St. Thomas More and London Bridge
If you stand on London Bridge and look east you will see the Tower of London.
It was on a small hill behind the Tower that, in 1535, St. Thomas More was beheaded.
Thereafter, his head was taken to London Bridge and placed upon a spike for all who came and went across that bridge to gaze upon. A month or so after the execution, Margaret, More’s daughter, was rowed up the Thames, from the now desolate family home in Chelsea, to London Bridge to ask for her father’s head. Soon after, clutching this relic of her dead father, the daughter drifted downstream in a barge away from the bridge and its awful memories. It was not the first time a martyr had been so dealt with. St. John Fisher had had his head impaled on the same bridge. It was strangely fitting that the ending of the old order should be played out upon this bridge.
Legend has it that, at the end of the sixth century, it was by the same bridge that St. Augustine of Canterbury entered the city having been sent by Pope St. Gregory the Great. The Pontiff had seen fair-haired English children being sold as slaves on the streets of Rome and famously observed: ‘not Angles but angels’. The mission undertaken by St. Augustine was to bear fruit, not least when the King of Kent, Ethelbert, was baptized. Subsequently, as temporal power acknowledged the spiritual power of Rome, a new order was slowly born.
Today’s bridge is not the original one. In fact, on closer inspection the bridge, or more correctly the many bridges constructed on this site, have a curious history of appearances and disappearances. The Romans had raised some sort of structure there. A medieval timber bridge followed that, in turn, was replaced by a stone one. The latter was financed by King Henry II as an act of penance for his part in the slaying of St. Thomas à Becket. Thereafter, the bridge became a place of pilgrimage to the memory of that late Archbishop of Canterbury, the most famous martyr in medieval Christendom. It also became part of the pilgrimage route from London to Canterbury and beyond — to Compostela, Rome and Jerusalem. This most ancient of London river crossings by then had become a visible link to the wider world of Christendom and its holy sites.
The old stone bridge of Henry II was demolished in 1831 when another structure was unveiled. It had taken seven years to build this new bridge alongside the old. Something else had changed during those intervening years. The cause of Catholic Emancipation had gathered pace culminating with the election of the Irish Catholic, Daniel O’Connell, to the parliamentary seat of Clare in 1828. The then Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, an Irish Protestant, in the face of much opposition pushed through the reforms that removed centuries old Penal Laws that had forced Catholics throughout the British Isles to live as Second Class citizens. By the time the latest incarnation of London Bridge was opened in 1831 the religious landscape of the city had irrevocably changed; Catholic Emancipation had been enacted in parliament two years earlier.
Almost twenty years after that, on November 11, 1850, a certain carriage was spotted traveling over the bridge. It contained Nicholas Wiseman, now, His Eminence Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman, the first Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Primate to a newly restored English hierarchy. He had travelled from Rome by train eventually arriving at London Bridge train station. He had then made his way across the nearby bridge to stay at a friend’s house on the river’s north side. This seemingly simple trip was, in fact, a momentous one, resonant with over 300 years of history, years of persecution but also telling of survival. Two years later, the then Fr. John Henry Newman was to preach of a Second Spring: “A second temple rises on the ruins of the old.” And, mysteriously, that Temple was being built, in part at least, from the ruins of a bridge that had witnessed the seemingly never-ending battle between state-sponsored religion and the Catholic faith.
The nineteenth century bridge was not to last either. By 1968 it had been dismantled and sold to a property developer in Arizona. In Lake Havasu City it was reconstructed and remains there to this day. Yet another London Bridge was then built over the Thames, and opened by the current Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth, on St. Patrick’s Day, 1973.
Today it is that bridge upon which one stands when looking east to the Tower. Turning to the west, it is Westminster that comes into view. It was there that the successor of Pope St. Gregory the Great came in 2010. On September 17 of that year, the then Supreme Pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI, stood in the Palace of Westminster surrounded by present day Parliamentarians. The event he had come to remember was marked upon the floor of that ancient palace. It was the spot where St. Thomas More had been tried and found guilty of treason, and, thereafter, condemned to death. His crime was his refusal to recognize the break with Rome as set out in the Oath of Supremacy. More had refused to renounce his allegiance to the Supreme Pontiff and all that that meant. Centuries later, Pope Benedict had come to acknowledge the Englishman and all that he had come to represent to successive generations and to all those who choose freedom of conscience over a state-imposed ideology.
While the nineteenth century London Bridge was being demolished, some few miles upstream an altogether different structure was being erected upon the banks of the Thames. If you were then to travel west from the new bridge being built, past Westminster, you would have come to Chelsea. It was there with his family that More had lived. In the late 1960s, the local authorities decided to erect a statue to its most famous resident: Sir Thomas More. By 1969, the statue was unveiled. Today a larger than life stone More sits and gazes out upon the river Thames and the relentless flow of its waters.
It is a peculiar piece of art, strangely compelling in size and its stillness. At that spot, Thomas More now sits and watches until the day comes when the waters no longer flow into the city, no longer rush past the nation’s seat of power; no longer drift under its many bridges; no longer swirl around the latest structure called London Bridge; no longer pass by the Tower and its Traitors’ Gate; and even cease to move ever outwards to the seas and the oceans beyond. For, at that moment, the age-old struggle in which the saint lost his life shall have ended. Then, at last, there will descend a new City through which only living waters flow.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is the Old London Bridge ca. 1600 painted by Peter Jackson.