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The Thames

Liquid History

England's most important waterway, the Thames, flows for 215 miles from its source in the Cotswold hills eastwards to the North Sea. In 1929, John Burns, MP for Battersea, compared the river he loved with other great waterways, and said, "The Saint Lawrence is water, the Mississippi is muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history."

Roman ship and cargo
A Roman ship and cargo, London
© TopFoto.co.uk/Corporation of London/HIP
The Thames was formed around 350,000 years ago, when Britain was still part of the continent, and the river was a tributory of the Rhine. Both rivers flowed into the lowland basin which later became the North Sea. In his 1911 poem, The River's Tale, Rudyard Kipling imagined the Thames describing its own ancient history:

Down I come with the mud in my hands
And plaster it over the Maplin Sands.
But I’d have you know that these waters of mine
Were once a branch of the River Rhine,
When hundreds of miles to the East I went
And England was joined to the Continent.

Sacred river of the Celts

The river's name is Celtic and may mean ''the dark one". It was first recorded by Julius Caesar, who called it the "Tamesis", following his expedition to Britain in 55 BC. The Celts viewed the Thames as sacred, and made offerings of precious metalwork to the god of the waterway. Offerings discovered at low tide include shield bosses, from Wandsworth, a beautiful bronze shield from Battersea, and a horned helmet by Waterloo Bridge.

The Romans arrive

London from the South Bank, 1616
A panoramic view of London from the South Bank looking towards St Paul's, 1616
© TopFoto.co.uk/Corporation of London/HIP
Pointing eastwards to the Continent, the river has been a funnel, inviting invaders and settlers. In his 1902 novel, Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad imagined how the Thames would have appeared to the first Roman invaders to sail upriver, around the time of their conquest, in AD 43:

Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages, - precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay - cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death -death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been dying like flies here.

Yet the Romans saw the economic value of the river, which flowed through some of the most fertile farmland in Britain, and opened out towards Europe and their important trading route down the Rhine. Around AD 50, they founded Londinium (London), on the north bank, as a trading base. The Thames here is tidal, so incoming ships were swept upstream by the rising tide, and down again when the tide turned. The Romans also built the first bridge over the river, on a spur of high gravelly land by Southwark.

London was the gift of the Thames, and the people of the city fished in it, drank its water, and used it for washing and to drive their mills. It provided a highway, when it was easier to travel by boat than by horse and cart. In the Middle Ages, the natural highway of the Thames led to the foundation of other riverside settlements, including Westminster, Greenwich, Windsor, Reading, Abingdon and Oxford, where the river has a special name, the Isis.

River of history

Map of the City of London, Southwark and part of Westminster, 1572
A map of the City of London, Southwark and part of Westminster, 1572
© TopFoto.co.uk/Corporation of London/HIP
Some key events in English history have taken place on or beside the Thames. Between the ninth end eleventh centuries, fleets of Viking longships repeatedly sailed upriver and attacked London. Viking battle-axes, found in the river, are on show today in the Museum of London.

The Thames remained vulnerable to invasion, and so it was well defended. The Normans built castles along it, at Rochester, Windsor, and London, where William the Conqueror built the White Tower. Click here to read about the Tower of London

It was by the Thames at Runnymede, in 1215, that King John placed his seal of agreement on Magna Carta. Find out more about King John and Magna Carta here

In 1533, a colourful pageant was held on the river, when Henry VIII brought his second wife, Anne Boleyn, by royal barge from Greenwich into London. The procession of brightly painted and guilded boats was accompanied by "trumpets, shawms and other divers instruments, all the way playing and making melody". Three years later, the disgraced Queen was again taken by barge from Greenwich. This time, it was to the Tower of London, to await her execution for adultery. 

Henry also built a fort by the Thames at Tilbury where, in 1588, Queen Elizabeth I made a rallying speech to her troops, when England was threatened by Spanish invasion: "I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too!"

The Elizabethan travel writer, William Harrison, wrote a vivid description of the Thames at London, when its waters were crowded with ships and boats of all sizes:

I could entreat of the infinite number of swans daily to be seen upon this river, the two thousand wherries and small boats, whereby three thousand poor watermen are maintained through the carriage and recarriage of such persons as pass or repass from time to time upon the same, beside those huge tide boats, tilt boats and barges.

Many of the people carried across the Thames by the watermen were heading to Bankside, where an entertainment district grew up, including theatres such as William Shakespeare's Globe.

Find out more about Bankside in Shakespeare's day here

Silver waters of sweet Thames

The river was often celebrated by English poets, who personified it as a kindly male figure called Old Father Thames. In "Prothalamion" (1596), Edmund Spenser wrote of the "silver streaming Thames", and used the refrain, "Sweet Thames! run softly till I end my song." In his poem "Windsor-Forest" (1712), Alexander Pope claimed that the fame of Old Father Thames had surpassed that of all the celebrated rivers of the ancient world:

Hail Sacred Peace! Hail long-expected Days,
That Thames's Glory to the Stars shall raise!
Tho' Tyber's Streams immortal Rome behold,
Tho' foaming Hermus swells with Tides of Gold,
From Heav'n itself tho' sev'n-fold Nilus flows,
And Harvests on a hundred Realms bestows;
These now no more shall be the Muse's Themes,
Lost in my Fame, as in the Sea their streams.

Click here to read about John Taylor, the Water-Poet, who made his living 400 years ago ferrying people across the Thames