London Bridge Chapel

Above: A Victorian drawing showing the chapel standing beside the roadway on the east side of the bridge. Notice the two entrance doorways leading from the roadway. 

The first London Bridge built of stone was begun in 1176 and took over 30 years to complete. For Norman builders, the whole project was complex and revolutionary. It is believed that there had been a bridge at the same point on the Thames since Roman times but whether a bridge crossing was continuously in use for such a long space of time is also unclear. There may have been periods of time with no bridge due to the structure having partially or completely collapsed. The Thames has always been a wide and fast flowing river. Choosing to build a bridge in 1176 may, in a curious way, have had something to do with the murder of Thomas a Becket on 29 December 1170 at the age of approximately 50 years. Becket knew London well, having been born in Ironmonger Lane, a turning off Cheapside, and having grown up in the City. Only a few days before he died, his last public act of defiance was to deliver a sermon to the Augustinian foundation of the Priory of St Mary Overy on 23 December 1170. The Priory church still stands at the southern end of London Bridge but is now known as Southwark Cathedral.

We all live in a highly visual world. These days we all take so many pictures that for those of us with an interest in history, it is often frustrating to find how few pictures exist of a particular building. However, there is also another way that we can obtain visual information – through the power of the written word. This article uses the words of a highly respected historian to describe the Chapel on London Bridge. His name is Charles Welch. If his name is unfamiliar to you, then here are a few details about him.

Charles Welch FSA (1848 – 1924) was the Librarian of the Guildhall for more than 40 years. He was born in 1848 and attended the City of London School. On leaving school, he at once joined the then small staff in the Guildhall Library, which consisted of a librarian and two assistants. During his service, he helped the library to develop into the largest in London, second only to the British Museum. Welch compiled the original book catalogue and later laid down the plan for compiling the present excellent card index. Those of us who have used the library in the last part of the 20th century have all used his card index before computers took over.

Regarding the history and antiquities of the City, Welch became an authority and contributed to the Victoria County Histories. With the late Canon Benham, he wrote the well-known ‘Medieval London’. He also wrote books on London Bridge and on London coins. He was actively associated with the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, the Society of Antiquaries and other learned institutions. Charles Welch retired in 1906 and died in 1924, in his 76th year.

From what has been said, it should be evident that Welch would have been just the man to ask for details of the chapel on London Bridge. It was built on the structure of the bridge which was started in 1176 and completed in 1209. The man responsible for its construction was a priest in a City church called St Mary Colechurch. He was known simply as ‘Peter of Colechurch’.

The stone London Bridge had to cross the Thames which is approximately 900 feet wide between the banks of the City and Southwark. To support the arches, 19 irregular shaped islands (called ‘starlings’) were constructed in the river. On top were 19 arches of varying widths, built on top, carrying an almost level roadway. A drawbridge was built, instead of the 20th arch – to allow ships with tall masts to pass through the bridge. At the southern (Southwark) end, a Stone Gate was built on the second starling. The Drawbridge Gate was built on the seventh starling, to hold the mechanism for raising and lowering the drawbridge. On the largest starling of all (the eleventh) was built a chapel.

Reproduced below are part of the writings of Charles Welch, relating to the Chapel. In his position as Librarian at the Guildhall, he knew where to look for detailed information about the Bridge. His description provides considerable insight into how the chapel looked as well as details of its day-to-day running. Many people are interested in any details they can pick up about London Bridge and especially about the Chapel. There are only a handful of drawings that were made when the chapel existed (from 1209 until the Dissolution when the chapel was converted into a shop, around 1539). The chapel was eventually demolished and, of course, since those early days, there have been two later bridges at a slightly different location. The prints in this article are not contemporary with the chapel, they were drawn by artists creating engravings of how the chapel probably looked – no doubt based on descriptions like the one below by Charles Welch.

Above: A Victorian drawing showing the interior of the chapel. It is the view you would have seen on walking through one of the two doorways on the above print.

Notes to Help with the Text Below

(1) Prices below like – £4 14s. 4d. – should be read as ‘Four Pounds, 14 shillings and four pence’. The price – 54s. 7. 1/2d – should be read as ’54 shillings, seven pence and a half-penny’. There were 20 shillings in £1 and 12 pence in one shilling.

(2) For measurement of length, there are 3.218 feet in one metre so, one foot is about a third of a metre.

(3) Spiral stairs sometimes referred to in architectural descriptions as a ‘vice’, wind around a newel (or central pole). They typically have a handrail on the outer side only. On the inner side is just the central pole.

(4) The arches of the bridge rested on irregular-shaped islands – called Starlings – each built on the river-bed. Welch calls the roadway over the bridge ‘Bridge Street’.

Text by Charles Welch Describing the Chapel on London Bridge

Next in interest to the bridge itself is the famous Chapel dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury, and familiarly called St Thomas of the Bridge. This was erected on the eleventh pier, which measured 35 feet in breadth and 115 feet from point to point. The building was 60 feet in length by 20 feet broad and stood over the parapet on the eastern side of the bridge. The western front facing the Bridge Street was 40 feet in height, having a plain gable surmounted by a cross; and was divided by four buttresses into three parts. The centre of these divisions contained a rich pointed arched window of one mullion, with a quatrefoil in the top, and the two sides were occupied by the entrances to the Chapel from the Bridge Street, each being ascended by three steps.

The interior consisted of two chapels, one above the other; the upper chapel was lofty, being supported by 14 groups of elegant clustered columns and lighted by eight pointed windows. Below each of the windows was three arched recesses, separated by small pillars. The roof was originally formed of lofty pointed arches. The eastern end of this beautiful building formed a semi-hexagon, having a smaller window in each of its divisions. The lower chapel (or crypt) was constructed in the bridge itself and was entered from the upper chapel and the street, as well as (at low water) from the starling surrounding the pier. It was about 20 feet in height, with a roof supported by clustered columns, from each of which sprang seven ribs, whose intersections were bound by fillets of roses and clusters of regal and ecclesiastical masks. This chapel also contained a rich series of windows similar to, though much smaller than, those above; and the floor was paved with black and white marble. Under the Chapel staircase, in the middle of the building, were buried the remains of Peter of Colechurch, but neither brass plate nor any inscription marked the site of his tomb.

London seems to have rivalled Canterbury in its devotion to St Thomas. This is not surprising because Becket was the son of a prominent London citizen, and his rise in fortune must have been watched with particular interest by his fellow citizens. The horror with which the country generally received the news of his murder was, for the same reason, intensified in the City of London. The ‘martyrdom’ of Becket took place on the 29th December 1170 and he was canonised in 1173 – only three years before the foundation of the bridge. In dedicating the Bridge Chapel to St Thomas, Peter of Colechurch’s decision may have been affected by some shrewd elements of worldly wisdom. The good priest’s task was heavy enough. Copious funds were required and the Archbishop’s was a name to conjure with. Public bodies in London vied with each other in doing honour to the Saint. The City in its corporate capacity placed itself under the patronage of St Thomas, whose effigy, with that of St Paul, appeared on both the Mayoralty and the Corporate seal. The latter seal contained the legend ‘Me que te peperi ne cesses Thoma tueri’ (Cease not, O Thomas, to protect me who gave thee birth). The Hospital of St Thomas of Acon in Cheapside was also founded by Becket’s sister in his honour, close to the site of his birthplace, about twenty years after his death. In 1466 the authority of Rome was invoked to replenish the bridge coffers, and ‘Master Godard, of the Order of the Friars Minor,’ was rewarded for two Papal bulls which seem to have been procured through his instrumentality. The first granted ‘an indulgence for forty days to those who should yearly visit the chapel on the feast of St Thomas the Martyr, and on the day of the translation of the same from the first vespers to the second vespers, and give to the repairs of the chapel.’ The second extended the indulgence to one hundred days to those who should in addition pay visits on Good Friday and the Assumption of the Blessed Mary the Virgin.

The Chapel, as already stated, was built by Peter of Colechurch and formed part of his design for the erection of the bridge, as is shown by the extension eastwards of the Chapel pier. It was the first and also the most beautiful of the buildings on the bridge. No particulars of its construction are preserved, but it would appear that only one of the two apartments (probably the lower) was at first used for religious purposes, as the accounts for the years 1384 to 1397 contain many items of the cost of building the ‘new chapel’. In 1384–5, 300 feet of Portland stone was supplied at 6d. a foot for a stall. In 1388-9 ‘twenty great pieces of hard stone from Kent called noweles ‘for the steps of the new chapel cost 15d. each, and in the latter year ’140 feet of hard stone called skeutable’ was bought at 6d. per foot. With the increase in the number of endowed chantries, further additions became necessary. In 1392 the wardens paid £4 14s. 4d. for twenty-one cartloads of stone from Reigate for the new chapel, including carriage to the ‘Breghous’. What may perhaps have been a third chapel, situated probably in a corner of the two larger chapels, is mentioned in 1387-8, when a small (sanctus?) bell was bought for the little Chapel. In September 1396, the large sum of £14 3s. 6d. was spent on forty-three cartloads of Reigate stone for the ‘upper vault’, the battlements, and ‘le vys’ (i.e. the vice or spiral staircase) of the new Chapel. The great number of windows in both chapels made the provision of glass a heavy expense. The accounts for 1397 show that 69 feet of white glass was provided for two windows, costing 54s. 7. 1/2d; besides 37 1/2 feet of white, and 150 feet of stained glass containing images and shields, costing together £6 17s. 6d. A payment for mending broken windows was made in 1418 to Hugh Wyse ‘Ducheman glasyere’. Other payments for decorative repairs occur. In 1420 ‘J Londones, peyntour’, received 13s. 4d. for painting a pane in the chapel vault. In 1427 certain shields hanging on the ‘perclos’ (or screen) in the chapel were repaired. These probably contained the arms of benefactors. A payment of 10s. occurs in 1426 for painting the image of the Virgin. In 1489 a substantial gift was received from Anneys Breteyn, widow, of £40, as an instalment of £60 ‘towards the new making of the two stone walls with two images in tabernacles thereupon standing in the void room on the north side of the said chapel’. The west side of the Chapel was in need of extensive repair in 1533, when new ‘brestes of stone work’ were made.

It may be a rather long description but, with the two engravings, it should give the reader a much better idea of how the medieval chapel would have looked.

Note: To see all the articles on London Bridge, click on ‘1-London Bridge’ under the Categories (on the right-hand side of this Webpage).


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