August 27, 2003

Old London Bridge, Gordon Home

A seventy-year-old history book is usually a historical source itself. This one is not shocking in its views; it is, rather, sweet, considering with equal affection the many stages, makeshifts, and heroic repairs of the bridges that have stood where London Bridge does. Unlike Black Lamb, Grey Falcon or even Three Men on the Bummel, this 1931 book makes WWII sink into the background of the imagination. Disasters happen. Traffic patterns are eternal. (How eternal? London Bridge, the sand in the pearl when the world was London's oyster, might be where it is because just before the Romans¹ got there sealevel was 12 ft. lower and there was a low-tide ford. That's even better than the army-horse/train-gauge story.)

Bridge-building was a medieval work of charity, so Church foundations were set up to build and maintain them. The houses and shops that lined the old Bridge were meant to help fund it; their rents went toward upkeep. This did not prevent money being borrowed from or for the Bridge. It's a nice idea. Columbus may be trying it again.

I was reading Margaret Frazer's The Bastard's Tale while reading Old London Bridge, and was amused that a political scandal in the first appears (noises off; the procession would have seen the Bridge) in the second. Better yet, for real roots of fluff fiction, a joust fought for pride by knights in armor; on the Bridge itself, which was on average only twelve feet wide, and was in many parts covered by the houses' throwing out upper stories to meet each other in midair. I presume shop-signs would have been taken down for the event.

"The King to all and singular, our Sheriffs, Mayors, Bailiffs, Ministers, and faithful subjets, within and without our liberties, to whom these present letters shall come: Greeting. Know ye, that because our beloved and faithful John de Welles, for the perfecting of a certain Passage of Arms within our Kingdom of England, against David de Lyndeseye, of Scotland, Knight, as he appears to have been calumniated by the said David--he is petitioner to us for the security of the said David, with his followers and servants coming into our Kingdom aforesaid..." ...Then follows a clause covering the chance of any outlaw seeking to enter England in Lindesaye's protection... The date of the document is January 22nd, 1389-90.
The day for the encounter arrived, and the two knights fully armed in the plate armour of the period were conducted to the Bridge, where a daïs had been erected for Richard II and the members of his Court. All the suitable positions were occupied by the nobility, and elsewhere the populace crowded every available corner. When all was in readiness the heralds gave the signal and the two horsemen, spurring their heavy horses, charged full at one another. Spears were broken, but both warriors remained seated firmly in their saddles. "The people beholding how stiffelie earle (sic) David sat without moving, cried that the Scottisman was locked in his saddle. He hearing this, leapt beside his horse, and verie nimblie mounted up againe into the saddle, armed as he was, to the great wonder of the beholders."
With fresh spears a second course was taken and once more the weapons were splintered "and yet without anie great hurt on either part." At the third collision Lord Welles was borne from his saddle and fell heavily to the ground, being "sore hurt." The onlookers appear to have thought he was killed, but Lindesay was quickly off his horse, and, kneeling by his side, he tenderly held him in his arms until the doctor came to tend his wounds.

Valor and tenderness made the Scotsman popular in London at the time. I wonder if he did not remain more famous in Scotland; He was proclaimed and belted Earl of Crawford in 1398 - and Crawford is the shining family in the twelve long, Dumas-dense historical novels by Dorothy Dunnett.

Hundreds more years of complicated engineering and its complicated funding are decorated with charming anecdotes that happened near the Bridge. The house/shops had rooms right down into the piers, and loading-doors for stock at river level. Tricky, as the Thames was so thwarted by the bridge that the fall of water through it was sometimes five feet high. Even more efficient, one house built a pen for food fish into the protective starling.

With mixed efficiency, the city grain stores were at one end of the bridge, near shipping and mill-power but sadly vulnerable to mold.

The illustrations are jackdaw and plentiful - copies of amateur archaeologists' drawings of old work exposed by new; trade cards from the successive trades that clustered there; stonework from old bridges long since moved. Home's prose isn't as delightful as Picard's, but he appreciates a good phrase found elsewhere.

Home, Gordon. Old London Bridge. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1931.

¹Of course this history starts with the Romans. I don't understand the determination of the English to see themselves as the last Romano-Britons, and I wonder often if it existed before the British Empire, and the poem on the statue of Boadicea suggests one heck of a grudge; but like their obsession with gardening, it produces some wonderful books. From Auden's Bathtub Thoughts (c. 500 - c.1950):

Hail, future friend, whose present I
With gratitude now prophesy,
So thought, I thought, the last Romano-Briton
To take his last hot bath.
So wrote clew in Cities. , History. | TrackBack
And thus wrote others:
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