Charles I and Charles II on the other. After the Scottish rebellions of 1715 and 1745, the heads of leading rebels decorated the top. This was to be an object lesson to bolshy Londoners that anybody taking on the kings of England would see their head join the others.
One of the heads was that of a leading rebel against the king, involved in the so-called “Jacobite” uprisings, called Christopher Layer. Like many traitors, his head remained on top of Templar Bar for years. In fact, you could hire some glasses to take a closer look if you wanted. But one stormy night, Layer’s head blew off his spike and bounced into Fleet Street. It was picked up by an attorney called John Pearce who took it to a local public house and showed if off to his friends.
Christopher Layer’s head was taken to the pub – the indignity!
An account of this incident I have before me from the early nineteenth century says that a friend of Isaac Newton and eccentric collector Dr Richard Rawlinson asked if he could buy the head. Apparently, he was palmed off with somebody else’s head (where were all these heads coming from!!). When he died, Rawlinson “directed it to be buried in his right hand”. I know – weird eh? And so what happened to Layer’s head? Well, the story has it that it was buried under the floor of the aforementioned public house.