700 Years of Murder and Mayhem in London: Part I – The Bridges of London

Tower Bridge
Tower Bridge
It’s a chilly February 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.

Commuters have walked across London Bridge for 2000 years! During medieval times, it was the only entrance to the city and as such 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?

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, preserved in tar, was that of William “Braveheart” Wallace. The head of Sir Thomas More was another; both hung up to serve as warning not to oppose the powers that be.

Millennium Bridge
Millennium Bridge
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 non-descript and just plain ugly. It takes a huge leap of the imagination to imagine the fantastic London bridges of the past.

By Tower Bridge is the foreboding Tower of London, venue of public executions. Anyone plotting against king and country met their fate here, including two of Henry VIII’s six wives. Most famous of all is perhaps Anne Boleyn, the cause of England’s break with the Catholic Church. A woman of power indeed. Until she lost her head for failing to produce a male heir. And for being, shall we say, a bit too outspoken on a number of sensitive issues. Catherine Howard, the not-quite-as-famous wife, was beheaded for adultery. She was 20, he 50, who could blame her?

Tower of London
Tower of London
Some years later, after Henry VIII’s only son Edward VI died at 15, a power hungry duke (of Northumberland) married off his son to Lady Jane Grey (Edward’s cousin) and put her on the throne. Queen for less than 2 weeks, Lady Jane was executed by her cousin, Henry’s daughter Mary (the “bloody” one). Poor little Jane was only 17, a pawn in a political game. It can’t have been easy being a royal cousin in those days. Later still, Anne and Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I had her cousin Mary (Queen of Scots) executed here.

A bit later, we’re standing below Waterloo Bridge, where Bulgarian dissident Grigori Markov was assassinated in 1978, in a clever if gruesome manner; stabbed in the calf with an umbrella containing poison. Who thinks of that: a poisoned umbrella? The KGB, that’s who. Markov died after three days of horrible agony.

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 with suicide. But was it? More recent forensic reports conclude that he was murdered.

If only these bridges could talk…

Photos by Aleksander Bratlie

Anne-Sophie Redisch is a bilingual travel writer based in Norway who likes nothing better than hopping off a train in a new city. Her two daughters increasingly insist on coming along to enliven the travel experience. Antarctica must therefore remain a dream until her youngest reaches the minimum age-limit required by the expedition companies. Anne-Sophie has lived in the USA and New Zealand. Her work has appeared in inflight magazines and various other Scandinavian and English print and online media.

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