The Tudor Society

10 August – Drownings at London Bridge

On this day in Tudor history, 10th August 1553, the same day that Queen Mary I held requiem mass for the soul of her late half-brother, Edward VI, seven men died at London Bridge. They were drowned.

Find out more about what happened to these men - one of whom was Thomas Brydges, the son of Sir Thomas Brydges, Deputy Lieutenant of the Tower of London - how the Thames was the preferred way of travelling around London, and how and why it could be dangerous around London Bridge, in today's talk.

Also on this day in Tudor history, 10th August 1512, the English fleet's flagship, the Mary Rose, saw battle for the first time in the Battle of Saint-Mathieu, a naval battle in the War of the League of Cambrai. The battle was fought between the English fleet and the Franco-Breton fleet just off the coast of Brest. 1,500 to 1,600 men were lost that day, but how? What happened? And who was victorious? Find out in last year’s video:

Also on this day in Tudor history:

  • 1518 – Death of Sir Robert Sheffield, lawyer and Speaker of the House of Commons. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London after making an enemy of Cardinal Wolsey, being accused of negligence as a Justice of the Peace and of harbouring a killer. It is not clear whether he was still in the Tower at his death, but he was buried in the nearby church of the Austin friars.
  • 1520 – Birth of Madeleine de Valois, consort of James V of Scotland, at St Germain-en-Laye. She was the fourth child of Francis I of France and his wife, Queen Claude.
  • 1532 – Birth of Thomas Jones, known as Twm Siôn Cati, the Welsh-language poet and genealogist. It is unclear whether he was born on Lammas Day (1st August) or St Lawrence's Day (10th August). Few of his poems have survived, and Welsh folklore has turned him into a 'Welsh Robin Hood'.
  • 1553 – Mary I held an obsequy or requiem mass for the soul of her late half-brother, Edward VI. While she allowed him to have a Protestant burial on the 8th August, she ordered three days of Catholic requiem masses for him.
  • 1621 – Death of Grey Brydges, 5th Baron Chandos, courtier and magnate. He died in Spa, Belgium, where he had travelled for his health. He was buried in the family chapel at Sudeley.


On this day in Tudor history, 10th August 1553, the same day that Queen Mary I held requiem mass for the soul of her late half-brother, Edward VI, seven men died at London Bridge. Merchant-taylor Henry Machyn recorded their death in his diary, writing:

“The x day of August was drowned vii men at London Bridge by folly; one was master Thomas of Brydges the lieutenant’s son and heir, and iii gentlemen more, beside others...”

As Machyn states, Thomas Brydges was the son of Sir Thomas Brydges who was Deputy Lieutenant of the Tower of London under his brother, John Brydges, 1st Baron Chandos, who was Lieutenant.

But what happened to these men? How did they drown?

Well, Machyn’s diary is damaged and his account finishes abruptly, but 16th century historian John Stow, who actually dates the accident to the 11th August, gives more details:
“The 11th August certain gentlemen minding to pass under London Bridge in a wherry, were there overturned, and seven of them drowned, one was Master T Brydges’ son.”

In the 16th century, the quickest way to travel in London was by water, using the River Thames. It was much more convenient than going through the smelly and busy city streets, although you’d have to wait for the tide as the Thames was tidal. Londoners could pay watermen to row them in a wherry up or down the Thames, or across it to the other bank. Such a wherry could carry two passengers at a time. If there were a few of you wanting to travel, you could hire a barge or tiltboat. Barges were rowed, and tilt boats were pulled by another boat.

If the tide was against you, it would also cost more to travel because the watermen had to work a lot harder to row against the tide. For example, in Elizabeth I’s reign, a fare from Greenwich to the City with the tide would be 8 pence, but against the tide it was 12 pence. It was also dangerous to row against the tide. The History of London website explains that “The narrow arches and piers of the medieval London Bridge held the river back, acting as a weir. It was dangerous to take a boat under the bridge when the tide was flowing.”

Historian Ian Mortimer also writes of how when the Thames tide went out, the part of the river under London Bridge turned into rapids, and he gives an example of some Catholic fugitives running into problems on the Thames one night in 1599:
“They rowed back towards the bridge but by now the tide had turned and was flowing strongly. It forced their little boat against the piles driven into the bed of the river, to break the force of the water. It stuck, and it was impossible to move it forwards or backwards. Meanwhile the water was rising and striking the boat with such force that with every wave it looked as if it would capsize and the occupants be thrown into the river. They could only pray to God and shout for help.”

Perhaps these seven men were in a hurry and couldn’t wait for the tide and so risked the rapids under London Bridge. We just don’t know, but what a horrible accident!

No wonder people waited for the Thames tide to turn in their favour if they could. It was cheaper, quicker and safe to wait. Two famous examples of the Thames tide causing delay concern Anne Boleyn and her daughter, Elizabeth I. On the morning of 2nd may 1536, at Greenwich Palace, Queen Anne Boleyn was ordered to appear before the king’s council. She was then arrested and escorted to her apartments to wait until the tide had turned allowing a barge to convey her to the Tower of London. This had happened by 2pm, so a barge was prepared for her. She arrived at the Tower at 5pm.

Then on 17th March 1554, two of Queen Mary I's councillors, the Marquis of Winchester and the Earl of Sussex, were sent to Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth’s lodgings at Whitehall to escort her to her prison at the Tower of London by water for her alleged involvement in Wyatt's Rebellion. This was when Elizabeth wrote what David Starkey calls "the letter of her life", the famous Tide Letter, so-called because as Elizabeth wrote this letter to her sister the tide turned, making it impossible to take Elizabeth to the Tower that day. It only delayed her imprisonment though, she was taken by barge the following day.

The Thames was very busy by Elizabeth I’s reign. Ian Mortimer writes that there were over 2,000 wherries operating on the river – wow!

Only 1 comment so far Go To Comment

  1. R

    The Mersey is also a tidal river and it can get pretty ugly at times. Storms have sank ferries just off shore, with loss of life. People don’t realise the river has tides and its dangerous to swim in as well. The Thames was as busy then as ever, even more so. It was a busy highway.

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10 August – Drownings at London Bridge