Everything you know about 17th-century London is wrong

It is an era popularised by Guy Fawkes, the plague and the Great Fire of London. But, as author Matt Brown explains, much of what we think we know about the 17th century is incorrect. Here, writing for History Extra, he picks apart some of the myths and misconceptions about the period…

In a city as historically dense as London, facts and faces can get jumbled as readily as oats in a box of muesli. Take the statue of Lady Justice on top of the Old Bailey [the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales], for example: many believe that she is blindfolded; she is not. Tourists look for the Union Flag above Buckingham Palace as a sign that the queen is at home; in fact it means she’s away. Even cast-iron ‘truths’ can turn out to be distortions: while the Tower of London did indeed see famous beheadings in the Tudor period, more than half of all executions in the fortress were conducted in the 20th century.

Of all eras, the 17th century seems to have generated more mistruths than most. This was a period that saw the beginnings of the press (newspapers), the first stirrings of scientific discourse and the city’s great chroniclers such as Pepys, Evelyn and, latterly, Defoe. It was also a time of tumultuous events, with plague, war, fire and political upheaval striking the nation as rarely before. Many of us carry around a working knowledge of these heady days, but how much of it is accurate? Here are four myths busted…

 

Guy Fawkes was not executed for masterminding the Gunpowder Plot

The century began with a bang. Almost. Guy Fawkes and co-conspirators famously plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament, and the king with them. But it didn’t quite happen as many of us believe...

Every year, thousands of people make life-size effigies of the Catholic Yorkshireman, then set him on fire for the delight of their children. This is the man who plotted not just to bring down the system, but to blow up the king and his government too. In 1605, his actions were branded as treachery and treason. Today, we would call him a terrorist. But does Fawkes truly deserve the animosity of centuries?

His story is well known to every British school child. Guy Fawkes, real name Guido Fawkes, was angry at the state for its anti-Catholic prejudice. He brought together a team of conspirators intent on killing King James and his cronies during the State Opening of Parliament. Under the cover of night they broke into the House of Lords and loaded the cellar with barrels of gunpowder. The plot was, however, discovered on the eve of success, thanks to an anonymous tip-off. Fawkes was arrested, tortured and eventually gave the names of his auxiliaries. All were eventually captured and executed.

But this story is wrong in almost every respect.

Fawkes was not the ringleader. He was merely the first to be captured when the guards caught him red-handed and alone in the gunpowder cellar. The true mastermind was Robert Catesby. He led the team of 13 conspirators – Fawkes had no special place in the hierarchy, but was chosen to light the fuse at the assassination attempt. Nor was he born as Guido. That was a nickname he adopted while fighting for the Catholic Spanish in the Eighty Years’ War. Plain old Guy was his birth name.

And contrary to popular belief, the conspirators did not break into the Houses of Parliament. In fact, they took a lease out on the undercroft and had lawful access to the space. The gunpowder stash was built up over a number of months before the plague-delayed opening of Parliament on 5 November.

Fawkes did indeed receive the death penalty for High Treason, and was dragged to the gallows in Old Palace Yard to be hanged, drawn and quartered. This terrifying procedure would first see the condemned man dangle by the neck until barely conscious. After being cut down, his genitals would be sliced off and his belly opened. His entrails would then be scooped out and burnt with his testicles. Finally, the fading man would be chopped into parts, which would, in gory sequel, be displayed in public locations as a warning to others.

It didn’t quite happen like that, though. Before the executioner could begin the gruesome act, Fawkes leapt from the gallows, breaking his neck and sparing himself the excruciating fate the law had set out for him. In short, he was not executed, but took his own life.

Other conspirators also escaped the chop. Ringleader Robert Catesby and several others were killed in a gunfight with authorities in Staffordshire, while another plotter died from illness at the Tower of London before he could stand trial.

 

The Great Fire of London was not the greatest of all London’s fires

September 1666, and it seemed to Londoners that the whole world was aflame. Samuel Pepys described the scene:

“We stayed till, it being darkish, we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side the bridge, and in a bow up the hill for an arch of above a mile long: it made me weep to see it. The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once; and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruin.”

The Great Fire of London, as it came to be known, certainly devastated the City of London. An estimated 80,000 people lived there; 70,000 became homeless. Almost all the City of London’s churches were destroyed, including the medieval St Paul’s Cathedral. To those who bore witness, it must have felt like the greatest calamity in the city’s history.

In many ways, however, the Great Fire was just another of many such tragedies, because London has fallen to conflagration on numerous occasions. The earliest came at the hands of Boudica in around 60 AD, less than 20 years after the founding of the Roman town. Suetonius, the Governor of Britain, had to decide where to make his stand against Boudica’s rebellion. London was not ideal as a battleground and he pulled all troops out of the town. The city was defenceless, and the Queen of the Iceni was merciless. If Roman accounts are to be believed, she slaughtered thousands of inhabitants and set the town ablaze. If you dig deep enough, anywhere in the City of London you can still find a thick destruction layer of ash and red debris from this conflagration.

Other fires followed. Archaeology suggests another great Roman fire around 125 AD, in which all but the most sturdy buildings were consumed. We do not know the death toll. 1087, the year that William the Conqueror died, also saw a mighty blaze comparable to the Great Fire. It, too, destroyed St Paul’s Cathedral, wrecking “other churches and the largest and fairest part of the whole city”. The calamity was repeated just two generations later in the great fire of 1135. In fact, fires were such a common occurrence that the medieval city must have remained as pockmarked as its disease-ravaged denizens.


Samuel Pepys. Colourised version of the painting by John Hayls. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
 

The most tragic blaze occurred in 1212. It started in Southwark, taking hold of St Mary Overie (what today we call Southwark Cathedral). Londoners rushed from the city onto the newly built London Bridge to lend assistance, and to gawp. Alas, the wind was up. Sparks from the fire arced across the Thames to the northern end of the bridge, where they took hold. Trapped between the two fires, the horrified onlookers succumbed to smoke inhalation, or jumped to their ends in the treacherous Thames. Later accounts put the subsequent death toll as high as 3,000. Although likely to be an exaggeration, there is no doubt that this incident ranks as one of London’s worst disasters. By comparison, the Great Fire of 1666 is thought to have claimed just six lives, according to official records (but amid such confusion, and with the limitations of 17th century communication, it would be impossible to accurately account for everybody. Many more people surely lost their lives in the crowded tenements of the City of London).

The early fires of London are mostly obscure today. We remember the 1666 conflagration partly because it was so well recorded by Pepys and others, but also because it served as the fountainhead for so much of the modern city. The cathedral and churches of Sir Christopher Wren soon arose like gleaming white phoenixes. Brick and stone replaced wood and straw as the chief building materials. The fire also accelerated the growth of what would become the West End. The fields of Covent Garden and Holborn had already disappeared beneath a tide of development. The fire served as a fillip for more house building around the periphery of the City of London. In the years immediately following the fire, districts such as Soho and Bloomsbury began to spread out as wealthy merchants and nobles sought new housing away from the ancient centre. Like a rose bush pruned, London must be disfigured before it can grow.

 

The Great Fire of London did not wipe out the Great Plague

Which brings us on to one of the great canards in London’s history. Did the 1666 fire really put an end to the Great Plague? It’s a claim that’s tempted educators for centuries. The timing looks perfect: everybody falls ill in 1665, then a vast, cleansing fire wipes out the disease in 1666. A neat and tidy ‘just-so’ story, but correlation does not always imply causation.

For starters, the plague had eased considerably by September 1666, the month of the fire. Already by February that year the Royal Court and entourage had moved back to the capital. In March, the Lord Chancellor deemed London as crowded as it had ever been seen. When the Great Fire swept through London half a year later, it struck a city that was already well on the road to recovery. It should also be remembered that the fire only damaged the City proper. The suburbs, including plague-intensive regions such as St Giles, were completely untouched by the blaze. The fire had no direct effect on the disease in these quarters.

While the Great Fire did not wipe out the plague, it did help bring about conditions that would be less favourable to further outbreaks. The city was rebuilt to better standards, and (slightly) more sanitary conditions prevailed. These improvements were no doubt a contributory factor in keeping plague at bay in the centuries since. 


'The Pestilence 1665’. Illustration of figures burying bodies in the aftermath of the plague. (Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
 

A few other myths persist about the Great Plague of 1665–66. It was by no means the only disease to ravage England, nor the worst. The so-called Black Death of 1348–1350 wiped out a much higher percentage of the population – perhaps a third of England. By contrast, the 1665 plague was largely centred on London. It killed 15 per cent of those in the capital, and therefore an even smaller percentage across the country as a whole.

Earlier 17th century epidemics, notably in 1603 and 1625, were not quite so virulent as the Great Plague of 1665, but they weren’t far off. The 1665 epidemic gets more attention for several reasons. It was the last big outbreak of plague in this country. Many contemporary accounts survive, unlike earlier medieval plagues. And it just so happened to occur at a time when plenty of other major events were taking place. That the plague struck London not long after the restoration of the monarchy and just before the Great Fire of 1666 helps secure its place in our historical memory.

 

Plague doctors did not go about their business in beaked masks

Finally, we can also pooh-pooh one of the most terrifying icons of the plague: the beaked helmet. Visual depictions of the disease often show sinister figures roaming the streets in these eccentric headpieces. They served as a kind of primitive gas mask for plague doctors. The beak-like appendage would be stuffed with lavender and other sweet smelling aromatics in a bid to ward off the foul odours often blamed for the plague. Accentuating the macabre look, the doctors would also sport a broad-brimmed hat and ankle-length overcoat. A wooden cane completed the costume, and allowed physicians to examine patients without the need for personal contact.


A plague doctor in protective clothing, c1656. Engraving by Paul Furst after J Colombina. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
 

While this protective gear is well documented on the continent, particularly in Italy, there is no good evidence that the costume was ever worn in London. It can’t be entirely ruled out, but one would have thought that such a distinctive ensemble would have made it onto the pages of Pepys’s diary, or some other first-hand account of the plague.

Matt Brown is the author of Everything You Know About London Is Wrong (Batsford, 2016).

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