1666: when London burned with rage

As the Great Fire ravaged their homes in 1666, Londoners were gripped by terror, despair and fury. And, writes Alexander Larman, barely had the last flames been put out before their ire was being directed at the city's foreigners...

An engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar depicting Old St Paul's on fire during the Great Fire of London, 1666. Frantic efforts to fight the flames quickly turned into an equally fevered search for a scapegoat. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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The decisive moment in the Great Fire of London came on Tuesday 4 September 1666. St Paul’s Cathedral had evaded destruction over the previous days, and provided sanctuary for scores of tradesmen, who hoped that divine providence would protect them and that their refuge would go undamaged. Unfortunately, highly flammable pieces of wood had been placed against the cathedral’s walls in preparation for planned building work. The scaffolding caught fire, and by nine o’clock, the flames had surrounded the building. After a couple of hours, the timbered roof beams caught fire and melted the lead roof; the enormous heat caused the walls and ceiling to explode. Vast chunks of masonry crashed to earth, destroying tombs and statues and shattering the cathedral’s stained glass.

Charles II and his brother James, Duke of York watched with horror as the great building burned. On a practical level, the cathedral’s destruction was a ruinously expensive disaster, which would take a huge amount of money to repair; the proposed renovation, itself a huge commitment for a depleted exchequer, would have been trifling in comparison. Yet more importantly, on a symbolic level, the burning of St Paul’s could hardly have been a more devastating blow for the city and country. It appeared entirely possible that the inferno would remain unchecked, and could spread to devour Whitehall itself, leaving London reduced to little more than a few disconnected streets and countless piles of rubble.

To many observers, it was obvious that the calamity had been sparked by divine retribution. Others, however, averred that the cause was something altogether more earthly…

Burning traitors

The Great Fire had begun on the night of 1 September at Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane in the City. After he went to bed, Farriner awoke to find his house full of smoke, and swiftly evacuated his family. Small fires were common in the area, but what worsened the blaze was Pudding Lane’s proximity to London Bridge, where many of the city’s most flammable materials were stored, ready to be placed on ships for export.

By eight the following morning, the bridge itself was fully ablaze. Those watching closely might have seen the grisly spectacle of some of the severed heads of traitors illuminated by the flames below. The lord mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, was summoned to view the blaze, but left without offering assistance, sneering: “A woman could piss it out.”

Bloodworth was quickly proved wrong. The fire spread with inexorable force, and had soon destroyed City landmarks such as Watermen’s Hall and the Post Office in Cloak Lane, Dowgate. Charles and James hurried by boat to see the damage; the distraught king had to be restrained from helping douse the fires by his attendants.

As streets were destroyed, the livelihoods of wealthy and poor alike went up in smoke in moments. Soon, the Custom House and St Paul’s fell victim to the flames. The noise and panic were indescribable.

That the fire didn’t rage west and consume the seat of government was down to a mixture of human agency and good luck. First, Londoners blew up buildings on the Strand with gunpowder in order to isolate the most important structures and prevent their destruction. Then, early on 5 September, the wind dropped, checking the flames’ advance further still.

By dawn on Thursday, the Great Fire had come to an end. Yet the time for recriminations and blame had just begun.

As ever with a disaster of this scale, the people sought a scapegoat, and the obvious culprits were the Catholics. Even during the fire, rumours spread that a papist plot to unseat Charles was under way. One Westminster School pupil, William Taswell, recorded that “the ignorant and deluded mob, who upon occasion were hurried [sic] away with a kind of frenzy, vented forth their rage against the Roman Catholics and Frenchmen”.

As fists flew and shops were looted, the mob claimed that their acts of violence were motivated by patriotic fervour. Those suspected of Catholicism, as well as the French and Dutch, found themselves accused of starting fires virtually at random and were thrown into prison on the slightest pretext; unless, that is, they had already been beaten senseless by the enraged mob. One unfortunate man was torn to pieces in Moorfields because he was said to be carrying “flaming spheres”; these spheres were, in fact, nothing more than tennis balls.

Despite Charles addressing the largest of the makeshift refugee camps at Moorfields on Thursday and explicitly telling them that the destruction had not been caused by any Catholic, French or Dutch conspiracy, suspicion lingered amid the panic. The need to apportion blame was affirmed judicially with the spurious arrest of Robert Hubert, a French watchmaker, who was said to have confessed to beginning the fire deliberately as an agent of the pope.

Hubert was found guilty at his trial, despite clear inconsistencies in the evidence against him, and swiftly executed at Tyburn. But it soon became embarrassingly clear that he had not even been in London at the time of the outbreak. What makes his fate even more tragic is that he was most likely to have been a Huguenot (French Protestant), and that his so-called ‘confession’ was extracted under duress. Charles’s mentor and counsellor the Earl of Clarendon wrote of him that he was “a poor distracted wretch, weary of his life, and chose to part with it in this way”.

Suspicion reached Whitehall, making it even more difficult for Charles to express his Catholic sympathies. Despite his gallant behaviour in helping quench the fire, rumours spread that the king’s brother James was a papist stooge, and his “gay countenance” during the blaze was held up as evidence that he was fanning the flames, rather than fighting them. (There was a nugget of truth at the heart of the allegations: the Duke of York was indeed a Catholic sympathiser, and would convert to the faith in 1668.)

Soon the rumours – and the virulently anti-Catholic sentiment that they were whipping up – were causing ructions in parliament. On 28 September, a motion was carried for the immediate deportation of Catholic priests and Jesuits. Meanwhile, all members of the Commons were forced to take Anglican communion and restate their belief in the English church on pain of immediate arrest.

But Catholics weren’t alone in taking the blame for starting the Great Fire of London. Soon the people had found another scapegoat – and that was God himself who, it was claimed, was wreaking his vengeance on Charles’s court for its decadence.

Ever since the Restoration, there had been murmurings that divine judgment was due. While some people had relished the free-spirited permissiveness of the early 1660s, others were less enamoured of what they saw as a combination of the restrictive and the hypocritical. Rumours of unrestrained libidinousness at Whitehall sat uneasily with the uncertain implementation of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and continued persecution of dissenters. The English defeat earlier that year in the Four Days’ battle, one of the central conflicts of the Second Anglo-Dutch War of 1665–67, was also put down to God’s disfavour. Despite the fact that this reversal could most easily be blamed on inexperienced naval commanders (the Duke of Albemarle and Prince Rupert), it proved another means of attacking an unpopular monarch.

Pamphleteers and booksellers made a good profit out of sensationalistic works that prophesied fire and brimstone raining down on London in punishment for the city’s sins. Almanacs talked darkly of a year of fire and blood. The Quaker seer, the late Humphrey Smith, had had a vision, warning that “in the foundation of all her buildings and there was none could quench it… The burning thereof was exceeding great… All the tall buildings fell and it consumed all the lofty things therein… And the fire continued, for though all the lofty part was brought down yet there was much old stuff and parts of broken down, desolate walls, which the fire continued burning against.”

While few were foolish enough to state their convictions publicly, for fear of being accused of conspiracy against the king, there was a growing feeling in the sweltering heat that a reckoning was coming.

The lawyer Nathaniel Hobart, writing to his friend the politician Ralph Verney shortly after the blaze, talked of how “God was not pleased, & we must submit to his will”. The Puritan minister Thomas Vincent took a perverse joy in watching the main shopping area, the Royal Exchange, fall, writing: “The glory of the merchants is now invaded with much violence… by-and-down [sic] fall all the Kings upon their faces… with such a noise as was dreadful and astonishing.”

A glittering sword

The Quakers, who had been persecuted since the Restoration, were especially certain in their belief that the blaze was a sign from God. Their founder, George Fox, recently released from prison, described the fire in his journal, claiming that “I saw the angel of the Lord with a glittering drawn sword southward, as before expressed. The people of London were forewarned of this fire: yet few laid it to heart, or believed it; but rather grew more wicked, and higher in pride.” Satisfied that the destruction was a punishment for this wickedness, he wrote that: “The Lord has exercised his prophets and servants by his power, and showed them signs of his judgments.”

Fox was brave to have written down such sentiments; had they been made public, he would certainly have been arrested and probably executed for treason.

Others unsympathetic to England and London rejoiced in the destruction. An anonymous Spanish writer, probably an ambassador, wrote a pro-Catholic account of the fire, ‘The new and true account of the great fire that has engulfed the great city of London’, in which he stated: “At the sight of a Catholic temple the fire acknowledged itself to be conquered,” and wished that: “May God open their eyes to the truth, and enable them to take a lesson from the destruction of their own 140 churches and the safety of the one Roman Catholic temple.”

The real cause of the fire was less dramatic. The summer of 1666 had been an unusually hot and dry one, and London’s buildings, in the City at least, were badly maintained and filthy. They were covered in an omnipresent cloud of smoke, a byproduct of the innumerable small fires that were lit by tradesmen and hawkers in the course of their everyday work. These tightly packed and ramshackle structures, haphazardly extended over the years, were each made from timber, with the wood cloaked in pitch in an attempt to render it less susceptible to water, and therefore highly flammable. Brittle after the summer heat, both the public and private buildings were swiftly consumed by fire.

Had Sir Thomas Bloodworth acted with more alacrity and ordered the burning houses to be torn down to create firebreaks, the damage, while serious and costly to make good, would have been merely in the thousands of pounds. Yet, because he prevaricated, put off by the prospect of having to obtain the consent of the buildings’ owners, all was lost. It did not help that London had no firefighting service, unlike in Nuremberg, where a fire engine was invented in 1651. Instead, primitive fire-hooks were the principal means available of tearing down burning buildings. The brass hand pumps used to douse the flames held less than a gallon of water each.

London, of course, rose again. But the Great Fire represented the end of the excitement and joy of the Restoration. It was replaced by an attitude of cynicism and distrust, and widespread anti-Catholic sentiment. This cocktail would explode spectacularly in 1678 with the Popish Plot, when Titus Oates claimed – falsely, as it turned out – that a Roman conspiracy had taken root at the heart of the English establishment, with the aim of assassinating the king and placing a Catholic monarch on the throne. His allegations were wild and lacked proof, but a frightened and credulous court chose to believe them, leading to national panic. Had the fire never occurred, it is doubtful that Oates would ever have achieved his aims. Instead, its aftereffects lingered for years, in unpredictable and violent ways.

The Great Fire: six key moments

1–2 September 1666

The flames spread

The fire begins in Pudding Lane, and has reached London Bridge by early on the morning of the 2nd. The diarist Samuel Pepys, who lives on Seething Lane in the City, writes of how “I did see the houses at that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side the end of the bridge”, and says that the “lamentable fire” makes his “heart full of trouble”.

2 September

People flee in panic

The power of the blaze is such that any attempt to stop it fails, and, with the lord mayor an incompetent figure, there is no clearly co-ordinated attempt to check its progress. Pepys describes how the “most horrid malicious bloody flame” has lit up the sky, and, as he watches displaced and panicking people swarming the streets with what little they can salvage, how “it made me weep to see it”.

3 September

Landmarks burn

With many of the city’s most famous buildings destroyed – such as the famous Boar’s Head tavern in Eastcheap, referred to by Shakespeare in Henry IV – paranoia grips the populace. The aristocrat Lady Anne Hobart tells a friend that “tis thought Fleet Street will be burnt by tomorrow… there was never so sad a sight, nor so doleful a cry heard, my heart is not able to express the tenth, nay the thousandth part of it”.

4 September

The king steps in

Charles appoints a Privy Council to attempt to keep some form of order, but chaos reigns, with people trying to grab their possessions and escape from London on carts. Thomas Vincent, a Puritan minister, declares that the fire signifies God’s anger, and his intention to “destroy London with fire”. The diarist John Evelyn wishes: “God grant mine eyes may never behold the like, who now saw about 10,000 houses in one flame.”

4 September

St Paul’s succumbs

After the destruction of St Paul’s Cathedral and the Guildhall, the fire seems unstoppable. The only good fortune is that it does not destroy the gunpowder store in the Tower of London, which would, in Evelyn’s words, “not only have beaten down and destroyed all the bridge, but sunk and torn all the vessels in the river, and rendered the demolition beyond all expression for several miles about the country”.

5 September

The inferno wanes

At last, the wind dies and the blaze has begun to extinguish itself. The schoolboy William Taswell described how the ground around the wreck of St Paul’s was “so hot as almost to scorch my shoes”, and lingering small fires gave many the impression that it continued. Pepys, looking out at the ruined city, described it as “the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw; everywhere great fires, oil cellars and brimstone and other things burning”.

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Alexander Larman is an author and journalist whose books include Restoration: 1666: A Year in Britain, published by Head of Zeus in April.