London Bridge

Whilst not as grand or opulent as either Rome or Milan, nor as large as Paris, London in the 15th Century was, according to one Italian emissary, the richest city in Christendom. The source of this wealth was primarily due to trade in English cloth, a commodity much sought after on the continent, and a trade that brought forth a great influx of foreign merchants to the city. By the reign of Edward IV, the banks of the River Thames were crowded with wharfs and warehouses filled with all manner of goods and spices from beyond the seas. Although London itself stretched for only a mile along the river (and even less to its northern walls) it was reckoned that at least a third of the city's thirty to forty thousand in population were either merchants or shop keepers. Many were foreigners like the 'Eastlings' who were German merchants that traded from the almost fortified area known to Londoners as the Steelworks. Italian merchants too were commonplace, but due to their often rather dubious ways of doing business, they were not always welcome. A common saying of the day was that "the only good Italian is one who stays at home."

The first impression that many foreign sailors would have had of London would most probably have been quite a daunting one. For between St.Catherine's and Wapping they would have seen the decaying corpses of executed pirates, suspended from short gallows at the low water mark until three tides had flowed over their bodies, a severe warning to any that might be inclined to follow such lawless ways. Further upriver, above the masts of the tethered merchantmen that filled every wharf and jetty, sailors could not have failed to be impressed by the magnificent, white stone Keep of the Tower, and beyond this, one of the great structures of the medieval world, the magnificent London Bridge.

There had been a bridge at London since Roman times, but the medieval stone bridge which had been constructed in the 12th century was considered by many foreign visitors to be even grander and longer than the Rialto, the Ponte Vecchio, or the Pont Neuf. Built on twelve great arches that spanned the river and topped by a street of houses and shops, the bridge had at each end a tower with portcullis, and in the centre was a third tower that controlled the drawbridge. The bridge was looked after by two wardens who had at their disposal rents and gifts worth several hundred pounds per year.

The arches upon which the bridge was built constituted quite a severe navigation hazard. At ebb tide the current swirled so dangerously through the arches that 'shooting the bridge' was only attempted by a very few experienced boatmen. This was clearly displayed on the 8th November, 1429 when the Duke of Norfolk with his retinue sailed from St Mary Overy shortly after four in the afternoon. Within minutes of setting off, their barge smashed into the pilings of the bridge drowning most of those aboard. The Duke and two or three others managed to leap onto stone parapets where they clung perilously until men could lower ropes from above to pull them to safety.

The Bridge was to see other momentous events. In the late afternoon of July 3rd, 1450 the followers of the Kentish rebel 'Jack Cade', having defeated the royal army of Sir Humphrey Stafford a few days previous on Blackheath, swarmed into the borough Southwark that lay on the southern side of the river. On reaching the bridge they found the drawbridge lowered (for they had many sympathisers within the city). Jack Cade is reported to have personally cut the ropes of the drawbridge with his sword so that it might not be raised again, and the rebel army swarmed into the city like conquerors. Their easy victory was not to last for very long. When he reached the famous London Stone at Candlewick Street, Jack Cade is reported to have struck the stone with his sword and proclaiming loudly, "Now is Mortimer Lord of the City". He then had Proclamations read that there should be no robbery or violence by his followers, but no sooner had the rebel leaders turned back to their quarters in Southwark than many the Kentishmen, aided by sympathetic Londoners, spent the night terrorising known enemies to their cause. The mansion of Philip Malpas in particular was pillaged down to its bare walls.

Early the next morning the Captain of the Tower, Lord Scales, turned the hated Lord Say over to the London magistrates. At 11 o'clock the Captain of Kent (Jack Cade) came riding into the city once more with sword drawn and with his followers marching behind on foot. He was dressed in a blue gown with sable furs, and he wore a straw hat upon his head. On arrival at the Guildhall to witness the trial of Lord Say, the rebellious Kentishmen soon became impatient with the comedy of justice that was being enacted. They seized Lord Say and bore him away to the Standard on Cheapside where they put the hated Lord to death. The beheaded corpse was then stripped naked by the mob and dragged through the streets of London behind a horse. The mob then jauntily paraded Lord Say's head on a pole throughout the city, pausing every now and again to allow it to 'kiss' the head of William Crowmer, the Sheriff of Kent, another unpopular tyrant beheaded by the Essex mob. Later, after Jack Cade had dined, he permitted his followers to rob their host and to extort money from a number of well to do Londoners.

By Sunday morning the Mayor and Aldermen of London had had enough of this villainy. As darkness fell a stout body of armed Londoners together with the garrison of the Tower advanced across London Bridge. The rebels rushed against them and, hemmed in between the houses and shops built on the bridge, a fierce battle ensued which lasted from nine or ten in the evening until eight on the following morning. The fighting was extremely savage with heavy casualties being suffered by both groups of combatants. Some men were thrown, fully armoured, from the bridge into the raging river below. Finally the rebels were pushed back into Southwark, with the 'Captain of Kent' setting fire to the drawbridge to prevent pursuit by the angry Londoners.

By the 1460s increasing amounts of traffic across the bridge was beginning to cause much concern. Damage to the roadway caused by the iron tyres on the market carts from Kent had made the road so pitted that when the Earl of Warwick crossed into the city that year, several of his retinue were thrown from their horses and trampled to death. Consequently the city aldermen had no choice but to forbid all shod carts from using the bridge.

There were, of course, other ways of crossing the river. A thriving trade existed, whereby a gentleman who was anxious to cross the river could stand on one of the many public stairs and hail a boatman with a call of "Wagge! Wagge! Go we hence!" The fare was a penny, or in bad weather two pence for a 'Tilt' (tented or covered) boat. These London boatmen were a tough and irreverent bunch much preferring the patronage of a well-dressed gentleman, who could be relied on to tip well, to that of a poorer citizen. Even the Lord-Mayor was not exempt from their bawdy songs and rude abuses, and on one occasion, in July 1460, when the Lancastrian Lord Scales attempted to slip, under cover of darkness, out of the tower the irate boatmen swiftly overtook his craft. The unpopular Lord, who had recently been shooting guns against the city, was then murdered and his body cast naked upon the steps of St Mary Overy.

Bloodshed was to visit the Bridge again in 1471. Warwick's Cousin, the Bastard of Fauconberg, with support of the sailors of the fleet and bands of armed Kentishmen, sailed up the river and demanded that the Mayor open the gates to the City. To this the Mayor replied that he was holding London for King Edward. The Citizens brought cannons from the tower and ranged them along the riverbank in preparation to resist the bastard's attack. On Sunday, May 12th Fauconberg's men attempted to storm London Bridge but were repulsed by the defenders. Two days later Fauconberg tried again. With a diversionary force threatening the Bridge, he launched his main force by ship across the river at Blackwall, with the aim of attacking Aldgate. Bitter fighting developed as the Londoners sallied out led by the Recorder and Alderman of Aldgate Ward. Then Earl Rivers with the garrison from the Tower fell upon the rebels' flank and put Fauconberg's men to flight .By the next morning, the Kentishmen had disappeared. When a few days later King Edward entered the city in triumph he knighted a dozen prominent Londoners for their part in the defence of the capital.

By 1481 the dreadful Wars of the Roses were drawing towards their ultimate conclusion. With a more peaceful era on the horizon the drawbridge would need to be raised no more. For thirty years London Bridge had played its part in some of the most momentous events of the age. Now, in the age of the Tudors, it would enjoy a more peaceful existence.


Works Cited

  • Kendall, Paul Murray. The Yorkist Age. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1962.