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1205 - The bridges of Saintes, La Rochelle and London built by Isembert de Saintes

Friday 6 June 2008, by Margaret, 2523 visites.

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King John (1167-1216) has a bad reputation, but one of his more positive characteristics was a keen interest in architecture and town planning. It is thanks to this we learn how the civil engineering work of the cleric, Isembert de Saintes, so impressed the king that he wanted him to take over the final stages of the rebuilding of London Bridge. This work had begun in 1176 under the supervision of Peter de Colechurch who died in 1205.

Count Jules de Clairvaux, "Isembert, Maître ès écoles de Saintes, constructeur des ponts de Saintes, de Saint-Sauveur de La Rochelle, et du grand pont de Londres" Recueil des actes de la Commission des arts et monuments de la Charente-Inférieure. 1860. 1880-1881 (2e sér., t. I).

Louis Audiat, "L’instruction primaire, gratuite, laïque et obligatoire en Saintonge-Aunis avant 1789" Société des archives historiques de la Saintonge et de l’Aunis. Archives historiques de la Saintonge 1896 (XXV) Tome 25 – 1896).

The London Bridge Museum & Educational Trust:

The bridge of Saintes in 1560

J. Dei gratia, et dilectis et fidelibus suis majori et civibus Londini, salutem. Attendentes qualiter circa pontem Xantonensem et pontem de Rupella a modico tempore sit operatum per sollicitudinem fidelis clerici nostri Isemberti ….

The London Bridge historian David Clark (The London Bridge Museum & Educational Trust), writes that King John saw "Isembert de Xaintes as a worthy successor to Peter de Colechurch …. A letter exists from the King to the officials of the City advising them quite strongly to make use of ’our faithful, learned and worthy Clerk, Isembert, Master of the Schools of Xainctes’…. King John, an able and efficient administrator for all of his faults, wanted the best man available for such an important project."

Unfortunately very little evidence about Isembert or the bridges he built at Saintes and La Rochelle has survived. However, the well-documented history of London Bridge can be used to add some flesh to bare details.

We know that in London at least, the new stone bridge replaced a long series of wooden structures that were constantly being swept away or even, as happened in 1014, pulled down by Vikings – an event celebrated by them in the song "London Bridge is Falling Down". There is no evidence indicating whether Isembert was replacing bridges or building new ones, except that in Saintes there was a (probably) Roman arch at one end of the bridge and that he incorporated it into the foundations of the new construction.

In La Rochelle, local conditions made digging the foundations for the Saint-Sauveur bridge very difficult. The area was marshy and as the builders had to dig thirty feet deep before putting in the foundations, the work called for a larger labour force. So in 1199 John’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, ordered that local saltworkers should help dig the excavations in addition to the work they were already doing on the town fortifications, for a pay of 2 poitevins a day.

Finance for building the La Rochelle and London bridges came at least partly from private subscription, with King John contributing 2,000 pounds to the Saint-Sauveur funds. In Saintes and London, maintenance and other running costs were then funded from rent paid by the occupants of the houses and public buildings built on the bridges. We don’t know if the income from the bridge was ever expropriated in Saintes, but in London, John’s son and successor, Henry III, appropriated the money from tolls for the use of his queen, Eleanor de Provence. She used all the money for her personal use, leaving none for bridge maintenance and the subsequent collapse of five of the twenty arches led to the sardonic addition of "My Fair Lady" to the old song – this version we still sing today.

During the 16th century the Saintes bridge guardhouse was converted into a mill (although on a town map drawn up in 1560 it is still shown as a guardhouse) before being demolished some time after 1687 to make way for two more arches. A similar conversion was carried out in London and water wheels were built under the arches of both bridges to drive the mills. On the other hand we don’t know if in Saintes they stuck the heads of rebels and traitors on flagpoles atop the building, a tradition in London dating from the early 14th century.

We know that Saintes was the site of a skirmish between Louis and Henry III during the battle of Taillebourg in 1242, but Henry does not mention the bridge. However according to Royal Letters Patent of Charles IX the bridge tower at Saintes was partly destroyed by canon fire in August 1570 during a siege defended by Jean de Beaufort against the protestant forces of René de Pontivy.

This tower was a fortress built on two high arches and was known as the "Tour de Montrible" or "Bourreau", and there was a wooden footbridge connecting it to another tower on the ramparts at the entrance to the bridge. By 1684 the dungeon had become a prison that was, according to an account written by Elie Benoît, a "stinking and filthy hole where you would only put real villains." Benoît was describing the sad situation of a pastor from Saujon called Jacques Fontaine who had been transferred from the town prison to the tower and left there for four months. The pastor’s "cellmate was an unfortunate who, having killed his neighbour, had tried to hide the crime by cutting the body into pieces". Following such appeals for mercy, the pastor was eventually transferred to a cell with two windows at the top of the tower.

In the 18th century the bridge at Saintes was described as having nine arches and there was still a prison there, as well as a mill, a butchery "run by Coindrau, the grandfather of the late priest of Bussac", and a hatshop belonging to Barraud, "father of the venerable priest of Saint-Vivien de Pons".

In 19th century Saintes and London, the stone-built arched bridges were condemned by those who wanted to see something more modern in their place. (The Saint-Sauveur bridge had already been demolished in 1735.) In both cases, the flow of water was the problem. In London they had earlier tried to improve things by demolishing all the houses and widening the central span, but the flow then became so fierce it began to erode the remaining bridge pillars.

In Saintes the bridge was also condemned because the arches were stopping the flow of water, and in 1846 Isembert’s 600-year old bridge was demolished. It proved to be so solid it had to be blown up - unlike the modern suspension bridge that replaced it. People crossing the new bridge could fall into a "fatal trance" and it kept on falling down. It needed repairs every year and had to be replaced three times in 33 years. Once it just collapsed into the Charente, whereupon, in 1879, the suspension bridge was finally abandoned and replaced, in its turn, by another stone bridge.

Apart from its difficult foundations, nothing else is known about the Saint-Sauveur bridge except for one significant point. By 1207 the Hospitaliers and the Templars had become joint owners of the bridge as the result of a donation made to them by Isembert on condition that they pay certain debts. Documents covering a dispute between them over the management and maintenance of the bridge refer to Isembert as "Isemberti bonae memoriae", so he had apparently died before then, possibly as early as 1202 when John had written to the authorities in London.

The exact date of Isembert’s death is not known, nor the place where he died. He may have gone to London and died there. He may have died before setting off for London, or on the way. In any event, David Clark writes that there is no evidence that he became Peter de Colechurch’s successor in London, "… no record exists stating that Isembert did come to London at John’s behest, nor is there any record showing that he had any involvement in the completion of the bridge".

Even if we know nothing about Isembert’s death or burial place, we may hope that his remains lie peacefully buried, perhaps in a church crypt close to a bridge, as those of Peter de Colechurch once did. But when Peter’s bones were found during the 19th century demolition work, they were thrown away into the river Thames without ceremony.

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