A river runs through it. Well, technically LOADS of rivers run through it. But, of all of England’s rivers, the Thames is the most widely known. Turns out you can learn a lot about England’s history without ever leaving the river. So, let’s go for a swim!
The Thames has been around longer than people have been around it, obvs. But, it’s name goes back aways. When the Romans arrived and started documenting life on the isle (because no one documented minutiae quite like the Romans….and those of us who live on social media…anyway where was I?). Ah, yes. Before the Romans the river was called “Tems” which is basically how it is pronounced today, so you are basically speaking Briton when you say it. Back then there was just a wee village next to a wide river across from a swamp.
The Romans showed up and, like they do, changed the name to Tamesis.
Oh, and changed the town’s name to Londinium.
They kindly built the first bridge over the river in Londinium (round about where London Bridge stands today), probably to much Briton head scratching because why would we want to be connected to the swamp?
Eventually the Romans scarper and the Anglo-Saxons settle in and call the river “Tamyse”. Sure. Why not?
Speaking of the Anglo-Saxons, the oldest weapon ever to be mudlarked off the foreshore is this 9th-century spearhead. Dropping crap in and around the river is a time-honoured tradition.
Then the Normans show up and, like any corporate takeover, just start rearranging and rebranding. William the Conqueror tried to cross the Thames at Southwark. The town blockaded the bridge that wasn’t London Bridge but was near where London Bridge is now so he burnt the town in spite and crossed upriver instead.
The first official London Bridge was built in 1176 by Henry II. Well, not BY Henry II, but you know what I mean. See, King Harry had epically goofed up, making an irritated, off-handed comment about how his best-bud slash irritating thorn in his side, Thomas a Becket, should be taken out and shot, well not shot, but you know what I mean, for getting in the crown’s way with all his God and the Power-of-the-Church rhetoric. And, well, Thomas a Becket was dispatched by some loyal soldiers and Henry realised this had probably cheesed off God and damned his soul, in other words he ROYALLY effed up. So, Henry did what anyone would do…he started building apology-chapels across England, and apparently an apology-bridge. (I only get flowers, what’s with that?!)
As we all learned from the song, London Bridge didn’t fare well. It needed to be rebuilt a handful of times. Here it is in the 17th century.
Here’s the 19th century version….in Lake Havasu, Arizona. Yeah, you read that right. Long story.
Henry’s youngest son, King John I, apparently liked the Thames as a Spot to Sign Things. In 1217 he signed a peace treaty with France called the Treaty of Kingston on an island known as Ravens Ait. Two years before that he MIGHT have sealed the Magna Carta while on Magna Carta Island. The document say “Runnymede” but the ait now known as Magna Carta Island sits at the weir there, so…
In 1252 Henry III, John’s son, was gifted a polar bear by the King of Norway because royal people are weird and he let it swim in the Thames because royal people are weird.
Then blah blah plague. Blah blah poll tax. Blah blah Peasants Revolt. Blah blah War of the Roses. Blah blah Henry VIII. (All that stuff that gets covered everywhere all the time)
So, basically a bunch of stuff happened and cranky Europeans set sail for new lands and brought crap back. Around 1586 tobacco arrived in England and people quickly got themselves an addiction. One of the items most fished out of the Thames is late 16th-century pipes.
Periodically the Thames would freeze over. A combination of The Little Ice Age and large bridges slowing the river’s flow meant during hard freezes people could take to the river for some frosty frivolity. The height of these Frost Faires was during the 17th century, occurring on average around 1 in 10 years. (The earliest Frost Faire recorded was in the 7th century and it is said that in the early 12th century that Empress Matilda made her escape from Oxford to London along the frozen Thames) During these faires, Englishfolk took to the river to play games, shop, get haircuts, watch plays, race horses, and all manner of nutty fun, like bowling on the ice.
Various bowling games have long been popular in England. Around 1635 a bowling alley was installed on Eel Pie Island. I bring this up solely because I wanted to mention Eel Pie Island. There is in fact an island in the Thames named after Eel Pie. Eel Pie is a thing Londoners named an island after.
Along with whimsical history notes, the Thames also gets pretty dark. One such note is that of Execution Dock in London. Without TV or Xbox, people got easily bored and liked to wander off to watch executions. Right at the tailend of our timeline one such famous execution to take place there was that of the possible pirate, William Kidd. He was hung twice then his body displayed over the Thames at Tilbury Point for THREE YEARS! (OG definition of overkill)
Anyway…Thames the breaks!
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