Maidstone Bridge

Maidstone Bridge“...commonly called the Great Bridge to distinguish it from the lesser one over the Len in Stone Street... the building is old and unsightly and though some years ago it was widened and repaired, it is fast falling into decay. The western end seems of greater antiquity than the rest of the work, and is probably part of the bridge erected here by one of the Archbishops of Canturbury in the 14th Century. Till late in the last century this bridge was encumbered with several small houses. At its eastern end is the town watchhouse, a neat building in stucco with an iron railing before it.”

The “small houses” on the bridge were, in fact, six alms-houses maintained by the fraternity of Corpus Christi, a religious guild of considerable importance in the town. Each comprised a room on the ground floor and a garret above.

As the Medway was so important to the prosperity of the town, the bridge and its immediate vicinity naturally formed the focus for all public activities and pageants connected with the river. For example: "the Mayor being Conservator of the River, it was customary for him to annually hold a court for inspecting the Condition it is in, and to redress any disorders, and remove any Nusances relating to it; at which Time, the Corporation used to attend in their barges, etc., and it was called the Mayor’s Fishing: upon these publick Fishings in King James the First’s Time (when Stephen Heely was Mayor in 1606), a great Tempest happened whilst they were at Millhale, and a Messenger came to aquaint the Mayor and Attendants, that the town was set on Fire by Lightning in the Middle-Row, to their great Consternation.”

It is somewhat curious that in this short account of the Mayor’s Fishing Court, no reference was made to swans or an annual Swanmarking, for these birds have always frequented the river and do so today. In the second charter of James I, 1619, Maidstone was given a grant of swan rights from the Crown, worded in the following manner:

“And that also the aforesaid mayor, jurats and commonalty and their successors, may likewise have, by the waters aforesaid (i.e. the Medway), from the aforesaid bridge called East-Farleigh Bridge unto Hawke wood (on the boundary of Rochester) the liberty and privilege of keeping swans, cygnets, and a swan-mark for the same, and to change and alter the same swan-mark at their pleasure; and also to sign and mark all and singular the swans and cygnets by the water aforesaid, or within the metes and limits aforesaid, and the banks and soil of the same, building , breeding or resorting, and not lawfully signed or marked with the swan-mark aforesaid, and full power and authority, the swans and cygnets aforesaid swimming or straying out of the limits and metes aforesaid, by water and land, to pursue, retake, bring back and have again, without the impediment of us, our heirs or successors or of any other of our officers or ministers or other whatsoever.”

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