History of the River Thames

It’s the longest river in England, spanning 215 miles, all the way from the Cotsworlds, passing through picturesque villages, market towns and the huge expanse that is London, before reaching its final destination of the North Sea. By looking at the history of the River Thames – one we like to call home – we can find out so much about the history of England, as well as picking up some pretty interesting facts.

The Dark Side – the History of the River Thames

There are a few theories about the reason that the Thames is called what it is, but the most recognised is that it’s from the Middle English word ‘Temese’ (derived from Celtic) which meant ‘dark’, referring to the colour of the water. It’s a term that could also be used to refer to some of the things that happened on the Thames, as we’ll find out later in the article.

Good Enough for Julius

London first came to being courtesy of the Thames. After invading Britain in AD43 the Romans made their way along the river, finally coming to a perfect point for a port, very close to where London Bridge stands today, and the Romans settled there, naming the area Londinium (on the current site of the City of London). It became a major trading port, allowing Roman vessels to trade products such as grain and wine with the Mediterranean countries, as well as offering routes via roads to the rest of Britain. It was here that the Romans also built the first ever bridge on the Thames, which would later be superseded by London Bridge.


Following the end of Roman rule in Britain, Londinium and its bridge were neglected, with Viking raiders taking whatever they could. Soon the wealth that the settlement had gained from being a major trading port had vanished. It was only later that London became a focal point of the country once Alfred the Great helped drive out the invaders and set to the task of reoccupying London, making it habitable once more with new street plans, a repaired bridge and extra fortifications on the south bank of the Thames all adding to London’s new resilience.

Bloody Tower

In 1066, as you may well know, William the Conqueror and his Norman invaders defeated Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, at the Battle of Hastings. Though William’s first few years as Norman King weren’t straightforward – he had to fight off many rebellions before securing the throne – he succeeded in the largest scale building of castles during this time in an effort to fortify his rule. One of these was the Tower of London, which was founded in 1066, with the White Tower finally being complete in the early 1080s, before later being extended. Though now a much-loved tourist attraction as the home of the Crown Jewels as well as for its history, back then the Tower of London became a symbol of Norman oppression, as well as a prison from 1100 to 1952, when the Kray twins were two of the last to be imprisoned there, for failing to report for national service.


In the 1560s one of the towers gained the name The Bloody Tower owing to its association with the mysterious disappearance of the Little Princes who were said to have been murdered by Richard III, their uncle.

The Thames’ Place in History

Over the years that followed the Norman invasion, the River Thames would be involved in countless further events that defined and continue to define British history. It was at Runnymede, beside the Thames, in 1215 that 25 barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta; Oxford University was founded on the river’s north bank; countless kings and queens were born (and died) along the river at castles and palaces like Hampton Court, Windsor and Placentia; the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that overthrew Catholic King James II was conceived at Henley-on-Thames (now best known for the regatta).

One of the most notorious events to hit London was the Great Fire of 1666, which was the second disaster to strike the capital in the space of just 12 months, following the Great Plague. Though the fire only took five lives, according to records, it destroyed huge swathes of London, whose buildings at the time were largely built of wood. In total, some 13,200 houses and 87 parish churches, as well as St Paul’s Cathedral, were devastated by the flames. The Great Fire started in a baker’s shop where a maid had failed to put out the ovens at the end of the night. This led to intense heat and sparks before the wooden bakery shop leapt into flames, that then began to engulf the city. The fear at the time was that the fire would pass across the River Thames and begin to set fire to the south of the city, though fortunately that never happened.

There are so many more stories we could share with you about the Thames (you can see some weird facts about the Thames here too), though these are some of our favourites. As John Burns once said, “The Thames is liquid history”, and this is how we like to think of it, a river that is full of history and continues to make history.


Modern History of the River Thames

The River Thames is now the setting for many Hollywood films, a gateway to important artistic and cultural centres such as Tate Modern, Tate Britain, BFI Southbank, the Southbank Centre and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, as well as modern tourist attractions like the London Eye, the Emirates Air Line cable car and The O2. As we’ve found out during this article it’s also the place where you can find out about British history, home to the Tower of London, HMS Belfast, the Houses of Parliament, Royal Museums Greenwich and Hampton Court Palace all have stories to tell.

Discover The History of London

If you’d like to see London’s history first-hand, while enjoying a trip down the river, why not hire out one of our boats. If you run a business and you feel that your staff may enjoy a day of history and sight-seeing then have a look at our Corporate Boat Hire. We have boats available from North Greenwich Pier, which is perfect for the O2 and Excel Exhibition Centre via the Emirates Cable Car; Greenwich Pier for the Royal Museums and Observatory; Tower Millennium Pier for Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, Bankside Pier for the Tate Modern; Festival Pier for the South Bank and the National Theatre; Westminster Pier for the Houses of Parliament; Hampton Court Pier for the Royal Palace; and to be honest we could go on.

So much of London’s history lies on the river, making it the perfect and most exciting way to get to know London, and enjoy yourselves at the same time.

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