London Bridge and Beyond by Peg Herring

Posted by on Aug 20, 2012 in 16th Century England, Featured Book, Historical Research | 4 comments

When we think of a bridge in a large city nowadays, we think of streamlined shapes, strong pillars, and wide traffic lanes. My research for THE LADY FLIRTS WITH DEATH, the third book of the Simon & Elizabeth mysteries*, gives a much different picture of the bridge across the Thames, London Bridge, in sixteenth century London.

Imagine yourself in old London, a town that was not all that big unless the king was in residence. The royal presence swelled the population, and things picked up as businesspeople shifted from sleepy, small-town mode to the busy-ness of waiting on the throngs of nobles who wanted to be wherever the king was. Let’s say you live in a fashionable home on the north bank of the Thames, a life of luxury, we hope.

Now imagine that you must travel south for some reason. There is only one bridge, situated near the Tower of London and reaching across the dirty-but-useful Thames to Southwark, London’s lawless step-child. Like many places you probably know today, Southwark is safe enough in the daytime, but one should consider carefully the idea of staying after dark. There is little law on the south side. London and the county argue constantly over who has jurisdiction there, and as a result, no one does. In Southwark are found the people not welcome in London itself: shoddy tradesmen, failed apprentices, suspect foreigners, and lifelong criminals.

Southwark is also where entertainments are staged that London will not tolerate. Circuses, sports such as bear-baiting, illegal drink establishments, and prostitutes, once regulated by the Catholic Church (of all entities!) but now operating essentially without restraint. If you are an adventurer, you might relish the lure of Southwark and cross the bridge seeking new experiences. If you are a proper English lady or gentleman, you will be sure to return to London before nightfall.

You start for the bridge early in the morning, hoping to avoid traffic. You’re probably on foot, although your purse determines that. If you are wealthy, you might be carried in a sedan chair. If you own a horse, you could ride, but you’ll have to watch for low-hanging signs as you cross. Smacking your head on one would be both painful and embarrassing.

The bridge is open from morning till curfew, when the gates close, and it’s a bustling spectacle. Twenty-six feet wide, it seems generous enough for an age of mostly foot traffic and small carts. But long ago, to swell the royal coffers, King John allowed shops to be built along the bridge-way. There are almost 200 of them now. (No ale- or beer-sellers, because there are no cellars to keep beverages cool.) Businesses seven feet deep line both sides of the bridge, reducing travel space in the center to twelve feet. Divide that into two lanes and you have six feet of passage space. This might still seem like enough until you see that tradesmen display wares in their windows, causing many to amble and even stop to examine, haggle, and buy. Not a place to be if you’re in a hurry.

But let’s say you have some leisure, having begun early. You take advantage of a spot where there are no shops and step aside to take in the view. You will note that several sections of the bridge have been rebuilt, since fire is a constant threat here, as in all of London. There are accidental fires, and rebellious subjects often focus on the bridge, burning buildings and even fighting desperate battles there.

Since the shops around you could not expand laterally, they have grown upward. The bridge is lined with buildings several stories high, many with walkways far above your head that connect the two sides. The water flows beneath you, but in the flow of traffic, you might imagine yourself on any London street.

After a while, you rejoin the throng. Ahead of you is a donkey cart with a broken axle, blocking the way as the owner swears and sweats over repairs. As you skirt that obstacle, you step in a pile of manure left by some creature ahead of you. You, too, might say a bad word as you step to one side and clean off your shoe.

When you finally reach Southwark, you note on the Southern Gate several heads in various stages of decomposition. These are England’s traitors. The tradition of displaying their heads began with William Wallace in 1305 and continues, with Thomas Cromwell being a comparatively recent addition. The heads are dipped in tar to preserve them and serve as proof of death and certainty of punishment. One visitor from Germany in 1598 counted more than thirty heads impaled on the Tower Bridge’s iron spikes.

When you’re finally across the bridge, you pass through the gate and into Southwark, where you complete whatever business you have there (licit or not, we won’t ask you to specify). It takes longer than you anticipated, however, and you find the gates closed when you start homeward. Now you have only one choice: a water taxi.

Along both sides of the bridge, above and below, are small boats waiting to ferry passengers to the other side. Crossing the river in these boats can be faster than using the bridge, but there is a fee. Your boatman is wise. He carefully avoids the bridge area, where large water wheels cause up to a six-foot drop in the water level from one side to the other. From time to time someone might attempt to “shoot the bridge,” but he is very likely to drown in the attempt. A popular saying declares the bridge is “for wise men to pass over and fools to pass under.”

You reach home safely, content to have your business completed. My protagonist, Simon, is not so lucky. His journey into Southwark is fraught with danger, complicated by lies, and occasioned by murder. Now he has to make sure of two things: that he clears a friend of the crime, and that he is not the killer’s next victim.

Peg Herring  August 20, 2012

*The Simon & Elizabeth (Tudor) Mysteries, from Five Star Publishing, need not be read in order, but for readers who want to know:

First book of the series: HER HIGHNESS’ FIRST MURDER, available in hardcover and e-book

Second book: POISON, YOUR GRACE, available in hardcover with e-book coming soon.

Third book: THE LADY FLIRTS WITH DEATH, coming early in 2013


  1. Nice post, Peg. This reminds me of the situation with the Rialto Bridge in Venice–only the Venetians went for shops in the center and walkways on the outside.

    • Interesting, the symbolism and power that humans have ascribed to bridges throughout history.

  2. I enjoyed very much this post. What a lively description, Peg!

  3. Thanks, y’all! I’m hip deep in edits of my contemporary series, but I really need to do more with the historicals, too. Where to get the time for all this promotion is the Big Question!