Old London Bridge Illuminated…

027ROY16F000002U00073000[SVC2]I caught the end of a Dan Cruickshank programme earlier this week about the bridges of London, and one image has really stuck in my mind…

It’s a page from an illuminated manuscript dating from 1483, so well over 500 years ago, and shows a scene from the imprisonment of Charles, Duke of Orléans in the Tower of London. Following his capture at the battle of Agincourt in 1415, Charles, a high ranking member of the French Aristocracy was kept prisoner at the Tower for 25 years.

The main pictorial image depicts Charles in various activities: writing a letter, standing at a window of his prison in the Tower and giving an envelope to someone in the courtyard, presumably to send back home to France and possibly containing a love poem (Charles is generally considered to have penned the first recorded Valentines Poem, which began “I’m already sick of love, My very gentle Valentine”).

I digress. The main reason this image was in the programme and the reason it has stayed in my head, is that as well as the Duke, it also contains one of the earliest known depictions of the First London Bridge, which can be clearly seen in the background of the full page and on this detail below.


Apart from being an intrinsically very beautiful object, the quality of the workmanship on this illuminated panel is stunning… Look carefully at the City in the distance.. it’s magical in its appearance with a multitude of church spires and saw toothed roofs. No wonder London was at this time, considered one of the greatest Cities of the World (and still is I might add).

As for the Thames itself, it looks almost inviting in azure blue and turquoise. The white lines under each arch by the way, represent the effect that the massive piers had on the flow of the river. It’s been suggested these massive structures would have reduced the width of the river by upwards of 60%, resulting in a rushing effect through the openings, especially as the tide turned…

The First, Old or Medieval London Bridge was begun in 1176 and was known to have been completed by 1209, which means it took more than 30 years to build. It was the first known stone bridge in the world and was quite rightly considered one of the wonders of the age: 8m wide (26 ft) and around 255m (850 ft) long, it sat on 19 irregularly spaced arches with a drawbridge at the center to allow tall ships to pass. Also towards the center of the bridge was a chapel dedicated to St. Thomas Beckett. As the bridge was the only crossing for many miles, everyone who couldn’t afford a boat to cross the Thames, had to use the bridge, with most offering a prayer and votive  coins at the chapel.


Famously the bridge had rows of shops and houses on either side, which resulted in a restricted and narrow route through for wagons and horses and was ultimately (along with rotten timber structures, stinking gutters and dangerous alleyways) the reason other wider, non populated bridges were built…

This amazing structure stood for nearly 600 years before being finally demolished in the 1830’s. During its lifetime it survived  The Reformation of King Henry 8th in the 16th Century and the Great Fire in 1666, remaining the only crossing in London until 1750.



One final thing, the building in the center of the painting above was added to the bridge in 1579 and was known as Nonsuch House. Originally built in the Netherlands 2 years previously, it was dismantled, shipped over to London and re-erected on the bridge without the use of a single nail, and being significantly wider than the bridge itself, cantilevered precariously over the water on each side.

Now that really would have been something to see…

  1. Meech
    May 27, 2014 at 11:34

    Fab info Joe, I never knew it had buildings on it! Shame it looks so comparatively bland these days.

  2. Mrs B
    February 8, 2015 at 18:47

    Wow! Thanks for this collection of beautiful paintings of the old London Bridge. I’m putting together a lesson for children about bridges. It will be great to show images of the old London bridge and sing “London Bridge is Falling Down!”. They will get their own chance to test materials and then build their own model bridge.

    • February 8, 2015 at 19:06

      Hi Mrs B
      Now that sounds like a lesson I would love to be in; practical, musical and interesting, the best way to learn and remember stuff… excellent.
      Happy to have contributed (however remotely)
      Thanks for taking the time to comment and good luck with the lesson…

  1. May 17, 2014 at 19:53

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