In the summer of 1263, a populist reformer named Simon de Montfort led an armed uprising against King Henry III and Queen Eleanor of Provence. As his troops approached London, de Montfort’s supporters went on a rampage in the capital. They targeted ministers, officials, foreigners. As the most visible foreigner in the realm, the queen was singled out as the cause of all the trouble. The violence grew so threatening that Henry and Eleanor decided she would be safer upriver at Windsor.
The craft she boarded at Tower wharf headed in the direction of London Bridge. Back when she first came to London, in 1236, Eleanor was welcomed with a glittering parade. Now, as her boat approached London Bridge, a crowd on it pelted her and the oarsmen with stones and rubbish, calling her a whore and other bits of invective. The mayor of London supported the insurrection, but understood that if the queen went down to the bottom of the Thames, his head would soon follow. He intervened with his militia and conveyed her to the safety of St Paul’s.
The attack on the queen shocked Europe. Her husband, always forgiving of his political opponents, would make them pay when the time came, but it was their son Edward who struck first. During the war raging outside the capital, he found himself facing troops recruited in London, many of them unarmed street dwellers. He and his knights mowed them down with extreme malice, but in doing so, he left the battlefield. His desire for vengeance gave de Montfort the opening he needed to win the war.
For the next year the royal family were captives of his regime. Eleanor was in France at the time and did not return until de Montfort had been defeated and killed and his supporters disinherited. In the most symbolic act of his harsh measures, the king gave control over London Bridge to his wife. The queen was now master of one of the most vital links in the realm. For the next five years, she collected rents and tolls from the bridge but put none of that money into repairs, despite pleas from city officials.
Eleanor of Provence became the proverbial My Fair Lady of ‘London Bridge is falling down’. She had proved a capable and generous ruler in the past – indeed, she was the first woman ever to convene parliament – but the attack on the capital and her personally had left her shaken and vindictive, and she was quite willing to risk irreparable harm just to have her revenge. Timeless human folly, it seems.