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London Bridge: For wise to pass over, and fools to pass under …

London wouldn’t be London without London Bridge. Truly, as there was no London until the Romans built the bridge. Instead, in ancient pre-Roman times there were scattered settlements on either side of the river. But after Caesar’s invasion, soldiers built a pontoon bridge in an area where there were natural embankments of sand and gravel. A settlement sprang up on high ground on the north side, which became Londinium. Another settlement on the south side became Southwark.

In the 16th century London Bridge was a bustling thriving village onto itself. When you were on the bridge itself you could scarcely imagine that you were above the water, and not on solid ground. Homes lined either side, with their backs jutting out over the water. If you were in one of those homes and looked out of a window in the rear of the house, you would look out on to the swirling waters of the river.

London Bridge

The current through the bridge was incredibly strong thanks to the narrow arches and wide bases, and many people drowned regularly, caught up in the waves as they moved through the bridge. The rapids were so strong that any attempt at steering through them was called “shooting the bridge,” and people regularly drowned in those rapids. Reverend John Bray in his 1670 Book of Proverbs wrote that the bridge was, “for wise men to pass over, and fools to pass under.”

On the Southwark side there was a gatehouse with decaying heads of traitors, on spikes.

You’d have to pass under them to enter the city from the south. And it was a reminder to everyone who entered what the fate would be of those who plotted against the Crown. In 1598 a German visitor to London counted over 30 heads on the spike. Some Tudor heads that graced the bridge included Sir Thomas More, Bishop Fisher, and Thomas Cromwell. Paul Hentzner, the German visitor, wrote:

On the south is a bridge of stone eight hundred feet in length, of wonderful work; it is supported upon twenty piers of square stone, sixty feet high and thirty broad, joined by arches of about twenty feet diameter. The whole is covered on each side with houses so disposed as to have the appearance of a continued street, not at all of a bridge. Upon this is built a tower, on whose top the heads of such as have been executed for high treason are placed on iron spikes: we counted above thirty.

London Bridge

London Bridge in 1682. Notice the heads on spikes above the gatehouse.

The buildings on London Bridge were quite dangerous. They were a fire hazard, and increased the load on the arches. In 1212 a huge fire broke out on both ends of the bridge at the same time, and many people were trapped in the middle. During various rebellions like the Peasants Revolt (1381) and the Jack Cade rebellion (1450) rebels burned houses on the bridge.

During the Tudor period there were about 200 buildings on the bridge, and they were up to seven stories high.  They overhung the river side, of course, but also the bridge side, so they created a tunnel through which carts and people had to pass. The road was about 12 feet wide with two lanes. When there was “rush hour” traffic it could take up to an hour to cross. The Lord Mayor decreed that people leaving London should move their carts on the east side of the bridge, and those coming in should do so on the western side. Many people believe this is the origin of English driving on the left.