Your guide to the Great Fire of London, plus 10 surprising facts
One of the most famous disasters in London's history, the Great Fire of London in 1666 devastated the heart of England's capital, destroying more than 13,000 houses and badly damaging landmarks including St Paul's Cathedral and the Royal Exchange. But how much do you really know about the blaze? We bring you the facts...
Why did the Great Fire of London start? Who was to blame? And how many died? Discover the story of the 1666 blaze that destroyed the City of London – from diarist Samuel Pepys's first-hand accounts, to the aftermath of the devastating fire...
- When was the Great Fire of London?
- How did the Great Fire of London start?
- The Great Fire of London: eye-witness accounts
- What did people do when the fire broke out?
- The aftermath of the Great Fire of London
- How many people died in the Great Fire of London?
- How was London rebuilt after the Great Fire of London?
- 10 lesser-known facts about the Great Fire of London
- Great Fire of London: through the eyes of Samuel Pepys
The Great Fire of London: key facts
When was the Great Fire of London?
2 September 1666 to 5 September 1666
How much damage did it cause?
It is thought that the Great Fire of London destroyed up to four-fifths of the City of London, including most of the civic buildings, old St Paul’s Cathedral, 87 churches, and around 13,000 houses
How many people died in the Great Fire of London?
"Though we do not know exactly how many people died as a result of the Great Fire of London, it was almost certainly more than commonly accepted figures," says historian Rebecca Rideal
The Great Fire of London began on Sunday 2 September 1666. The famous diarist Samuel Pepys – from whom we know a great deal about the event – was enjoying a good night’s rest at the time; the previous day he’d been to the theatre, avoided someone he didn’t like and repaired to Islington. He ate, drank and became “mighty merry”, before singing all the way home, writing some letters and falling into bed. Hardly surprising, then, that when his maid called him at three o’clock in the morning to look at a fire across town, he decided it was far enough away not to worry about and went straight back to sleep.
The Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, took one look at the blaze, declared 'a woman might piss it out', and went back to sleep
Pepys wasn’t the only one. The Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, took one look at the blaze, declared “a woman might piss it out,” and dived back under the covers. In the days that followed, his weak leadership added fuel to a fire that became one of the greatest catastrophes the city has seen. A spark from a baker’s oven grew into an all-consuming monster that lasted four days. The immediate aftermath was homelessness and ruin for thousands, but the effects can still be seen today.
The Great Fire began when someone in Thomas Farynor’s Pudding Lane bakery failed to securely damp down the oven before going to bed. By Monday evening, 300 houses had burned – the final toll would top 13,000.
Mystics, fortune tellers and especially Puritans had predicted doom for the city’s modern, sinful ways even before the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. London, led by the decadent Charles II, enjoyed a lavish lifestyle and was, according to the deeply religious, ripe for a tumble. It was, they claimed, already happening. The Great Plague had taken 100,000 lives the previous year and invasion by the Dutch seemed to be only a matter of time.
The ‘666’ number had not gone unnoticed either. In 1597, an anonymous pamphlet, Babylon is Fallen, had suggested 1666 would be the Year of the Beast, perhaps even the time of Christ’s second coming. Oddly, afterwards, it was commemorated by poet John Dryden as an annus mirabilis (‘year of wonders’).
Restoration London was frivolous and worldly, bustling and cosmopolitan. On narrow, dirty and dark streets, rickety houses were built from wood and thatch. Their protruding upper storeys, ‘jetties’, almost met at the top. Filth rained onto unwary pedestrians from upstairs windows. Inside, people lit their houses with candles and cooked with open fires. There was hay in the stables, pitch on the roofs, tar in the shipyards and even gunpowder in many homes, as Cromwell’s soldiers retained their muskets from the civil wars. Given the city’s flammability, doom-mongers’ predictions of an apocalyptic inferno could hardly be deemed radical.
We have several eye-witness accounts of the fire. The most famous is that of Pepys, whose access to famous figures such as the King, the Duke of York and the Lord Mayor make his version pivotal. Pepys’s friend John Evelyn, another diarist, lived in Deptford but came to town to see the kerfuffle. Letters and memoirs from ordinary people provide glimpses of what went on below the surface. Sir Edward Harley’s account mentions Farynor’s bakery maid, who, he says, was too scared to climb onto the roof next door with the rest of the household and became the fire’s first victim. Unless in the fire’s immediate path, people didn’t panic – at first. Strong winds from the east, however, fanned the flames, and disagreement and indecision allowed things to get out of hand. Postmaster James Hickes was forced to flee from the post office, but not before taking as many letters as he could carry. With no reliable information, rumour and hearsay took over.
Firefighting was the job of the Watch, ‘bell-men’ who patrolled the streets at night. Every church stored basic equipment – fire hooks (long poles to demolish precarious buildings), ladders, leather buckets, axes and ‘squirts’ (the 17th-century Super Soaker). The few ‘fire engines’ were clumsy and the river had no quays, so firefighters had to trundle them to the water as best they could. Several toppled into the Thames.
More like this
The Museum of London holds an incomplete fire engine from around 1678. As part of their ‘Fire! Fire!’ project, they commissioned Croford Coachbuilders to rebuild the missing parts. “It wasn’t until we put it together again that we could see how it would work,” explains Meriel Jeater, curator of the Museum of London’s ‘Fire! Fire!’ exhibition. “Now the wheels are back on we’ve realised it’s really difficult to turn corners.” The default fire-fighting technique was demolition, but faced with that prospect, the Lord Mayor demurred. He may have feared being personally held to account for the damage, but, whatever his reasons, Bloodworth became a hate figure.
Pepys described him as “a silly man”. In one of Pepys’s proudest moments, he was called to court to describe the fire to the Kingand the Duke of York. He advised a troubled Charles that buildings must be pulled down. “The King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor from him, and command him to spare no houses, but to pull down before the fire every way. The Duke of York bid me tell him that if he would have any more soldiers he shall.” Pepys made his way back, noting “every creature coming away loaden with goods to save, and here and there sicke people carried away in beds”.
When he found Bloodworth, the mayor was “like a man spent, with a handkercher about his neck. To the King’s message he cried, like a fainting woman, ‘Lord! What can I do? I am spent: people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses; but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.’” Bloodworth refused the Duke of York’s soldiers and disappeared to “refresh himself, having been up all night”. Disgusted, Pepys reflected he appeared to be “a very weak man”.
People moved valuables to nearby ‘safety’, then again, and again as the flames licked closer. “I did remove my money and iron chests into my cellar, as thinking that the safest place,” recounts Pepys. “And got my bags of gold into my office, ready to carry away, and my chief papers of accounts.”
It wasn’t long before he would bury his wine and parmesan cheese, for safekeeping. The diarist was helped by the wife of a colleague, Sir William Batten, when, at 4am on Monday 3 September, she sent a cart to carry his things to the safety of a house in Bethnal Green. Pepys didn’t like the Battens – and is regularly rude about them in his diary – but for once he was grateful. Most Londoners weren’t so lucky.
London streamed with people trying to get out, gridlocked by narrow streets and bottlenecked by the eight gates in the old Roman wall. The river jammed with boats. “Here we saw the Thames covered with goods floating, all the barges & boates laden with what some had time & courage to save, as on the other, the Carts &c. carrying out to the fields, which for many miles were strewed with moveables of all sorts, & Tents erecting to shelter both people & what goods they could get away,” writes John Evelyn who, on hearing the news, couldn’t resist taking his wife and son to Southwark to watch the carnage from the South Bank.
Pepys noted that one-in-three boats boasted a pair of virginals (a keyboard instrument) and most of the saved goods were, unsurprisingly, luxuries. One witness, Robert Flatman, writing to his lawyer brother, tells him his chambers are down – but his books are safe. The Museum of London holds a half-finished embroidery and set of bed-hangings said to have been saved from the flames.
Most burned. Excavations have fetched up crusty, rusted lumps which, under X-ray, reveal themselves as a padlock and several keys, fused together in London’s furnace. A large iron lump turned out to be a heavy-duty waffle iron, just like ones used today. Archaeologists found, in a building two doors from Farynor’s bakery, melted hooks and eyes, as we might use on clothes, along with heat-twisted window glass and partly-melted ceramic floor tiles. “We understand it must have been at least 1,200 degrees to do that,” says Jeater.
The fire brought out the worst in some. Fourteen-yearold schoolboy William Taswell, who roamed the ruins, describes his father being robbed by people pretending to help...
However chaotic the flow out of town, it was almost as busy going towards the blaze. With carts and boats suddenly at a premium, it didn’t take long for country folk to realise they could charge extortionate rates to desperate refugees. The fire brought out the worst in some. Fourteen-year-old schoolboy William Taswell, who roamed the ruins, describes his father being robbed by people pretending to help, and mobs attacking foreigners, who were increasingly blamed for the disaster.
But while the Lord Mayor dragged his heels, first-hand reports describe King Charles up to his ankles in water helping to fight the flames. Londoners were impressed at the king’s “labouring in person” and if, to modern ears, his later declaration that no one had lost more than himself doesn’t sound too diplomatic, they knew what he meant.
Pepys, who had initially taken a boat to watch the fire – before “fire drops” raining from the sky made it too dangerous – had his family’s safety in mind. When his wife Elizabeth woke him at 2am with the flames at the bottom of their lane, it was time to get out. “Lord what sad sight it was by moone-light to see, the whole City almost on fire that you might see it plain at Woolwich,” he wrote, having taken a boat to the nearby port.
His family safe, Pepys dashed back expecting to find his home consumed, but it wasn’t. The wind had changed, causing the flames to switch course. Pepys climbed the church tower (brave, given its clock had burned) “and there saw the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw; everywhere great fires, oylecellars and brimstone and other things burning”. He picked his way through the streets, his “feet ready to burn, walking through the towne among the hot coles”, and picking up a piece of glass as a souvenir “melted and buckled with the heat of the fire like parchment”. He watched “a poor cat taken out of a hole in the chimney, joyning to the wall of the Exchange; with, the hair all burned off the body, and yet alive”.
It wasn’t the only time he noted the animals: “The poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were some of them burned their wings, and fell down.” Then at Moorfields he witnessed human suffering. Refugees, who had lost everything overnight, camped in the open air. He described the “wretches”, remarking how prices had taken a sharp hike during the fire: “twopence for a plain pennyloaf”.
Probably due to the demolition-policy, the fire stopped at Pye (Pie) Corner on the west of the city, on 5 September, but London was decimated. St Paul’s Cathedral lay in ruins, joined by scores of churches, thousands of homes and the city’s only bridge, itself once covered in shops and dwellings.
People wandered, dazed, through the rubble, looking for their old homes and haunts. Evelyn moved “with extraordinary difficulty, clambring over mountaines of yet smoking rubbish, & frequently mistaking where I was, the ground under my feete so hott, as made me not onely Sweate, but even burnt the soles of my shoes”.
It’s a mystery as to why more deaths aren’t recorded
After the fire, the Parish Clerks’ bills of mortality, listing causes of death, were collated, with just six deaths appearing to have been fire-related. “It’s a mystery as to why more deaths aren’t recorded,” says Jeater. “There must have been more.” The true figure of deaths during the Great Fire of London may never be known.
The small number of deaths, however, meant mass misery. Gigantic encampments of around 100,000 homeless people appeared outside the city walls. “The fields are the only receptacle which they can find for themselves and their goods,” writes witness Thomas Vincent, “most of the late inhabitants of London lie all night in the open air, with no other canopy over them but that of the heavens.”
As for Evelyn, he went north to Islington and Highgate, where “two hundred thousand people of all ranks & degrees, dispersed & laying along by their heapes of what they could save from the Incendium, deploring their losse, & though ready to perish for hunger & destitution, yet not asking one penny for reliefe”.
Relief, asked for or not, was on its way, by order of the King. On 10 October, people across the country went to church, fasted for the day and donated money to destitute Londoners. The new lord mayor, Sir William Bolton, for whom everyone had high hopes after Bloodworth, was in charge of administrating the £12,000 raised. It all ended in scandal, however, when he couldn’t account for £1,800 and had to resign. Pepys, no fan of his predecessor, called Bolton’s actions “the greatest piece of roguery that they say was ever found in a Lord Mayor”.
London was never be the same again. “I could not sleep till almost two in the morning through thoughts of fire,” Pepys wrote months later, in February 1667. Rebuilding, with fire-resistant bricks and mortar, had begun, but the mental scars would be harder to erase.
Paying the price: fire judges
Nobody agreed about who should pay for rebuilding after the Great Fire of London. Many landlords required tenants to continue paying for homes that didn’t exist anymore – some even claimed tenants should rebuild their homes at their own expense. The Fire of London Disputes Act declared: “Every one concerned should beare a proportionable share of the losse according to their severall Interests,” but admitted that “wherein in respect of the multitude of cases varying in their circumstances, noe certaine generall rule can be prescribed.” To oversee disputes at the Fire Court, 22 men were recruited as firen judges. Speed was imperative, so they usually pronounced judgement within a day of hearing cases. They gave up their time free of charge and heard hundreds of cases. Between 1671-74, portraits of each judge were painted as a thank you.
The ground may have been too hot to walk on, but that didn’t stop plans for rebuilding. First off the mark was Christopher Wren (not yet a ‘sir’) on 11 September, with a handsome peacock-tail grid of boulevards radiating from a central monument. He was followed by John Evelyn with a similar structure, containing an elegant kite-design at its centre. There were more radical suggestions, such as the severe, box-like grid of identical squares by Richard Newcourt, or retired army officer Valentine Knight’s terrifying ladderfest of tiny streets.
The plans received varying levels of excitement by Charles II, but none found favour with Londoners. No landowner was prepared to see his few square feet consumed into a giant communal grid. So the medieval criss-cross of alleyways and courtyards was rebuilt, albeit with wider streets and one new road. Strict building regulations dictated construction. Sensible, straight-sided houses were to be built in brick and stone only, with no overhanging jetties. There should be guttering with pipes, not spouts, and the Thames was to have proper quays, accessible by fire engines. Smoke-producing and other dangerous industries were to be sited together, a plan that pleased Evelyn, who had written Fumifugium, one of the first treatise on air pollution in London, in 1661.
Royal surveyor Wren was put in charge of the complex rebuild, working closely with his friend Robert Hooke, the city surveyor (and another polymath, known as an inventor, physicist, astronomer, biologist and artist).
Some structures had survived. The church of St Katherine Cree acted as a canteen for the thousands of labourers building the new city. Its brand-new rose window had been based on one in the old St Paul’s and, today, provides an idea as to how the previous cathedral looked. The Guildhall needed a new roof, but was otherwise relatively unscathed. A merchant’s house, now the OldWine Shades in Martin Lane, and one of the city’s last half-timbered buildings, 41–42 Cloth Fair also survived both the Great Fire and the Second World War. Oddly, there are very few surviving private houses. Lack of good quality materials and poor workmanship ensured most fell down quickly. Wren was very fussy about his materials, ensuring the great public buildings of the time, including St Paul’s Cathedral, were built to last.
Man with the plan: Christopher Wren
Scientist, mathematician, architect, engineer, Christopher Wren was one of a growing group of 17th-century polymaths. The son of a rector, he had grown to prominence as a professor of astronomy, first at London’s Gresham College, then Oxford. He mingled with the great minds of the day and became a founding member of the Royal Society. When Wren visited Paris, he became inspired by continental baroque design, which, combined with his love of physics and engineering, created his own unique style.
In charge of rebuilding London, Wren grew frustrated that his original plans were rejected, but he oversaw 51 new churches (23 still survive). His piéce de resistance was, of course, St Paul’s Cathedral. It was a building site before the fire, with piecemeal renovation ongoing instead of Wren’s requested wholesale demolition, which had been refused. But during the Great Fire, the wooden scaffolding surrounding the building created a mini-furnace – so Wren got his way after all. He was knighted in 1673 and went on to design many other famous London landmarks, including the royal hospitals at Greenwich and Chelsea.
London demanded a monument to the great disasters, and Christopher Wren was happy to oblige. He – and his friend Robert Hooke – couldn’t bear the idea of a useless pillar at a time stone was so precious, so the pair of fanatical astronomers sneakily created a precision-instrument, disguised as a classical column.
Opened in 1677, its spiral staircase has an open centre, with a secret door at the gilded urn at the top. This meant that Wren and Hooke could sit in an underground room, with their zenith telescope pointed through the stairs and the open trapdoor towards the heavens. Sadly, the only thing the two scientists couldn’t control was the rumble of traffic on the cobbled streets outside, which made their telescope practically unusable.
Who was to blame for the Great Fire of London?
Everyone looked to blame someone for the fire, with Roman Catholics under most suspicion, followed closely by foreigners. Things got ugly.
Then, out of the blue, French watchmaker Robert Hubert confessed. His story was shaky – he claimed he started the fire in Westminster, despite the flames never even reaching that far, then changed his tale to Pudding Lane, the fire’s base. Hubert’s mental condition was clearly unstable. The Earl of Clarendon watched his trail and described him as “a poor, distracted wretch”. Even the judge didn’t believe him, but he stuck to his story and all they could do was hang him. After his death, it was discovered Hubert hadn’t even been in London when the fire started.
Much of the blame culture was so Londoners could avoid looking at themselves
Much of the blame culture was so Londoners could avoid looking at themselves. Thomas Vincent, a Puritan preacher, published God’s Terrible Voice in the City by Plague and Fire in 1667, voicing what many secretly suspected – that God punished them for their sinful ways, not least those of Charles II’s extravagant court. In 1681, a plaque blaming papists for the fire was erected in Pudding Lane. It had to be removed in the 18th century, not as it offended Catholics, but as it caused congestion as people stopped to read it. An inscription on the Monument itself, also blaming the Roman church, wouldn’t be removed until the 1830s.
This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed
Historian Rebecca Rideal shares 10 lesser-known facts about the Great Fire of London
On 5 September 1666, the 33-year-old Samuel Pepys climbed the steeple of the ancient church of All Hallows-by-the-Tower and was met with the “the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw; everywhere great fires, oyle-cellars, and brimstone, and other things burning”. Leaving the church, he wandered along Gracechurch Street, Fenchurch Street and Lombard Street towards the Royal Exchange, which he found to be “a sad sight” with all the pillars and statues (except one of Sir Thomas Gresham) destroyed. The ground scorched his feet and he found nothing but dust, ash and ruins. It was the fourth day of the Great Fire of London and, though some parts of the city would continue to burn for months, the worst of the destruction was finally over.
Thanks in part to Pepys’s vivid diary entries, the story of the Great Fire is well known. Alongside the fortunes of Henry VIII’s wives, the Battle of Britain and the fate of Guy Fawkes, it forms part of a scattering of familiar islands in the muddy quagmire of British history. We all know, roughly speaking, what happened: during the early hours of 2 September 1666, a fire broke out in Thomas Farriner’s bakehouse on Pudding Lane, which blazed and spread with such ferocity and speed that within a few days the old City of London was reduced to a charred ruin. More than 13,000 houses, 87 churches and 44 livery halls were destroyed, the historic city gates were wrecked, and the Guildhall, St Paul’s Cathedral, Baynard’s Castle and the Royal Exchange were severely damaged – in some cases, beyond repair.
Those with more than a passing knowledge of the crucial facts might be aware of accounts of King Charles II fighting the fire alongside his brother, the Duke of York; of Samuel Pepys taking pains to bury his prized parmesan cheese; or of the French watchmaker Robert Hubert meeting his death at Tyburn after (falsely) claiming to have started the blaze. Here are 10 more facts you may not know about the Great Fire of London…
The Great Fire of London did not start on Pudding Lane
Thomas Farriner’s bakehouse was not located on Pudding Lane proper. Hearth Tax records created just before the fire place Farriner’s bakehouse on Fish Yard, a small enclave off Pudding Lane. His immediate neighbours included a waterbearer named Henry More, a sexton [a person who looks after a church and churchyard] named Thomas Birt, the parish ‘clearke’, a plasterer named George Porter, one Alice Spencer, a widow named Mrs Mary Whittacre, and a turner named John Bibie.
The Great Fire of London was not Thomas Farriner’s first brush with trouble
In 1627, the then 10- or 11-year-old Thomas Farriner was discovered by a city constable wandering alone within the city walls, having run away from his master [it is not known why he had a master at this time]. He was detained at Bridewell Prison, where the incident was recorded in the book of minutes.
During the 17th century, Bridewell (a former Tudor palace) was a kind of proto-correctional facility where young waifs and strays would often be sent to receive a rudimentary education, many of them then cherry-picked to become apprentices to the prison’s patrons.
During the boy’s hearing, it transpired that he had attempted to run away from his master three or four times previously. Farriner was released, only to be detained once more in 1628 for the same reason. A year later he was apprenticed as a baker under one Thomas Dodson.
Far from levelling the city, the Great Fire of London scorched the skin and flesh from the city’s buildings – but their skeletons remained
The ruins of many of London’s buildings had to be demolished before rebuilding work could begin. A sketch from 1673 by Thomas Wyck shows the extent of the ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral that remained. John Evelyn described the remaining stones as standing upright, fragile and “calcined”.
What’s more, the burning lasted months, not days: Pepys recorded that cellars were still burning in March of the following year. With plenty of nooks and crannies to commandeer, gangs operated among the ruins, pretending to offer travellers a ‘link’ (escorted passage) – only to rob them blind and leave them for dead. Many of those who lost their homes and livelihood to the fire built temporary shacks on the ruins of their former homes and shops until this was prohibited.
At the time of the Great Fire, England was engaged in a costly war with the Dutch Republic and was gearing up for one last battle
The conflict, known as the Second Anglo-Dutch War, was the second of three 17th-century maritime wars to be fought between the English and the Dutch over transatlantic trade supremacy. By September 1666 there had already been five major engagements: the battle of Lowestoft (1665); the battle of Vågen (1665); the Four Days’ Battle (1666); St James’s Day Battle (1666); and Holmes’s Bonfire (1666).
In the confusion of the blaze, some believed that the Great Fire of London had been started by Dutch merchants in retaliation for the last of these engagements – a vicious raid on the Dutch islands of Vlieland and Terschelling – which had occurred barely a month earlier. That attack had been orchestrated by Sir Robert Holmes (renowned for his short fuse and unpredictable nature) and resulted in the destruction of an estimated 150 Dutch merchant ships and, crucially, the torching of the town of West-Terschelling.
While the attack was celebrated with bonfires and bells in London, it appalled the Dutch, and there was rioting in Amsterdam. Aphra Behn – at that time an English spy stationed in Antwerp – wrote how she had seen a letter from a merchant’s wife “that desires her husband to com [sic] to Amsterdam home for that theare [sic] never was so great a desolation & mourning”. Behn was supposed to travel to Dort to continue her espionage, but declared that she “dare as well be hang’d as go”.
Though we do not know exactly how many people died as a result of the Great Fire of London, it was almost certainly more than commonly accepted figures
In the traditional telling of the Great Fire story, the human cost is negligible. Indeed, only a few years after the blaze, Edward Chamberlayne claimed that “not above six or eight persons were burnt,” and an Essex vicar named Ralph Josselin noted that “few perished in the flames.” There was undoubtedly enough warning to ensure that a large proportion of London’s population vacated hazardous areas, but for every sick person helped out of their house, there must have been others with no one to aid them. What’s more, parish records hint at a far greater death toll than previously supposed.
At the parish of St Giles Cripplegate, for example, the number of burials increased by a third (presumably a result of citizens from destroyed parishes using this surviving church). Interestingly, there was a disproportionate rise (by two-thirds) in the number of deaths due to being “aged” and an increase in deaths attributed to “fright”. Likewise, the parish records of St Boltoph Bishopsgate show that the mean age at the time of death rose by an astonishing 12 years, from 18.3 to 31.3. This suggests either that older people were more likely to die in the month of September or that, in an age in which infanticide was rife, the deaths of young infants were not being recorded – perhaps even both.
The diarist John Evelyn certainly believed that the foul smell in the air at the time of the fire was caused by the bodies, beds and other combustible goods of “some poor creatures”, and the poet John Dryden – who, it must be said, was out of London at the time – wrote of “helpless infants left amidst the fire”. When reports reached France, a substantial loss of life was implied: “The letters from London speak of the terrible sights of persons burned to death and calcined limbs, making it easy to believe the terror though it cannot be exactly described. The old, tender children and many sick and helpless persons were all burned in their beds and served as fuel for the flames.”
Test your knowledge of the Great Fire of London with our history quiz
Louis XIV of France offered to help
It took more than a week for news of the fire to reach the French royal court in Paris, but when it did there was talk of little else. The Venetian ambassador in the French capital declared that “this accident… will be memorable through all the centuries.”
Privately, Louis XIV must have been thrilled. It was wrongly believed that the fire had destroyed England’s magazine stores and that the English navy would be forced to retire. Because of a 1662 treaty with the Dutch Republic, France had been obliged to enter the Anglo-Dutch War on the side of the Dutch, but the French king had neither the appetite nor the navy to play an active role.
Louis XIV publicly ordered that he would not tolerate “any rejoicings about it [the Great Fire], being such a deplorable accident involving injury to so many unhappy people”, and offered to send aid in the shape of food provisions and anything else that might be required to relieve the suffering of those left destitute.
There had been a genuine plot to burn the City of London
In April 1666, a group of parliamentarians led by John Rathbone and William Saunders were tried at the Old Bailey and found guilty of conspiring to assassinate Charles II, overthrow government and fire the City of London, letting down the portcullis to keep out assistance. The trial was recorded in the London Gazette, which revealed that the plotters purportedly had the support of a conspirator in Holland and had planned to execute their “Hellish design” on the anniversary of Oliver Cromwell’s death, 3 September.
People let their imaginations run away with them
By 6 September, news of the fire had travelled as far as Berwick, where local soldiers claimed that they had seen visions of “ships in the air”. Reporting the phenomenon back to Whitehall, one Mr Scott assured his contact that he believed it to have just been their imaginations. As he travelled across Wiltshire to gather more information about the fire, Bulstrode Whitelocke bumped into his friend Sir Seymour Pyle who had “had too much wine”. Pyle claimed that there had been a huge fight between 60,000 Presbyterians and the militia, which had resulted in the death and imprisonment of 30,000 rebels. Whitelocke soon discovered that Pyle had been “drunke & swearing & lying att almost every word”.
The Great Fire of London was predicted
A few weeks before the fire, one Mr Light claimed to have been asked by a “zealous Papist”: “You expect great things in ’66, and think that Rome will be destroyed, but what if it be London?”
Meanwhile, five months before the fire Elizabeth Styles claimed to have been told by a Frenchman that at some point between June and October there would not be “a house left between Temple Bar and London Bridge”.
In 1651, an astrologer named William Lilly created a pamphlet entitled Monarchy or No Monarchy that contained illustrative predictions of the future state of England. The images depicted not only a city blazing with fire, but scenes of naval warfare, infestations of rodents, mass death and starvation. Unsurprisingly, Lilly was called in for questioning following the fire of 1666.
Watch: Dan Jones talks to HistoryExtra about walking the route of the fire street by street, following its four-day trail of devastation as it raged through the city
The Great Fire wasn’t the only blaze in London in 1666
London was thrown into a panic during the evening of 9 November when a fire broke out in the Horse Guard House, next to Whitehall Palace. It was believed that the blaze had been caused by a candle falling into some straw. According to Samuel Pepys, the whole city was put on alarm by the “horrid great fire” and a lady even fell into fits of fear. With drums beating and guards running up and down the streets, by 10pm the fire was extinguished, with little damage caused.
Rebecca Rideal is a specialist factual television producer and writer whose credits include The Adventurers’ Guide to Britain, Bloody Tales of the Tower and David Attenborough’s First Life. She runs the online magazine The History Vault and is currently studying for her PhD on Restoration London during the Great Plague and the Great Fire at University College London.
This list of facts was first published on HistoryExtra in September 2016
Dominic Sandbrook describes the events of 2 September 1666 – the date that the City of London was engulfed by "an infinite great fire" – from the perspective of Samuel Pepys
Samuel Pepys was fast asleep when, at three in the morning of Sunday 2 September 1666, one of his maids, Jane Birch, banged on the door with the news that there was a "great fire" in the City of London. "So I rose and slipped on my nightgowne," Pepys wrote later, "and went to her window." There he saw the telltale tinge of red in the distance. In fact, the fire had already been blazing for a couple of hours, having broken out in Thomas Farriner's bakery in Pudding Lane. The parish constables thought they should demolish the neighbouring houses to stop it spreading, but the lord mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, was not convinced. "Pish!" he famously remarked. "A woman could piss it out." To be fair, he was not alone in his view that the fire would soon be contained. From his window in Seething Lane, Pepys thought little of it, "and so went to bed again and to sleep".
By seven in the morning, when Pepys woke again, it seemed that the worst must be over; from his window, he “saw the fire not so much as it was and further off”. But then Jane reappeared with bad news. Almost 300 houses, she said, had burned down already; now the fire had reached Fish Street, near London Bridge. Alarmed, Pepys pulled on his clothes and walked to the Tower, where he went up to get a better view. “And there,” he recorded, “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.”
His heart overflowing with worry, he scurried down to the waterside and called for a boat, and now the full scale of the disaster became clear. The Thames presented a spectacle of calamity, “everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that layoff; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the waterside to another.” Even the pigeons, he noticed, seemed transfixed by the catastrophe: “loth to leave their houses,” they “hovered about the windows” until their wings caught fire and they fell to earth.
By now it was mid-morning. Whipped up by the eastern wind, the flames were leaping from house to house, consuming all in their path. Built from wood and straw, clustered together in tight alleys, London’s tenements were the perfect tinderbox, their overhanging jetties making it easier for the fire to move from street to street. At Whitehall, a frightened Pepys warned Charles II that “unless his majesty did command houses to be pulled down nothing could stop the fire”. Clearly much troubled, the king ordered him to find the lord mayor, and to tell him “to spare no houses, but to pull down before the fire every way”.
But when Pepys caught up with Sir Thomas Bloodworth in Canning Street, the mayor was like “a fainting woman”, with a handkerchief tied around his face to protect him from the smoke. “Lord! what can I do?” Bloodworth cried. “I am spent: people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.”
And so the fire burned on. In Thames Street, stores of pitch and tar were ablaze; in neighbouring streets, warehouses of oil, brandy and wine were up in flames. Pepys himself went off for dinner, which, he recorded, was “extraordinarily good”. But when he emerged, it was to scenes of utter chaos, the streets full of weeping families and soot-stained refugees. That night, he and his wife went for a drink on the South Bank, the City glowing red in the night. “It made me weep to see it,” Pepys wrote. “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 ruins.”
The inferno blazed on, all Monday and all Tuesday, only dying down when the wind fell on Wednesday. In the long run, it was the making of modern London: without the fire, there would be no St Paul’s and far fewer Wren churches. But at the time, there seemed no consolation. The smouldering city seemed like a vision of the Apocalypse, wrote the diarist John Evelyn. “London was, but is no more.”
Dominic Sandbrook is the author of State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970–1974 (Allen Lane)
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