London Bridge is Burning Down…

Once upon a time, London looked like a city built by the two dumbest of the three little pigs: it was essentially a place of sticks and straw. To be fair, this isn’t because the citizens were stupid, it’s because it was the middle ages and stone was expensive. But it did mean that the city was a tinderbox and, unsurprisingly, fires tended to break out and cause quite a lot of devastation. One of the worst fires medieval London saw started just south of London Bridge on 10 July 1212.

It’s not known exactly where the fire started, but it moved fast and destroyed Southwark Cathedral before strong winds pushed it towards London Bridge. The bridge had recently been rebuilt in stone, but King John had authorized the construction of houses on the bridge in order to raise money to pay for its upkeep. Guess what they were made of? Hint: not stone.

A large crowd of people attempted to cross the bridge to help extinguish the flames, but those winds soon ignited the buildings on the bridge’s north side, trapping hundreds or perhaps thousands of people, many of whom died. Later estimates claim the number of people killed on the bridge was 3,000, and this figure appears in the Guinness Book of Records, but it’s almost certainly an exaggeration. That would have been nearly 10% of the entire city’s population at the time, which makes it a pretty unlikely number. Still, the number of casualties was high, and the bridge was made a ruin that was only partially usable for years afterwards.

London would rebuild, and reburn in 1220, 1227, 1299, and so on. It wasn’t until the Great Fire of London in the 1660s that genuine improvements were made in an attempt to avoid such damaging conflagrations in the future.

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