Where Thames Smooth Waters Glide -
Map: Radcot Bridge
One of Peacock's best invented passages is, I think:
But thou art sweet, my native stream!
Thy waves in liquid lustre play,
And glitter in the morning beam,
And chime to rest the closing day.
While the vast mountain's dizzy steep
The whirlwind's eddying rage assails,
The gentlest zephyrs softly sweep
The verdure of thy sheltered vales
While o'er the wild and whitening seas
The unbridled north triumphant roars,
Thy stream scarce ripples in the breeze,
That bends the willow on thy shores.
Idyllic indeed: but the poet might have written less caressingly had he spent the dark
hours in my boat one wild August night as I lay by the Swan at Radcot, and wondered whether
the Southwest would hurl some elms across me first, or break my mooring lines that strained
and jerked so unceasingly at their knots. You get wild grey water, you get wind as iron
that rings, here by Thames as truly as beside the sea.
Just against the Swan, almost a mile beyond the lock, Radcot Bridge crosses the River, which is here divided into two streams. You navigate under a single arch, an extension built in 1787 across the new cut, and so inconvenient to negotiate cleanly that many a steersman has here in mere seconds lost the sedulously acquired reputation of a lifetime. The old stream is not now used by ordinary traffic, though far better accommodated with an ancient bridge of three more or less pointed arches, over the central one of which a cross was once to be seen, on the eastern side. Only the socket is now left, with the old lead still in it. A Lechlade man told me that in quite recent memory babies were often baptized in this socket. The western parapet displays a flat central plinth, as though something had perhaps stood there also. The Victoria History says Radcot Bridge was probably built in 1200; and Cox in his Magna Britannia that it was "a good deal older than Richard II," who was born in 1366. He refers to the "great causeway said to be seen hereabouts, leading to Friar Bacon's study in Oxford, made by Robert d'Oiley in the time of William the Conqueror. " This causeway is elsewhere mentioned as being visible near Faringdon. The dates favour my own strong belief, that this is the oldest original bridge work left across the Thames, and that New Bridge was so entitled in respect of it.
It has had its stirring moments. Stephen crossed here, possibly with some fighting, in 1142; and its next appearance in written history is as the scene of a battle in 1387 between Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford and Duke of Ireland, favourite of Richard II, and the Earl of Derby, afterwards Henry IV, with the other lords allied against de Vere. The king's champion was defeated, and only escaped capture by swimming his horse across the narrow stream.
Thy copious waters hold their way
Tow'rds Radcote's arches, old and grey,
Where triumphed erst the rebel host,
When hapless Richard's hopes were lost
And Oxford sought, with humbled pride,
Existence from thy guardian tide.
Ashmole says that on this occasion the bridge was "broke down by the Earl of Derby"; and
adds that it was in the parish of Langford (of Berkshire but in Oxfordshire) in his time.
Stow is well worth reading in full for his dramatic account of the stern old fight. "The
Duke of Ireland rode forth in stately and glorious array with the army of five thousand men,
thinking none durst have encountered him. Nevertheless in the vigill of Saint Thomas the
Apostle, when he came to Radcote bridge in Oxfordshire, which bridge if he could have
passed, he had bin out of danger, sodainly he beheld the host of the Lordes tarrying his
comming in the midst of the valley, with which sight his heart straight waies failed and he
said, friends I must fly, for a greater puissance seemeth to be yonder, against you they
have no quarrell, so that I being shifted away, ye shall escape well ynough. " But stout
Thomas Moleneux, his captain,"prepared himself for the battle, and being wearied after
fighting entered the River. Among other Sir Thomas Martimer knight exhorted him to com up,
or else he would shoote him through in the river: if I do come up saith Thomas Moleneux,
wilt thou save my life? I do make no such promise (saith hee) but eyther come up, or thou
shalt straight die for it. To whom hee answered, suffer me to come up and let me fight
eythey with thee or some other, and die like a man. As hee came up, the knight caught him
by the helmet, and plucked it off his head, and straightwaies with his dagger struck him
into the braines. " De Vere "dyed at Louvaine in great anguish of mind, and miserable
penury, which young gentleman was apt to all offices of worthinesse, if in his childhoode
hee had not wanted discipline. " Killed by a wild boar, say some.
In a lilting old poem of 1388, On the Times (of whose couplets beware, for their ironic humour and delight may sometimes beguile you unawares from serious matters), the fugitives are referred to under veiled names
Good Jake, qwere is thi Jon?
ubi gratia nunc requiescit?
Jake, now grace is gon,
ad regna remota recessit;
Jake nobil with hvm ys,
iter insimul arripuerunt;
Of bothe ys gret mys,
illos multi modo quaerunt.
Jake is de Vere, and Jake nobil is probably Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, his
companion in exile; who has one of the rare surviving wooden effigies, and his wife
another, in Wingfield church in Suffolk, under the date 1415.
Another account I came across in the Harleian Miscellany, originally printed in 1641 by one Thomas Fannant, Clerk, hardly reads like a description of the same event, but is worth reprinting, much condensed, as a curiosity. "The duke of Ireland, under the guidance of his grand captain the devil, marched towards London with his army. The appellants being suddenly advertised thereof, raised a power, and marched with long and wearisome marches into a field, near a village called Whitney, at a place called Lockford-Bridge;
[Fred, in his Additions and Corrections, adds: Perhaps meaning "Langford-Bridge," the name having been misunderstood by Fannant, and Radcot being in that parish. ]
in which field the duke of Ireland was with the army, having a river on the one side of them, and displaying the king's standard, contrary to the laws of the land. But when they saw the army of the appellants march down from the mountains like a hive of bees, and with such a violent fury, fear benumbed them, that when they should have given the assault they stood like a hive of bees, and a few being slain and some drowned in the river, gave an easy victory to the conquerors. The duke of Ireland himself, putting spurs to his horse, took the river and hardly escaped. " Thomas Fannant, Clerk, his choice of similes seems to have been no more extensive than his knowledge of the countryside.
There was another fight here during the Civil War, when Prince Rupert repulsed some Puritan horse who had arrived to help contain some king's men holding the bridge as an outpost of Faringdon House on the height two miles southward.
Cromwell himself fought a skirmish here in April, 1645, on his way from Bampton to Faringdon, taking Colonels Littleton and Vaughan prisoners. The signs of his entrenchments are said to be still traceable, though I have not seen them.
The River here is very deep, and said to abound with fish. Great elms cool and beautify the cots and meadows around the bridge, which runs practically north and south. All the stone for the inner walls of St. Paul's Cathedral was, they say, brought hither by road from the Lenthalls' Upton quarries at Burford, and here shipped on rafts for London. It is not many of its fellows that I would exchange with this little bridge of Radcot for its joy to the eye. Built wonderfully with strength for its destiny, the old makers fashioned it a miniature of beauty. Why the navigation was diverted from it I cannot think; the new stream winds as much as the old; perhaps it was by reason of the narrowness of its arches, though neither Abingdon nor New Bridge can boast of much more room. Seen from a short eastward distance, under morning sunlight, silver grey against the dark green foliage, it leaves its own intimate impression of pathetic charm that will not be forgotten.
Where Thames Smooth Waters Glide -
Map: Radcot Bridge