K.V. Turley is the Register’s U.K. correspondent. He writes from London.
Last weekend, news came through of another terror attack on London Bridge.
Depressingly, in 2017 there was an even deadlier attack on the same bridge when eight people were killed and 48 injured by knife-wielding terrorists who were subsequently killed by security forces. Later, ISIS, no doubt labeling these men as “martyrs,” claimed the murderers as their own.
London Bridge has an ancient history though and has seen other martyrs, real ones, whose lives offer a different perspective at this time.
If you stand on London Bridge and look east you can see the Tower of London. It was on a small hill behind the Tower that, in 1535, Thomas More was beheaded.
Thereafter, his head was taken to London Bridge and placed upon a spike for all who came and went across that bridge to gaze upon. His was not the first or last head claimed by the newly emerging religious and social order. The bishop-martyr John Fisher had had his head cut off and impaled on the same bridge some weeks earlier, thereafter, it was removed and thrown into the River Thames below to make way for that of his friend, Sir Thomas More, the former Lord Chancellor of England.
It was strangely fitting that that part of the story of the demise of the old religious order should be played out upon this bridge. For this crossing over the river, in all its different incarnations, has played a curious part in the Christian and, particularly Catholic, history of the city around it.
Originally, the Romans raised a bridge there. And, at the end of the sixth century, it was across this bridge that St. Augustine of Canterbury entered the city of London, sent by Pope St. Gregory the Great. The mission of St. Augustine to the English was to bear fruit and, thereafter, a new Christian order was slowly born.
Eventually, a stone bridge replaced the medieval timber one. This structure was financed by King Henry II as an act of penance for his part in the slaying of St. Thomas à Becket in 1170. Thereafter, the bridge became a place of pilgrimage to the memory of that late archbishop of Canterbury, the most famous medieval martyr in Christendom. In turn, the bridge formed part of the pilgrimage route from London to Canterbury and far beyond — to Compostela, Rome and Jerusalem, and by so doing became a visible link between England and Christendom and its holy sites.
The old stone bridge of Henry II was demolished, and in 1831 another structure was unveiled. It had taken seven years to build this new bridge. During those intervening years Catholic Emancipation occurred in England. The Penal Laws that had forced Catholics throughout the British Isles to live as second-class citizens were finally removed from the statute books in 1829.
Two decades later, on Nov. 11, 1850, His Eminence Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman, primate for the restored Church in England, and the first Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, traveled over the bridge. He had just come from Rome, arriving at the nearby London Bridge train station, bringing with him papal approval for the restoration of the English hierarchy after over 300 years of its suppression. Two years later, in 1852, a Fr. John Henry Newman preached of a “Second Spring” and spoke of a second temple rising on the ruins of the old. It could be said that, mysteriously, it was by a route that passed over London Bridge that that New Jerusalem was once more being built.
The 19th-century bridge was dismantled in 1968. Sold to a property developer in Arizona, the materials were reconstructed later at Lake Havasu City where the bridge remains to this day. And, soon after, yet another London Bridge was built over the Thames.
Today if one stands upon that latest bridge and faces west, the Palace of Westminster may be glimpsed. It was there that the successor of Pope St. Gregory the Great, Pope Benedict XVI, visited in September 2010. He had come to remember St. Thomas More who had been tried, found guilty of treason and condemned to death there. More’s crime: his refusal to recognize the break with Rome as set out in the Oath of Supremacy. Centuries later, Pope Benedict had come to acknowledge the Englishman and all that he represented to successive generations: namely, the necessity of choosing freedom of conscience over a state-imposed ideology, choosing Truth over a lie masquerading as one.
If only the attackers in 2017, and now in 2019, had recognized the deadly deception to which they had fallen prey, one that annihilated life, both the lives of their victims and their own.
Across London it is night now, a city is stunned once more, and families grieve. But below London Bridge the waters continue to flow. They flow past the Tower and its Traitors’ Gate, before moving ever outwards to the seas and the oceans beyond. Doubtless, these waters will continue to flow until time itself stands still. Then, at last, there will descend a new City through which only living waters flow, and one where all tears will be forever wiped away.