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   Chapter 10 PART I. No.10

The History of London By Walter Besant Characters: 4649

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Nobody knows who built the first Bridge. It was there in the fourth century-a bridge of timber provided with a fortified gate, one of the gates of the City. Who put it up, and when-how long it stood-what space there was between the piers-how broad it was-we do not know. Probably it was quite a narrow bridge consisting of beams laid across side by side and a railing at the side. That these beams were not close together is known by the fact that so many coins have been found in the bed of the river beneath the old Bridge.

ROYAL ARMS OF ENGLAND FROM RICHARD I. TO EDWARD III.

(From the wall arcade, south aisle of nave, Westminster Abbey.)

Besides the Bridge there were ferries across the river, especially between Dowgate and the opposite bank called St. Mary Overies Dock, where was afterwards erected St. Mary Overies Priory, to which belonged the church now called St. Saviour's, Southwark. The docks at either end of the old ferry still remain.

The Bridge had many misfortunes: it is said to have been destroyed by the Danes in 1013. Perhaps for 'destruction' we should read 'damage.' It was, however, certainly burned down in the Great Fire of 1136. Another, also of wood, was built in its place and, in the year 1176, a bridge of stone was commenced, which took thirty years to build and remained standing till the year 1831, when the present Bridge was completed and the old one pulled down.

The Architect of this stone Bridge, destined to stand for six hundred and fifty years, was one Peter, Chaplain of St. Mary Colechurch in the Old Jewry (the church was destroyed in the Great Fire and not rebuilt).

Now the building of bridges was regarded, at this time, as a work of piety. If we consider how a bridge helps the people we shall agree with our forefathers. Without a bridge, those living on one side of a river can only carry on intercourse with those on the other side by means of boats. Merchants cannot carry their wares about: farmers cannot get their produce to market: wayfarers can only get across by ferry: armies cannot march-if you wish to follow an army across a country where there are no bridges you must look for fords. Roads are useless unless bridges cross the rivers. The first essential to the union of a nation is the possibility of intercommunication: without roads and

bridges the man of Devon is a stranger and an enemy to the man of Somerset. We who have bridges over every river: who need never even ford a stream: who hardly know what a ferry means: easily forget that these bridges did not grow like the oaks and the elms: but were built after long study of the subject by men who were trained for the work just as other men were trained and taught to build cathedrals and churches. A religious order was founded in France in the twelfth century: it was called the Order of the 'Pontife' Brethren-Pontife is Pontifex-that is-Bridge Builder. The Bridge Building Brothers constructed many bridges in France of which several still remain. It is not certain that Peter of Colechurch was one of this Brotherhood, perhaps not. When he died, in 1205, before the Bridge was completed, King John called over a French 'Pontife' named Isembert who had built bridges at La Rochelle and Saintes. But the principal builders are said to have been three merchants of London named Serle Mercer, William Almain, and Benedict Botewrite. The building of the Bridge was regarded as a national work: the King: the great Lords: the Bishops: as well as the London Citizens, gave money to hasten its completion. The list of donors was preserved on 'a table fair written for posterity' in the Chapel on the Bridge. It was unhappily destroyed in the Great Fire.

It must not be supposed that the Bridge of Peter Colechurch was like the present stately Bridge of broad arches. It contained twenty arches of irregular breadth: only two or three being the same: they varied from 10 feet to 32 feet: some of them therefore were very narrow: the piers were also of different lengths. These irregularities were certainly intentional and were based upon some observations on the rise and fall of the tide. No other great Bridge had yet been constructed across a tidal river.

When the Bridge was built it was thought necessary to consecrate it to some saint. The latest saint, St. Thomas Becket, was chosen as the titular saint of this Bridge. A chapel, dedicated to him, was built in the centre pier of the Bridge: it was, in fact, a double chapel: in the lower part, the crypt, was buried Peter of Colechurch himself: the upper part, which escaped the Great Fire, became, after the Reformation, a warehouse.

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