The Keeper of the Heads on Old London Bridge

Old London Bridge was perhaps the most impressive bridge of its time. Endlessly alluring to the modern reader this is perhaps the one place in medieval Europe that we all wish we could visit, even just once. Navigating the narrow passage between the dark, recessed shops, at some points as narrow as 12 feet wide, we’d weave between pedestrians, visitors and pilgrims while watching the shop-keepers and wardens going about their business. Picking our way around laden horses and spying on the gentry in their carriages, it could take as long as an hour to walk from the city to Southwark.

After peeping into the Thomas A Becket chapel halfway across the bridge, we’d pause to watch the young gallants ‘shoot the bridge’ dropping the 6 or more feet between the water on the east and west side (the structure of the bridge caused a dam effect creating the disparity in water levels and changing the water flow which allowed for ice to form in the winter supporting the famous Thames frost fairs). We’d savour the smell of fresh hot pies mingling with the stink of open latrines. And, of course, we’d look up to see the severed heads on their pikes, hair rippling in the breeze atop the tar-soaked, ravaged flesh. We’d watch the gulls peck at the festering eyeballs of the famous, and infamous, traitors and criminals that we now only know through our history books.

The bridge — built over what was then one of the widest rivers in Europe — was constructed of 19 separate arches that stood on ‘starlings’, boat-like structures embedded in the Thames. Large numbers of people were employed by the Bridge at any one time. There were gateway-keepers, customs collectors, wardens and — of course — the Keeper of the Heads. Many of these employees would have been granted leases to live in the gateways. It isn’t clear if they would have paid rent out of the wages given for performing their duties, or if the housing was provided as a perk.

In order to generate income to pay the wages of those employed on the bridge, and to provide a maintenance fund, there was a double row of tall (up to 6 storey) buildings built on the bridge. These generally had a small shop at street level with living quarters above. The buildings often protruded out over the swirling waters and the houses were so close together that only a narrow channel was left between them. Shop-keepers and inhabitants would have paid a rent to the bridge fund — leases were granted for ‘whole lifetimes’, unimaginable in London today!

Until 1750 London Bridge was the only bridge to span the Thames, meaning that foot traffic must have been immense despite the tolls often charged on people crossing (in the thirteenth century it cost 1 farthing for a pedestrian to cross the bridge, and 1 penny for a horseman). Everyone crossing would have passed through the various gates which were built and rebuilt over the years following fires and other insults suffered by the bridge.

The gates that we’re most interested in are the Drawbridge Gate — on the northern end of the bridge and the Great Stone Gate at the southern end of the bridge. 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.

Between 1305 and 1577 the heads were on the northern end of the bridge on the Drawbridge Gate, after 1577 they were relocated to the Great Stone Gate at the Southwark end of the bridge. The Drawbridge Gate was also sometimes known as Traitor’s Gate (for obvious reasons!) although this shouldn’t be confused with the more famous Traitor’s Gate river entrance to the Tower of London.

The practice of beheading — the step that generated the seemingly endless supply of decapitated heads — was a fairly common form of execution in Great Britain during the time when capital punishment was legal. As beheading was generally considered to be less brutal than other methods of execution it was usually reserved for the higher born, for important prisoners, or for crimes that particularly interested the state (e.g. treason). Lower born criminals, or those with less dramatic crimes would normally be hanged or, for a period of time and for specific crimes, burned at the stake. Displaying the heads of traitors gave both inhabitants and visitors to the city of London, a persuasive message about the consequences of plotting against the King (or Queen).

There were usually a good number of heads on display. The most referred to in written records was around thirty four, a fact recorded by a German visitor to London (Paul Hentzner) at the end of the sixteenth century. There would have been a fairly continuous turnover depending on the time period and the reigning monarch, but it’s fairly clear that there must have been periods of high activity for the Keeper of the Heads. The reign of King Henry VIII (1509–1547) saw record numbers of executions for many different reasons — exact numbers will probably never be known although one source estimates an average of 120 executions per month throughout Henry’s reign. This must have been a busy time to have been the Keeper.

A particularly unpleasant part of the job would have been taking delivery of traitors sent from afar. One early 15th century traitor, Henry ‘Hotspur’, the son of Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland (who would follow his son onto a spike on the bridge some two years later), was killed in battle whilst rebelling against Henry IV. Hotspur died after rashly pursuing the retreating enemy in battle in Shrewsbury in 1403. His body was initially buried locally, however when rumors began to circulate that he was still alive the king ‘had the corpse exhumed and displayed it, propped upright between two millstones, in the market place at Shrewsbury’.

Hotspur’s head was removed from his deceased body and sent off to be displayed in York (at the time York was the capital of the north). His body was then split into four pieces, with the quarters dispatched to the ‘four corners of the kingdom’ — London, Newcastle, Bristol and Chester. At first an angry Henry IV (despite initially weeping over Hotspur’s body at the battle site) instructed that each body part should be positioned ‘to remain there as long as it will last’. Eventually however he relented and allowed that the pieces could be collected up and returned to Hotspur’s wife, who had the remains buried in York Minster.

Not only accepting delivery and arranging this ‘quarter’ of a man to look its most impressive on a spike — but to later have to remove the body part from the spike, re-package it and send it onto Harry’s widow must have been a particularly unenviable job.

Other famous heads to have been looked after by the Keeper of the Heads would have included that of Scottish patriot / rebel William Wallace — the first person to have their head displayed on the bridge in 1305. After being paraded — heavily guarded — through the streets of London, Wallace was hanged until almost dead, disemboweled (drawn) and his intestines were burnt. His head was then cut off, impaled on a spike and displayed at the drawbridge gate.

Thomas More — Henry VIII’s first minister was to become another famous head. Not a supporter of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn or his changes to the Church, More fell from favor and was beheaded on July 6th 1535. His head was displayed on the bridge and his daughter, Meg Roper, was given his headless corpse to bury. Desperate to be reunited with her father’s head she, and a group of friends, kept watch on the bridge for three weeks looking out for the time when the Keeper of the Heads would throw it over the edge of the bridge to be carried off by gulls or to sink forever into the mud. Meg was successful — almost certainly through bribing the Keeper. Somewhat surprisingly it is thought that More’s head was buried with Meg and her family and not with the rest of his body.

Generally speaking though it was hugely important to families to try and reunite the severed head with the rest of the executed person’s body. The 1299 papal bull Detestate feritatis (decreed by Pope Boniface VIII), forbade any act that separated the flesh from the bones, or separated body parts from the whole. This included a ban on evisceration, severing, boiling and burning. As people believed that the soul stayed in the body until the flesh had rotted away, and they knew that the Church banned separation of body parts, the Keeper of the Heads would have been — at the very least — exposed to many attempts at bribery and there would have been a strong need for the heads on the bridge to be carefully monitored and watched over. Once the flesh had rotted away the heads would have been tossed into the water.

In a few widely reported cases however the flesh didn’t rot away — probably due to a combination of par-boiling and prevailing weather conditions at the time that the head was first displayed. One famous case was that of Saint John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, who was executed in June 1535 (just before Thomas More). His head was parboiled and set atop a spike on the bridge. The head sat there for two weeks in the Summer heat without visible decay. In fact, contemporary accounts describe it as growing “daily fresher and fresher, so that in his life he never looked so well.” Such crowds came to look at the head — accepting the lack of decay as a divine sign of his innocence — that the Keeper of the Heads was ordered to discreetly throw the head into the Thames in the night to ease the flow of traffic on the bridge.

Guy Fawkes was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1606 with his body parts sent, as before with Hotspur, to ‘the four corners of the kingdom’. If his head escaped being displayed on the bridge then that of fellow conspirator Father Henry Garnet did not. Garnet was hanged in St Paul’s Churchyard, decapitated and his head was placed on a spike over Traitor’s Gate. Crowds came to view the head which retained it’s color for twenty days. ‘Healthy’ looking heads were often taken as proof of innocence, probably following on from the widespread belief that the bodies of Saints did not decay.

1678 saw the last head displayed on the bridge — that of the unfortunate William Stayley. Stayley, a Catholic banker and goldsmith, was an innocent victim caught up in what became known as the ‘Popish plot’. This was a strange conspiracy dreamed up by a fantasist named Titus Oates. Oates’s completely made-up catholic conspiracy would lead to the judicial killing of at least 35 men.

As had happened to so many before, Stayley was initially buried but was later exhumed and displayed on the orders of Charles II. That the body was exhibited on the order of Charles II gives the lie to the oft quoted misapprehension that the practice of displaying heads on the bridge was stopped after the Restoration as a mark of respect for Charles as his own father had been executed by beheading. Heads had always been displayed at multiple locations around the city. It seems that these other locations, including Temple Bar and Westminster Hall (where Oliver Cromwell’s head was displayed following his exhumation, ‘hanging’ and decapitation two years after his death from natural causes), took over the ‘everyday’ display of severed heads.

As the heads — and presumably the Keeper — moved across the river and into the city proper, one of old London Bridge’s most famous sights slipped away into a memory, and into a macabre and grisly story to be told by future historians.