Spanning Centuries: London Bridge

Until 1729, London Bridge was the capital’s only crossing over the Thames and a microcosm of the city it served, lined with houses and shops on either side. Leo Hollis looks at the history of an icon.

Drawing of London Bridge from a 1682 London MapEvery city has its foundation stones, often wrapped up in myth, conjecture and odd truths: Rome was created out of the walls built by Romulus on the Palatine Hill; Paris; Paris was born of an artificial island midstream of the Seine; London emerged out of a river crossing.

In AD43 soldiers of the army of Emperor Claudius chased their routed enemy up the river following the gruesome Battle of the Medway in Kent. According to the Roman historian Cassius Dio, as the natives crossed the river, darting between the shingle islets and mud banks, the legionnaires continued their pursuit:

German units swam across, and others crossed a little higher upstream by a bridge. They attacked the British on all sides and cut off many of them; but rash pursuit led them into trackless marshes, where many were lost.

The Roman soldiers held back and set up a temporary camp, waiting for the rest of the troops, elephants and war engines. They would soon cross the river on a temporary pontoon of boats and continue the hunt on the north side. London was born of this crossing, as merchants who followed the soldiers settled on the Thames s northern hank. Even before the settlement was given a name, it had a bridge.

This year sees the 800th anniversary of the building of the stone bridge of London, completed in 1209. It is this bridge - of nursery rhyme and popular image - that spanned the Thames for over 500 years. Of all the major anniversaries that fall this year, it is the one most likely to be forgotten, but is among the most important. For without London Bridge there would be no London.

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