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River Thames History

River View at Thames River Sightseeing
A stunning cityscape view captured during a Thames River Sightseeing excursion

Roman beginnings

The Romans invaded Britain in AD43 and landed in Kent. Pursuing the ancient Britons along the banks of the Thames, they came to the first fordable point of the river. On a site nearby, they built a garrison, and Londinium was born. Later, they erected the first bridge over the Thames. Built entirely in wood, it stood a little downstream of where the current London Bridge is. After the Roman withdrawal from Britain, London and its bridge suffered from neglect and was also damaged by Viking raiders, who came to plunder the wealth London had gained as a major trading post. It was not until 886, when Alfred the Great finally drove the invaders out, that London fully recovered and moved into a golden age as trade under the Anglo-Saxons increased. The bridge was repaired, and the City and its citizens prospered.


In 980, the Vikings were back, occupying London until 1014 when Ethelred, accompanied by the Norseman Olaf, recaptured the City. He had sailed up the Thames and attached ropes to the supports of a heavily defended London Bridge, then headed downstream, tearing part of the bridge down.

In the 8th century, Benedictine monks had settled on the north bank of the river to the west of London. At high tide, their settlement on Thorney Island was surrounded by the then much wider Thames. Subsequently, the area was to be used as a Royal residence – King Canute held court there, and later, Edward the Confessor made it his home. He established the historical division between the centre for trade – the City of London – and that of government – the City of Westminster.

Ferry Boat at Thames River Sightseeing

Leading up to 1066

Edward had long dreamed of restoring the ancient monastery and started to do so as soon as he became king. He lived just long enough to see the abbey church consecrated on 28th December 1065, twenty years after work had begun. On 5th January, he died and was buried in his new church the following day.

Harold, nominated by Edward as his successor, was crowned King in the new abbey, starting the tradition that continues today.

1066 had started with a new king and was to end with another, William the Conqueror, who was crowned at Westminster on Christmas Day. To consolidate his power over the Anglo-Saxons, William began to build a series of castles at strategic sites, the best known being the keep of the Tower of London, now known as the White Tower.

Begun in 1078, the keep commanded the approaches to London by both river and road and was strengthened and enlarged by succeeding monarchs. The infamous Bloody Tower was to be the setting for the murders of the boy King Edward and his younger brother, possibly on the orders of Richard III in 1483. Their bodies were found in the 17th century and interred in Westminster Abbey.

Later, Norman kings valued the Tower as a means of dominating London but preferred the Palace at Westminster as their residence. The lower walls of the Great Hall still survive, which, together with the splendid hammer-beam vaulted timber roof added by Richard II in the 14th century, remains the oldest part of the Houses of Parliament.

History of London Bridges

The most famous of London Bridges was completed in 1209. On the bridge was a row of shops and a chapel, and by the middle of the 14th century, it also had 198 houses over its 350 yards (320m) length. At its south entrance, Bridge Gate, the heads of traitors were displayed on poles. The 19 piers of stone that supported the bridge restricted the river’s flow so much that it would freeze over in winter, and Frost Fairs would be held on the ice. Norman kings seldom remained at Westminster, or anywhere else, for very long, and the government was wherever the king was. Still, the increase in record keeping and administration made a permanent seat of government necessary. In 1240, the very first Parliament sat in Westminster as Henry III made the Palace more of a settled home.

River view at Thames River Sightseeing

The Tudors

Throughout the 16th century, the reign of the Tudors, the country prospered, and London’s importance as a port and centre for world trade increased. However, a fire in 1512 destroyed much of the original Palace of Westminster, and for the first twenty years of his reign, Henry VIII ruled England from Greenwich.

The final break with the royal tradition of maintaining a palace at Westminster came one cold day in January 1649. Following his trial in the original Great Hall of Westminster Palace, Charles I was executed outside the Banqueting Hall of Whitehall.

The Great Fire of London

Never again would the Palace of Westminster be a monarch’s residence. By the early 17th century, the City of London had spread far from its original Roman walled centre to meet the City of Westminster at Temple Bar. The City of London, however, was virtually destroyed in 1666 when a fire started in the king’s baker’s shop in Pudding Lane and spread through the timber buildings of the old city. The catalogue of destruction was appalling: in four days, 13,200 houses were destroyed, and over 100,000 people were made homeless.

Londoners had long used ferrymen to row them across the river, and it was these men who rowed many to safety as their homes went up in smoke. Parliament had passed an Act in 1555 appointing rulers of all ferrymen, the ‘Watermen’s Company’, which still grants licenses to skippers to this day. Out of the ashes, a new City of London emerged. Its centrepiece, Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral, was completed in 1710.

Trading via the River Thames

London’s trade with the continent and the rest of the world steadily increased; along the banks of the Thames, shipbuilding flourished. New wharves were built to handle their cargoes, and London prospered. A survey of 1598 related that over forty thousand men earned a living on or about the river.

By the mid-17th century, the river was so crowded with shipping waiting to unload – in many cases up to several weeks – that it was said to be almost possible to walk from shore to shore across the craft. The first dock was constructed below Tower Bridge in 1661 to ease this burden. They grew in number and size over the next 200 years to meet the ever-expanding merchant fleet, culminating with the Albert Dock in 1880.

With the increase in commercial growth, London took on two faces, with the wealthier citizens moving west into the many famous squares being built at this time. The merchants and the working classes remained in the City or migrated eastwards as the labour needed to service the expanding trade and industries increased. By 1710, London had become the centre of world finance and commerce.

With this newfound wealth, bridges were built to ease access over the Thames. Westminster Bridge was opened in 1750, then Waterloo, Southwark and Blackfriars. Finally, the most famous of them all, Tower Bridge, was opened in 1894.

The coming of the railways brought even more changes to London, bringing in workers and day-trippers from the suburbs and beyond. With the increase in leisure time, trips on the Thames started to meet the demand for new ways to enjoy the river – a pleasure that still exists today.