London: The Medieval Port

Alfred was already a battle-hardened young man when he succeeded his father to the throne of Wessex in 871 at the age of 21, having spent much of his teenage years fighting the Vikings on land and sea. Following his victory at the Battle of Edington in 878, the Viking forces, under their leader Guthrum, retreated eastwards. King Alfred began a policy of creating defensive ‘burghs’ (fortified towns) in the areas he controlled, which is the origin of the word ‘borough’ and of town names ending ‘bury’. The following year Alfred and Guthrum reached an agreement that created a border between Wessex (in the south and south-west) and the Viking territory (to the north, north-east and east). It formally recognized the area west of the River Lea as belonging to Alfred and to the east as Guthrum’s territory of Danelaw. Alfred re-founded the former Roman capital as ‘Lundenburg’, now a strategic border town. In constant danger of attack, it needed to be more defensible than the early-Saxon settlement of Lundenwic so the old walls and riverside quays of the former Londinium were rebuilt and repaired and, despite occasional Viking attacks during the following century, it once again began to thrive as a port.

In order to revitalize London, Alfred granted sections of land – yokes – to important allies. Two charters dated 889 and 898 provided a yoke each to two of his closest advisors, Plegmund, Archbishop of Canterbury and Waerferth, Bishop of Worcester:

Alfred, king, and others to Plegmund, archbishop, and to Christ Church, and to Wærferth, bishop, and the church of Worcester; grant of 2 yokes of land at Ætheredes hyd on the Thames. One to each.

The purpose was to create a point on the river within Lundenburg where vessels could land and a market could be held for goods to be bought and sold. The King collected tolls for boats arriving on the ‘ripa emptoralis’ (trading shore). By the time the Saxons once again began to populate the old walled city in the ninth century the former Roman timber quays and jetties would have long ago rotted away and they reverted to berthing their boats on sloping beaches. The location of Aethelredshithe (named after Alfred’s sonin-law) was probably dictated by the lie of the Roman wall at that point and provided a convenient foreshore up onto which vessels could be pulled. Thus Aethelredshithe (renamed Queenhithe in later times) became the first part of the late-Saxon port of London.

By the tenth century two more ‘common quays’ had joined Aethelredshithe on the waterfront. The newly rebuilt London Bridge formed a barrier through which larger vessels coming upriver had difficulty passing and the response was the creation of new landing places at St Botolph’s Wharf and Billingsgate. They probably each began as small, prepared beaches on which a boat could be berthed.

To travel downriver to the sea in the late ninth and early tenth centuries involved passing Viking Danelaw territory so trade tended to be with villages upriver rather than the east coast or overseas, but international trade gradually increased. The fourth law code of Ethelred II (‘the Unready’), issued around 1000 AD, details the various berthing tolls at Billingsgate due to the monarch. A small boat was to pay a half penny and a larger ‘keel’ four pence. Tolls were payable on certain days of the week for those carrying cloth; a ship carrying planks paid one plank and tolls were set for boats arriving with fish. By then ships were arriving from the Continent and they are dealt with in the law code. Those from Rouen, Flanders, Ponthieu in Normandy, Huy, Liège and Nivelles in Flanders had specified tolls, whereas men of the Emperor – Germans – were to be treated as locals, except to additionally supply specified provisions to the king.

The town’s importance as an international port continued to grow because of its proximity to the Continent and, in particular, being directly opposite the mouth of the Rhine, the gateway to the heart of Europe. Pottery, jewellery and other items of the late-Saxon period from the Continent have been found in London. There is further evidence in the form of coins of that period from Belgium, Normandy and Norway found along the Thames. In 1016 the Danish leader Cnut inherited the throne, uniting Wessex and Mercia as well as bringing an end to Viking hostility. During his reign England became part of a kingdom that included Denmark and Norway, thus stimulating trade with Scandinavia and the Baltic. English coins unearthed in Continental towns during the eleventh and twelfth centuries indicate the spread of London’s trade during those times. Many from the early part of that period have been found in Scandinavia. Later coins have been discovered throughout the Baltic coast, Germany, Normandy and Flanders.

The Walbrook stream flowed southwards through the centre of the city and in London’s early history was possibly navigable for a short distance upstream from its confluence with the Thames. On the eastern side of that junction, a short distance above the bridge, foreign merchants set up their base, perhaps as early as the reign of King Edgar in the mid-tenth century. A landing place was created some time before the mid-eleventh century when the ‘port of Duuegate’ was referred to in a charter from Edward the Confessor. (In the late sixteenth century John Stow names it as ‘Downgate’ and in more recent times it has become known as ‘Dowgate’).

There is archaeological evidence, dating from the late tenth or early eleventh century, of a jetty extending into the river slightly downriver of London Bridge (the modern-day New Fresh Wharf). This would indicate the earliest example in medieval London of the development away from hauling vessels up onto a beach.

The Normans could be more confident in their safety and the ancient Roman riverside wall was not replaced as it was gradually undermined by the river. For them the greater priority was trade along the waterfront and the wall was an obstacle to the construction of warehouses and wharves. Where the wall had previously stood, a new street was created running parallel with the river, known today as Upper and Lower Thames Street. The sloping beaches used by the Saxons were gradually replaced by timber jetties and wharves at which ships could berth. The stretch downriver of the bridge where larger ships moored was already then known as ‘the Pool of London’.

Roads throughout Europe deteriorated throughout the Middle Ages whereas water transport gradually developed. Former established major towns such as St Albans and Colchester, without a major river, would never again compete in importance with London. By the middle of the twelfth century the city, abandoned after the Roman occupation and re-established by Alfred the Great, was once again one of England’s major towns, although not yet its capital. The rebuilt bridge formed a barrier past which the largest seagoing ships could not easily pass, creating an additional need to unload at London. The creation of new wharves by the Norman riverside landowners, as well as the ever-increasing size of ships arriving to unload, was turning London into a major port. Foreign merchants had established riverside bases for the importing and exporting of goods and London merchants had obtained charters from the monarchy that put them in a favourable position relative to other ports in England.

London Bridge

London Bridge, which was the only crossing over the Thames in the immediate London area until the construction of Westminster Bridge in 1750, was, and remains, the limit of navigation for larger vessels. At some point in time the last Roman bridge must have collapsed and for around 600 years thereafter the river could only be traversed by boat. It was during the late tenth century that a new wooden structure was built. Its purpose was probably as much to do with creating a barrier preventing the passage of invading Vikings as to provide a crossing. Perhaps it had a drawbridge to allow boats to pass upstream to the dock at Aethelredshithe.

The tenth century bridge was severely damaged by a flood in 1097, and again in the great fire of 1136, and was probably repaired enough that it could continue to be used. Between 1176 and 1209 a replacement was built slightly upstream to the west, in line with Fish Street Hill, in the position it occupied for the following 700 years. It was built under the supervision of a parish priest, Peter of St Mary Colechurch.

The foundations of the new stone bridge were constructed by ramming wooden stakes into the river bed and infilling with rubble. With 19 broadpointed arches, ranging from 14 feet to 32 feet in width, it was for many years the longest stone bridge in England. It was 926 feet in length, 40 feet in width, and stood 60 feet above the water level. London Bridge became an impressive sight, the most magnificent such structure in Britain.

The bridge was erected on piers that in turn stood on starlings that protected the piers from the flow of the water. Set close together, the starlings formed a barrier to the incoming and outgoing tides, creating a weir effect that was a continuous force against the fabric of the bridge. Taking a boat through while the tide was flowing was described as ‘shooting the bridge’ and could be very dangerous. In his Chronicle of London, William Gregory describes an incident in about 1428:

The vij [7th] day of Novembyr the Duke of Northefolke wolde have rowed thoroughe the brygge of London, and hys barge was rentte agayne the arche of the sayde brygge, and there were drowned many men, the nombyr of xxx [30] personys and moo of gentylmen and goode yemen [yeomen].

A drawbridge between the sixth and seventh piers from the southern end could be raised twice each day, when the tide was high, to allow for the passage of ships. It was operated from a stone tower on its northern side, variously known as the ‘Great Gate’ or ‘Traitor’s Gate’. The drawbridge could also be raised as a defensive measure on the occasions that London came under attack by road from the south.

In the centre of the bridge was a chapel dedicated to Thomas Becket, a twelfth century parishioner of St Mary Colechurch, who had been canonized only three years before construction began. It was soon joined by shops with accommodation, something that was not unusual across medieval Europe. The bridge became an extension of the city and a busy and colourful commercial street as much as a river crossing. In 1460 the bridge wardens were receiving rents from around 130 properties. Over the centuries these structures were rebuilt as they decayed.

Since the Norman period, London Bridge (and then later other public bridges connecting to the City) has been maintained on behalf of the Corporation of London by the Bridge House Trust, which throughout the Middle Ages was located adjacent to the Southwark end of the bridge. Bridge House was headed by wardens who were initially appointed by the king, but later chosen annually by the City’s Common Council. They were citizens of substance, often with interests in waterborne trade or riverside parishes. The Trust employed a full staff to maintain the bridge and collect rents and tolls and the senior officers comprised the Clerk of Works, Renter and (from 1496) the Comptroller. Others included the clerk of the drawbridge, numerous carpenters, masons and various labourers and servants. The bridge also owned several ‘shoutes’ (barges) in order to transport materials, with ‘shutemen’ to operate them. A substantial part of the income for maintaining the bridge came in the form of rents derived from numerous properties in the City and elsewhere, as well as the City’s Stocks market.

In 1460 the toll for a ship to pass through the drawbridge was between one and two pennies. Three years later it had increased substantially to six pence. Fewer vessels therefore passed through to dock there and the drawbridge seems to have been raised less frequently. It began to fall into decay and after 1476 no income was being received for the passage of boats because it was in such a poor state and dangerous to lift. In 1500 workmen were required to work night and day for the repairing of the ‘full rynous drawbridge and thereof making sure to be drawen alle redye for the Kinges berkis [barques] to have hadde passage’. That seems to have been an exceptional occasion however, and thereafter any contemplation of raising the bridge was for defence rather than the passage of ships.

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