Christopher M. Cevasco, Author

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London Bridge: The Ups and Downs (Part 1)

This is the first in a planned series of ZOUNDS! posts about the history of London Bridge.

A Roman Pontoon BridgeAugust 1 marked the 180th anniversary of the opening of the “New” London Bridge, which crossed the River Thames to connect the City of London to the district of Southwark in central London. But that particular bridge was neither the first nor the last in a long series of bridges constructed at or near the site of the current bridge bearing the name. The first bridge across the Thames in the area of what would later become London was built nearly 2000 years ago during the Roman Empire’s occupation of Britain. This would likely have been a wooden pontoon bridge–i.e. a floating bridge–used by the Roman military and constructed around AD 50. Shortly thereafter, around AD 55, the pontoon bridge was replaced by a more permanent piled bridge, which the Romans would have constructed by driving wooden poles down into the soft mud beneath the river until the poles reached a harder layer of rock or more compacted soil enabling the poles to support the bridge deck. It was around this bridge that the Romans built a small trading settlement, which they named Londinium. Both the bridge and the town were utterly destroyed in AD 60, however, during the revolt led by Queen Boudicca of the British tribe called the Iceni, who was the subject of an earlier ZOUNDS! post.

Soon after Boudicca and the rebels were defeated, the Romans rebuilt both the town and the bridge, but after the Romans left Britain in the early Fifth Century, the bridge fell into disrepair and the town itself was effectively abandoned. During the early Anglo-Saxon period, the Thames served as little more than a boundary between the often warring kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex and later as a point of ingress for Viking invaders. It was not until after King Alfred the Great helped stem the Viking tide, took and reoccupied the old Roman city, and laid the groundwork for his sons to consolidate the various Anglo-Saxon subkingdoms into a united England that conditions warranted building a new bridge. The aforementioned events took place in the 880s and 890s, but the first archeological evidence for such a Saxon bridge, is not seen until the reign of Æthelred the Unready, who became King of England in 978.

Regarding the 10th-century Anglo-Saxon bridge, the 13th-century Icelandic work known as the Heimskringla contains a detailed account taken from earlier kings’ sagas and from oral tradition passed down in the poetry of Norse skalds. The Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard had successfully invaded Æthelred’s kingdom and wrested the throne from him so that Sweyn was declared king of England from 1013 until his death the following year. At that point, Æthelred sought to retake his kingdom, and he was assisted in this endeavor by a young King Olaf of Norway (later to become Saint Olaf). Their combined fleet made its way up the Thames to London, which was held by the Danes on both sides of the river–in a castle on the north bank and in a series of stone, timber, and turf fortifications in Southwark. According to the Heimskringla:

Between the castle and Southwark there was a bridge, so broad that two wagons could pass each other upon it. On the bridge were raised barricades, both towers and wooden parapets, in the direction of the river, which were nearly breast high; and under the bridge were piles driven into the bottom of the river. Now when the attack was made the troops stood on the bridge everywhere, and defended themselves. King Æthelred was very anxious to get possession of the bridge, and he called together all the chiefs to consult how they should get the bridge broken down. Then said King Olaf he would attempt to lay his fleet alongside of it, if the other ships would do the same. It was then determined in this council that they should lay their war forces under the bridge; and each made himself ready with ships and men.

Saga of Olaf Haraldson, section 11, in Snorre Sturluson. Heimskringla. Trans. Samuel Laing (London, 1844).

Though King Olaf had his men construct a sort of portable roof to hold over each ship, when they came against the bridge the defenders rained down such an intense barrage of stones, spears, and arrows many were forced to retreat.

But King Olaf, and the Northmen’s fleet with him, rowed quite up under the bridge, laid their cables around the piles which supported it, and then rowed off with all the ships as hard as they could down the stream. The piles were thus shaken in the bottom, and were loosened under the bridge.

Ibid., section 12.

Before long, the bridge gave way and collapsed into the water. Southwark was stormed and taken, those Danes remaining in the castle surrendered, and Æthelred was reinstated as king.  It’s been suggested that this episode inspired the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down,” but competing theories abound.

After the Norman Conquest of 1066, the bridge was rebuilt, again in wood, though this iteration was to last a very short while indeed. It was destroyed in 1091 by a storm that eventually grew into a full-blown tornado–the earliest reported tornado in Britain!  William the Conqueror’s son, William “Rufus” undertook the next rebuilding effort, but his bridge was destroyed yet again, this time in a fire in 1136.

Stay tuned for Part II of this series, which looks at London Bridge’s further adventures in the High Middle Ages and beyond…

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