‘To ensure longevity, the heads were parboiled and coated in pitch.’
At the southern end of London Bridge, there’s a curious looking grey spike sculpture projecting up into the sky. While most people walk past it, the feature has a great deal of historical meaning as it memorialises a dark period of over 300 years when traitors’ heads were put on spikes for all of London to see.
The severed heads served as a warning to anyone thinking of challenging the Crown. And at the same time, the heads became a tourist attraction, drawing visitors from far and wide. To ensure longevity, the heads were parboiled and coated in pitch.
In 1598 a German visitor to London called Paul Hentzner counted over 30 heads on iron spikes at the south end of the bridge. Once put on the spike of London Bridge, they were left to the elements to rot and eventually fell into the Thames.
The rebellious Scot, William Wallace’s head, is thought to be the first to be pinned there in 1305. The Scot was found guilty of leading a campaign against Edward I. After the beheading, his body was torn to pieces. His head was set on London Bridge. His arms and legs were sent to the four corners of Britain as a warning.
In 1450 Jack Cade led a rebel army, but failed to overthrow the government. So, they put his head up on London Bridge for all to see. His attempt was crushed, because he lost the support of the people, after having raped many of the locals in the City.
Later came Thomas Moore, who refused to accept Henry VIII as the supreme head of the Church of England. Then Guy Fawkes’ head made the stake after the Gun-Powder plot of 1605. And when the King was restored after Cromwell’s reign, some of those who had signed the death warrant of Charles I also suffered this chilling fate.
The Keeper of the Heads had full managerial control over this section of the Bridge. He impaled newly removed heads on pikes and tossed the old ones into the river. When the original bridge was pulled down, workers found skulls in the mud. They ended the practice in 1678 when the heads of the most important traitors were displayed at Temple Bar instead.
As an author I share a special love for London, both new and old. Basing my literature on London and its unique gritty character.
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