Building a bridge is a major undertaking, especially the cost. Who pays – the taxpayer, a local business consortium, the road users through tolls? This problem isn’t new. In Medieval times stones bridges were rare. Crossing rivers involved fords or wooden structures, which easily washed away. A generous patron was needed to build a sturdy stone bridge. These persons were often political figures, such as the nobility, wealthy merchants, or the Church.
Maintaining a bridge was down to the town’s citizens, those who relied on its economic importance, so goods crossing a bridge would have been taxed. In effect, bridges were mini customs checkpoints. The larger, the more significant the market town was, the greater the charges.
Elvet Bridge in the County of Durham was built by a bishop. Hugh le Puiset was a prolific builder, and the bridge was constructed sometime between 1170 and 1195. But the costs were still causing issues decades later so those who laboured on it were granted indulgences (a way of paying for your sins).
Elvet bridge has many features. It supposedly had fourteen arches, although its not possible to confirm this as floods caused damage and washed some away. Ten is more likely. As the river silted up, some of the arches have ended up incorporated into housing. In the Middle Ages, the bridge was guarded by gates and towers, and two chapels were built on it, at either end. By 1632, one chapel was replaced by a prison, which was demolished in the 18h Century. The chapel at the other end partly survived, merging with the houses on the dry riverbank.
Elvet wasn’t the only bridge with chapels on it. Exe Bridge in Exeter, another Medieval construction, was also home to two. The east chapel was dedicated to St Edmunds, the west, which was removed in 1778, to St Thomas. A record of St Edmund’s church existed in 1214. At 230 metres long, with possibly seventeen to eighteen arches, the bridge crossed the River Exe and the surrounding marshlands. To protect the foundations, timber, iron and lead were packed around the base stones. The bridge struggled with flood damage and was in need of constant repairs, but held out for 600 years until replaced. When demolished the piles were removed and they were found to be solid black and sturdy after over five centuries underwater.
The big bridge is the oldest of its kind in England (1190). Eight arches were uncovered after being buried for 200 years on what is now public park land, and St Edmund’s chapel survives as a ruined tower.
Why were chapels built on bridges? To give thanks for safe passage, and collect money in the form of alms to maintain it. Bridge building is after all a costly undertaking.