London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down,
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.
So goes the old nursery rhyme that most likely records the destruction of the bridge by Olaf the Norwegian Viking.
There is another rhyme says Ottar Svarte that goes:
London Bridge is broken down.
Gold is won, and bright renown
War horns sounding,
Hild is shouting in the din.
Odin makes our Olaf win.
The bridge was originally a wooden structure built by the Romans in 43 AD, but fell into disrepair and collapsed after they left the city in 410 AD. Over the years it was rebuilt many times using timber, which always resulted in its destruction. In 1176 however after a major fire, Peter Colechurch, a priest began the rebuilding of it in stone.
After the Romans the earliest record is in 948 AD. A woman and her son were found guilty of witchcraft and it was ordered that they be taken to London Bridge to be drowned. Sentence was carried out on the woman, the son however managed to escape.
In 994AD King Ethelred The Unready successfully defended the bridge against a Danish fleet.
In 1013 the Danes came again. This time a great fleet led by Swend arrived and after receiving the submission of northern England, marched on London. Ethelred successfully defended the city, but had to leave the country when Swend was formally chosen as king.
While Ethelred was staying as a guest of Duke Richard at Rouen, Swend died (some say he was poisoned possibly by Edmund who later became a saint) and the Danes choose his son Cnut as king. The witan and the clergy however requested that Ethelred return and become their king once more. Ethelred approached Olaf the Norseman (the Future St. Olaf, king of Norway who was in Normandy at the time with his fleet,) for assistance.
1014 AD Ethelred returned and took the city. The Danes however had built a great fortress at Southwark on the other side of the Thames. They had also taken control of and heavily fortified the London Bridge. This meant that before Ethelred and Olaf could launch a successful attack on the fortress, they needed first to overcome the Danes on the bridge.
A mixed fleet of Saxon and Viking ships attacked the bridge in force, but the shower of stones, arrows, and spears that rained down on them from above was so bad that a great many men were injured, some of the ships were sunk and they had to retreat.
Not to be beaten Olaf ordered his men to tear down some nearby houses and build roofs over the ships. This time they rowed upriver at the top of the tide and after managing to get the ships under the bridge, tied cables from the ships to the bridge supports and with the tide in their favour began to row. At first nothing happened, but then the support pillars began to move. They didn’t have to move far out of line before the combined weight of men and armaments on the bridge added to the momentum and the wooden structure disintegrated throwing the defenders in the river.
With the upriver passage clear, the area of Southwark was stormed and the Danes in the fortress surrendered. Ethelred was declared Saxon king once more. Swend was driven out and returned to Danish held territory. Ethered’s army ravaged the district and slaughtered the people as punishment for assisting the enemy. Olaf and his fleet were given a large reward for their help. The Saxons and the Danes rule England jointly until 1042.