Symbols & Secrets

Walking the City of London

Category: Roman London

The bridges of London Bridge – Part 1

When I discovered that, at one time, the London Bridge authorities employed a Keeper of the Heads I was inspired to write about the many reincarnations of London Bridge since the Romans built the first crossing about AD 50. The relationship between the bridges and London is fascinating and so I want to do it justice with two blogs.

There is an artist’s impression of Roman London, including the bridge, on display at the Guildhall Art Gallery …

The picture reflects the fact that the river was very much wider then (about five times what we see today) and consequently much shallower. The bridge was probably built of oak and, being the only fixed crossing below Staines, it became a major contributor to the prosperity of London which soon replaced Colchester as the Roman capital.

The earliest written reference to the bridge (Lundene brigce) appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of AD 984 when mention is made of a woman being taken there to be drowned for witchcraft. From 1176 a new stone bridge was constructed under the leadership of a cleric, Peter of Colechurch, and was to last for well over 600 years.

This painting by Samuel Scott (1702-1772) gives some idea of what the bridge looked like around the middle of the 18th century. People in the houses had a magnificent view and could fish from their windows as the buildings overhung the water by several feet. In the mid-1750s, the naturalist Thomas Pennant also observed that …

People living on the Bridge soon grew deaf to the noise of the falling waters, the clamours of the watermen, or the frequent shrieks of drowning wretches.

Copyright Corporation of London – Guildhall Art Gallery

Do pop into St Magnus-the-Martyr on Lower Thames Street (EC3R 6DN) and have a look at this splendid model of the Bridge (a photo really doesn’t do it justice) …

The bridge was supported by 18 boat-shaped ‘starlings’. These effectively blocked half the river and tidal surges and the build up of waste made the current notoriously uneven. The drop in water level could be as much as eight feet and navigating the arches was known as ‘shooting the bridge’. Wary passengers would alight on one side and be picked up by their boat on the other – assuming their waterman had not drowned, which many of them did, hence the 1670 saying …

London Bridge was made for wise men to pass over, and fools to pass under.

Such was the proliferation of buildings, people crossing the bridge for the first time (which could take an hour) often did not realise they were not in a normal street. At some points it was only twelve feet wide.

I have to mention the heads.

Beheading was a common form of execution at the time and reserved for higher-born individuals since it was swifter and less barbaric than hanging or burning at the stake. Heads also became available when individuals suffered the terrible death of being hanged, drawn and quartered (usually for high treason).

From ‘Visscher’s Panorama1616

Between 1305 when the first head was placed atop a pike over the Drawbridge Gate, and 1678 when the practice was stopped, there was a near-permanent display of decapitated heads grinning down from their spikes that pedestrians would have passed beneath. There was a plentiful supply, a visitor in 1592 counted 34 ‘heads of persons of distinction’.

The first head to be displayed in this way was the Scottish patriot and rebel William Wallace in 1305 after he had been hanged, drawn and quartered at Smithfield. The Bridge authorities employed a Keeper of the Heads who maintained security since relatives of the deceased were often desperate to reclaim the head in order that it could be reunited with the body (thereby restoring the immortal soul). When the flesh had rotted away the Keeper usually tossed the skull into the river.

I am indebted to the historian Heidi Nichols for her research – read her full article here.

The width of the river, its slow current, and the obstruction caused by London Bridge all contributed to the river frequently freezing over for two months at a time. This enabled the famous Thames Frost Fairs whose heyday was during the Little Ice Age between the 17th and early 19th Century (although the river had frozen before – Henry VIII travelled the river from Westminster to Greenwich by sleigh in 1536).

This picture, The Thames During the Great Frost of 1739, shows the Frost Fair in the foreground and figures inspecting the incomplete piers of Westminster Bridge on the right. In the distance is a view of the City of London including St Paul’s Cathedral and spires of the City churches …

Painting by Jan Griffier the Younger (1688-1750) at the Guildhall Art Gallery. It was reported that ‘The Thames floated with rocks and shoals of ice; rising everywhere in hillocks and huge rocks of ice and snow‘.

Between 1607 and 1814 there were a total of seven major fairs. There were football pitches, bowling matches, fruit-sellers, shoemakers, barbers… even a pub or two. To keep the shopkeepers warm, there were even fires within their tents. During the four days of the final 1814 Fair an elephant was led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge.

A Frost Fair in full swing (from the Londonist blog) …

The fairs ended as the weather became warmer and their possibility finally eliminated when the old London Bridge was demolished in 1831.

Demolition of Old London Bridge as seen from the Southwark side 1832 Guildhall Art Gallery

I will write about the bridges that subsequently replaced it next week.

In the meantime, if you visit St Magnus, pause outside for a few minutes. Firstly, you will be standing on the pedestrian approach to the old bridge …

And under the arch you will see this piece of wood …

Two remnants of the medieval bridge sit within the church gardens; originally part of the bridge’s northern archway, these stones now lie unmarked …

My next blog about the bridges will take us up to the present day.

The Roman Wall revisited

One of the great things about writing this blog is that I keep coming across surprises.

Let’s take as an example the Roman Wall. I have only recently discovered that, if you go down into the public car park in (appropriately named) London Wall, you will encounter a part of the wall that was revealed when the car park space was being excavated.

Here it is, next to parking bay 52 …

It’s a long walk from the entrance and probably a good idea to mention to the security guard what you are up to.

When you finish in the car park you can access the Highwalk and stroll round to enter the Museum of London. A short way into the exhibition space on the right they have placed a useful viewing point where you can look down upon part of the Roman wall known as Bastion 14.  The medieval masonry construction lies on top of Roman foundations but by the 19th century it was entirely incorporated into the surrounding buildings. World War II bombing, however, revealed much of the structure you see now…

The view from the Museum.

And from the Highwalk …

Another view from Bastion Highwalk. You can see the 19th century brickwork.

There has been a lot of construction and redevelopment work going on around London Wall and Fore Street for years now but at last it is coming to an end. St Alphage Gardens are still inaccessible but a view of the Wall has now emerged behind the Salters’ Hall gardens …

And here is a closer view …

 There is a new public space overlooking the garden which also accommodates the Minotaur who used to be a little isolated on the Highwalk …

The Minotaur by Michael Ayrton (1968-9)

The Minotaur was originally sited in Postman’s Park and apparently there is a picture somewhere of it when it was unveiled in 1973 with Frederick Cleary standing beside it. Unfortunately I can’t find a copy of the photo but you will have read more about the estimable Mr Cleary in last week’s blog, City Gardens, since a garden was named after him.

Whilst walking along the Wallside Highwalk, I was lucky to catch the wall being used as a vantage point by the heron, a frequent Barbican visitor. He positions himself by the lake for hours at a time but I have never seen him catch a fish …

I think his Barbican nickname is Harry.

And finally, I am indebted to the Spitalfields Life blogger, the Gentle Author, for the following London Wall sighting.

In Gracechurch Street, at the entrance to Leadenhall market, stands the premises of Nicholson and Griffin, Hairdresser and Barber

The Gentle Author visited the shop along with the Inspector of Ancient Monuments and the basement, where the wall can be accessed, is not open to the public. He describes the scene as follows …

At the far corner of this chamber, there is a discreet glass door which leads to another space entirely. Upon first sight, there is undefined darkness on the other side of the door, as if it opened upon the infinite universe of space and time. At the centre, sits an ancient structure of stone and brick. You are standing at ground level of Roman London …

Here are a few of his pictures …

The entrance in the basement.

Part of the wall itself.

And he leaves us with this interesting thought …

Once upon a time, countless people walked from the forum into the basilica and noticed this layer of bricks at the base of the wall which eventually became so familiar as to be invisible. They did not expect anyone in future to gaze in awe at this fragment from the deep recess of the past, any more than we might imagine a random section of the city of our own time being scrutinised by those yet to come, when we have long departed and London has been erased.

If you would like to read more about this site and see more pictures, search for Spitalfields Life – the Roman ruins at the hairdressers.


The Romans in London – Mithras, Walbrook and The Games

My two Roman London blogs this month are in celebration of the opening of the London Mithraeum in Bloomberg Space, Walbrook, which I enjoyed tremendously when I visited last week.

If you want to immerse yourself more completely in the Mithras Temple story, you might like to call in to the Museum of London beforehand and view the treasures there from the Walbrook excavation. I have put together a small selection.

There is this head of Mithras …

Head of Mithras, marble, late 2nd century

He is shown as a handsome youth, the head probaly part of a large sculpture forming a focal point at the apse end of the Temple.

Serapis, the Egyptian God of the Underworld, was also represented …

Head of Serapis, marble, late 2nd – early 3rd century

He carries a corn measure on his head symbolising the wealth and fertility of the earth.

And Minerva, the Roman Goddess of Wisdom …

Head of Minerva, marble, early 2nd century, possibly AD 130

Again, the head was probably originally part of a larger statue.

So now on to the Mithraeum itself at 12 Walbrook. Entry is free but you must book a time slot in advance using the website.

The first thing you see is this stunning tapestry by Isabel Nolan …

Another View from Nowhen, 2017

There are helpful guides ready, and very willing, to introduce you to the Mithraeum, explain the tapestry and an accompanying sculpture, and hand you an excellent printed guide. There is a well organised display of Roman artefacts which can be explored using your own mobile device, a tablet that they provide, or just by reading the labels. Unfortunately I couldn’t get a good enough photograph of these for the blog – please take my word for it that they are fascinating.

Then you are ready to descend through time, seven metres or so, from modern London to the very last days of the Romans in Britain, about AD 410.

Various levels of history are inscribed on the wall as you descend – there is also step-free access

At mezzanine level there is a further exhibition consisting of a reproduction of artefacts from the site including, of course, the head of Mithras, and a helpful commentary.

You then descend further to see the Temple itself. Initially it is dark and shrouded in mist but, as this gradually clears to the sound of evocative chants, you will see an accurate reconstruction of the ruin as it was on the last day of excavation in October 1954.

All the stone that you see and most of the bricks are from the original structure

The central icon of the cult is Mithras killing a bull

All I can say is ‘well done Bloomberg’.

The Walbrook stream played a very important part in the establishment of Roman London. Originating in what is now Finsbury Park, it carried fresh water in to the walled City and carried waste away to the River Thames. As the City developed it became imprisoned underground.

The stream lives on in the name of the street

The area has been difficult to access lately because of construction work, but is now a new open space and I took the opportunity to explore.

What a wonderful surprise! It looks like the Walbrook is flowing again above ground through the City…

Alongside Cannon Street

Parallel to Queen Victoria Street

Entitled Forgotten Streams, and cast in bronze, the Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias took as her inspiration the ancient Walbrook itself. It looks very authentic and quite beautiful.

And finally, to complete a Roman London experience, you might want to visit the Guildhall Art Gallery, in the lower level of which you will find Roman London’s Amphitheatre. An 80 metre wide curve of dark stone in Guildhall Yard marks out the area of the Amphitheatre, the site of the famous Roman ‘Games’ …

An outline of what existed about 8 metres below

The site of the Amphitheatre

Once inside you will see the remains of the original walls, the drainage system, and a rather impressive digital projection that fills in the gaps in the ruins.



The Romans in London … and two Roman ladies

In March 1999, builders working on the redevelopment of Spitalfields Market made a remarkable discovery – a beautifully carved stone sarcophagus, unopened, and obviously holding the remains of someone of exceptional wealth and status. When examined at the Museum of London, the lead coffin inside was found to contain the body of a young woman. Further analysis revealed that her head had rested on a pillow of bay leaves, that she had been embalmed with oils from the Arab world and the Mediterranean, and that she was wrapped in silk, interwoven with fine gold thread.  Isotopic analysis of her teeth revealed, not only that she came from Italy, but from Imperial Rome itself. What we do not know is who she was, and why she was so far from home when she died in about AD 350.

Here is a facial reconstruction by Caroline Wilkinson on view at the Museum of London …

The Museum Curator, Rebecca Redfern, describes her as ‘five foot three and delicately built, petite like a ballet dancer’

The sarcophagus is also on display along with the grave goods found with her

By the time this lady died, Rome’s connection with London stretched back centuries. Although Julius Caesar had landed troops twice, in 55 and 54 BC, a more thorough invasion took place under the personal leadership of the Emperor Claudius himself in AD 43.  At some time in the late AD 40s, two small hills on the north side of the Thames (now the site of St Paul’s Cathedral and Leadenhall Market) were selected as the site of a new town – a settlement called Londinium. It was a strategic site being the lowest bridgeable point on the Thames and having easy access to the sea. Fresh water also flowed in from the rivers Fleet and Walbrook and the settlement began to flourish.

Relationships with the indigenous tribes were volatile, however, and a savage rebellion broke out in AD 61 when Roman soldiers forced their way into the palace of Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni. For resisting the confiscation of Iceni property, she was flogged and her two daughters raped. Supported by the neighbouring Trinovantes Tribe, Boudicca and her followers headed for the Roman town of Camulodunum (Colchester today) where they massacred all the inhabitants and set the place ablaze, routing the 9th Legion which had been sent too late to defend it. They then headed for Londinium which, considering it impossible to defend, had been abandoned to its fate by the Governor Paulinus. It too was burned to the ground and its population slaughtered.

Relentlessly pursued by Roman legions, Boudicca eventually killed herself by taking poison and an untrue legend grew up that she was buried under Platform 8 at King’s Cross station.

Maybe that’s why there is a Boadicea Street just north of the newly revitalised King’s Cross district. In fact, in 1830, when the name of the district was being reviewed, one of the discarded suggestions was ‘Boadicea’s Cross’. I don’t know if they spotted the double meaning.

I always thought that her raid had triggered the creation of the Roman London wall that one can see parts of today, but I was mistaken, and no one is entirely sure what prompted its construction much later, around AD 200. The wall enclosed some 330 acres and remained pretty much unchanged for 1700 years. It defined the outline of the City and gave names to places that we still use today.

I have been visiting some of the walls remaining sections …

In the gardens next to Tower Hill Underground station

I have chosen the above picture as the first illustration because it demonstrates how the original Roman wall was added to in medieval times in order to strengthen the City defences. The Roman section is at the bottom, about four metres high, and characterised by the lines of red bricks. It would originally have been about ten metres high and have had a deep ditch as an additional defence on the eastern side. It was three metres thick and built of Kentish ragstone.

There is a particularly nice section of wall in Coopers Row, tucked away behind the Grange City Hotel …

You can clearly see the medieval archers’ loopholes

Looking down, the Roman line of red bricks is again visible

A visit to the Museum of London is a must for anyone interested in the City’s history, and there are sites to look at and visit nearby. For example, turn left after you leave the museum and walk along the Highwalk. Look to your left and you will see what is left of buildings that once incorporated part of the Roman wall. Known as Bastion 14, this has been extensively studied by MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) who tell us that the medieval masonry structure lies on top of Roman foundations, whilst bricks were added, some part of late-medieval repairs. However most of the brickwork relates to later buildings as the City Wall fell out of use and the bastion became increasingly hidden as a consequence of the development of the area around it. By the 19th century, the structure was entirely incorporated into the surrounding buildings. The four-storey building that used to encase this structure was destroyed in World War II bombing.

Bastion 14 viewed from Bastion Highwalk

Would you like a really close encounter with a segment of Roman pavement? I had often casually walked past these pretty blue doors on Foster Lane without venturing in, but in fact they lead to a fascinating little courtyard in which are displayed some intriguing objects …

Entrance to St Vedast Fountain Courtyard and Cloister

And here you will find a piece of Roman pavement …

Due to the move of population from the City to the suburbs in the second half of the nineteenth century, St Matthew Friday became redundant and was demolished in 1886. The parish was joined to St Vedast-alias-Foster and the site sold for £22,005, the proceeds being used to build St. Thomas Finsbury Park. One hopes St Matthew was satisfied with this transaction – he is, after all, the patron saint of accountants.

In 1995, four years before the wealthy Roman lady was found, another skeleton was discovered when excavations were taking place before the construction of 30 St Mary Axe, now often referred to as the Gherkin. The remains were of a young girl aged between 13 and 17 years – her arms were crossed over her body and pottery close by indicated a burial date of between AD 350 and 400.

Having been removed to the Museum of London, she waited patiently until 2007 when the developers of the Gherkin proposed that she be reburied on the site. So, in April of that year, there was a service at St Botolph’s church in Aldgate followed by a procession through the streets before her body was respectfully interred near where it was found. The Lady Mayoress of the City of London was there to spread rose petals on the gravesite, marked with a marble slab decorated with a laurel wreath.

Copyright Foster & Partners


We don’t know her name, or whether she was an original Londoner, but she now rests again 1,600 years after her death in the place that she would have called Londinium.

Next week will also have a Roman theme as I will be reporting back on my visit to the new London Mithraeum in Walbrook.




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