It’s a chilly, windy evening. Maybe that’s why we’re only six. Six people about to walk through 700 years of London’s criminal history. Jason, a qualified London guide for 13 years, is tall and gangly and reminds me of Hugh Grant. Same wavy hair and quick speech. More to the point, he’s passionate and knowledgeable, gesticulating eagerly while relating anecdotes from London’s dark past. Let’s begin with the bridges of London, silent witnesses to plenty of action during the last millennium. In fact, let’s begin with London Bridge.
Commuters have walked across London Bridge for 2000 years! During medieval times, it was the only entrance to the city and thus a main focus of London life. The bridge was covered with timber houses, several floors high, including the fabulously decorated Nonsuch House, complete with gables and a chapel. All that on one bridge; must have been a sight – a bit like Florence’s Ponte Vecchio, perhaps? Where, oh where, is that time machine?
London Bridge is also where heads were displayed on spikes. During a visit in 1599, a German tourist counted 38. A famous head hanging here was that of the brave-hearted William Wallace, preserved in tar – hung up to serve as warning not to oppose the powers that be.
A new bridge was constructed in the 1830s. This one lasted a mere 130 years, when it was discovered that London Bridge was falling down, i.e. couldn’t handle the increased traffic. And so it was auctioned off and sold to an American, Robert McCulloch, who brought it – brick by brick – to Lake Havasu in Arizona. Legend has it, McCulloch thought he had bought the more impressive Tower Bridge.
Sadly, the present London Bridge is neither attractive nor interesting. It takes a massive leap of the imagination to picture the fantastic London bridges of the past.
Tower and Tower Bridge
Nearby Tower Bridge is the foreboding Tower of London, venue of public executions for centuries. If you were caught plotting against king and country, chances are you’d meet your fate here.
Anne Boleyn caused England’s break with the Catholic Church – a woman of power indeed. Until she lost her head, officially for adultery and incest. The real trouble was, she didn’t produce a male heir. Even worse, she was a bit too outspoken on a number of sensitive issues and made enemies of important men at the court.
Henry’s fifth wife – and Anne’s cousin – Catherine Howard, was not as famous. But then she didn’t last long enough to gain much historical importance before she was beheaded for adultery. She was 18, he was 50. And chances are, he probably didn’t look anything like George Clooney at 50. So really, can you blame her?
After Henry’s only son, Edward VI, dies at 15, his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, is put on the throne in a political ploy. Queen for less than two weeks, 17-year-old Jane was executed by her cousin Mary (the bloody one). A bit later, Elizabeth I, Anne and Henry’s daughter, had her cousin Mary (Queen of Scots) bumped off here. It can’t have been easy being a royal cousin back then.
Two of Henry VIII’s six wives were executed at Tower.
Soon, our little group is standing below Waterloo Bridge, where Bulgarian dissident Grigori Markov was assassinated in 1978, in a gruesome, yet clever manner: stabbed in the leg with an umbrella dipped in poison. Who thinks of that: a poisoned umbrella? The KGB, that’s who. Markov died after three days of excruciating pain.
In addition to all the murders, 60 – 70 suicides are fished out of the river Thames every year. Italian banker Roberto Calvi was found hanging from scaffolding under Blackfriars Bridge in 1982. The first inquest concluded it was suicide. But was it? More recent forensic reports conclude that he was murdered.
If only these bridges could talk…
This is an excerpt, slightly reworked, of my article on Boots’n’All: The Bridges of London
Photos by my daughter’s boyfriend, Aleksander Bratlie.
PS Stay tuned for more on London’s deliciously dark past. We’ll be going to public executions and hear all about a man called Jack.
Tower of London is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world.
Nice with some historical background info on well-known places. Even if it is fatal.
A delicious frisson is rippling down my back. Wonderful to revisit all these bridges and nasty stories through your eyes (and words, of course).
I really felt the London spirit (btw I am totally in love with this city). It was like short historical movie, but really interesting and attractive one.
What a fascinating history lesson. You put me right there with you. A poisoned umbrella is somehow impressively creative in all its cruelty. Wonder what type of poison they used.
@Robert – Thank you – and very interesting question. Seems the umbrella actually fired a tiny pellet, contaminated with ricin, into Markov’s leg. According to Wiki, ricin is very lethal poison. The tiniest dose (as little as a few grains of salt) can kill an adult.
We didn’t learn nearly as much of this fascinating history when we were there! You have a wonderful way with words, Anne-Sophie. 🙂
I had no idea that bridges in London were so interesting! I can’t imagine seeing heads on spikes – yikes! I like this twist you put on London’s history.
I loved this history lesson! And chilling bridge photos.
Great synopsis – and the tour sounds great. Which organisation runs the tours?
If I go, I will look out for the Hugh Grant-ish person.
I always thought that Godfather III was a glimpse into how Calvi was so very publicly humiliated in death for the corruption in Vatican banking.
And the Bulgarian secret service killing Markov reminds me of ‘From Russia With Love’ with James Bond killing Krilencu, the Bulgarian assassin who had attacked Bond and Kerim Bey in the gypsy encampment.
All good fun – life imitating art imitating life.
Fascinating history! I love these stories, although many of them are quite horrific. London’s bridges really have been witness to much action. Sounds like a tour I’d like to take, too.
What a fascinating article! A definitely unusual angle, I really enjoyed it. I loved the last sentence “if only these bridges could talk” – imagine if all palaces’ walls and buildings could talk, how many more things we would know about our past.
Wow! 2000 years of history in four bridges. Fantastic job.
Interesting to go though the “not much told” history of these bridges.
Great photos and wonderful background info!!
These bridges have such awful, tainted histories. But then again, England is filled with tragic places. Such an intriguing post and so apporpriate – just in time for Halloween. Creepy!
Oh I love all this history! Very cool and interesting information. I think it must have been very difficult living back in the day. Family members turned on family members, yikes!
I have been to London but didn’t take a tour (or do any of my own research), so I learned a lot from this post. Nice work!
The murder device was very clever indeed. I guess, these real incidents are the inspirations of story tellers, authors and movie makers. It was a tragedy yet I am glad to know a little of its history.
Fabulous. I’ll be in London around Christmas and I’m already excited!
I really paid attention to the bridges when we were in London in August – but I didn’t know all of this interesting history!
Ah, gives me chills! London’s history is so fascinating – I never tire of reading about it. Poisoned umbrellas! I’ll never look at them in the same way again…
London does have a dark history. I never considered how much the bridges tell of that dark history. Anne Boleyn was one intense woman.
LOVE your tower bridge shot- so dark and mysterious! hehe… I love London’s seedy past
Fascinating history. Well crafted post. Excellent photographs. Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to Part 2.
Thank you all so very much for reading and leaving such kind comments. Very much appreciated!
The places were so awesome.. Love to check them out for myself.. Thanks for posting the pictures!
That is a stunning photo of the tower bridge .. I like it.
@Natzie – Thanks for reading.
@Yumigee – Thanks, my daughter’s fiancee was the photographer for that one.
This looks like a really cool thing to do, and makes me ask myself why I didn’t make most of my country when I lived there! Glad you had fun though 🙂
@Anthony – Isn’t that typical, though? We never seem to notice the things that are right under our noses the whole time… Good to hear from you 🙂
i really like this post . I think london’s unique aspect are the bridges … they bring a extra charm to the city ! I always rent a place to spend at least two or three months over there.