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As Halloween looms, London is likely to be awash with people dressed as zombies and other members of the ‘undead’. Less than 400 years ago, you could have witnessed the genuinely ghoulish sight of the rotting heads of traitors, stuck up on poles on Old London Bridge.
The first recorded head displayed on London Bridge was that of William Wallace, the Scottish patriot executed in 1305 for fighting against the English rule of King Edward I. From then on, heads were shown on the Drawbridge Gate before they were moved to the Great Stone Gate at the southern end of the bridge in 1577. A Keeper of the Heads had the job of looking after the rotting skulls, which were often par-boiled and dipped in tar to preserve them.
Tudor visitors to London recorded the grisly sight in their travel journals. In 1592, one German visitor saw a total of 34 heads on display. The political and religious upheavals of the 16th century led to the execution of many people and a ready supply of heads for London Bridge, including Henry VIII’s ministers Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell.
Bishop John Fisher, who refused to accept Henry VIII as head of the Church, was executed in 1535. His head was displayed on the bridge for 14 days and instead of decomposing “grew daily fresher and fresher, so that in his life time he never looked so well”. So many people visited London Bridge to view this macabre miracle that it caused serious traffic jams. The head was discreetly thrown in the river at night to end these disturbances.
The practice of exhibiting traitors’ heads on London Bridge continued into the 17th century (the heads of Guy Fawkes and the other Gunpowder Plot conspirators are famous examples) but it finally ceased in the 1670s.
Find out more about 16th and 17th century London at the Museum of London’s Medieval London and War, Plague and Fire galleries.
Learn more about the legendary Tower of London in Tudor Times by watching Tower Beefeater Barney Chandler sharing his London Story. Watch this video for a chance to win a dream trip to London for two. Find out more here.