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 

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.

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