The great fire of London

On September 2, 1666, the heart of the British land was devastated by a strong fire. The disaster was so great that it would go down in history as the Great Fire of London. How it all started? With an accident in a bakery on Pudding Lane or, as was believed for 150 years, with a Catholic conspiracy?

Fires were not uncommon in London; they were unavoidable, given the large number of wooden buildings of the time. Many hoped that the city would be destroyed by fire one day. Even in 1665, King Carlos II had warned the mayor that the narrow streets and wooden houses were a great danger. The risk was all the greater since the hot and dry summer of 1666 left a parched city with no water reserves.

However, Londoners’ biggest fear was not fire, but the plague, which had killed more than 60,000 people in previous years. Although the king had returned to Whitehall in February 1666 after taking refuge in the city for a time from the plague, the danger remained great, especially from the strong easterly wind and the rapid spread of the disease.

King Charles II (Source: TimeToast)

Thus, in September 1666, a small spark was enough for the inevitable disaster to occur. It all started at the home of Thomas Farynor, the king’s baker, in Pudding Lane, near London Bridge. It was two in the morning on a Sunday. The baker’s helper smelled smoke and woke the occupants, the family escaped the burning house, but the maid was unable to escape. She would become the first of four confirmed victims of the fire.

The Great Fire of London (September 1666) with Ludgate and Old St Paul’sca 1670, 17th century English (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The fire spread very quickly due to the narrow streets that separated the wooden buildings. Within an hour, news of the fire reached Mayor Thomas Bloodworth, who was unimpressed by the news. However, at dawn, even London Bridge caught fire. Only a third of the bridge burned, as an open space in the bridge, which separated two groups of buildings, stopped the spread of the fire, thus limiting the fire on the north bank of the Thames.

Most of the information about the fire is found in Samuel Pepys’ diary. Seeing the fire spread and the mayor failing to act, he proceeded to Whitehall, where he spoke with the king and his brother, the Duke of York. Charles II immediately ordered Bloodworth to do something, to destroy as many houses as necessary to limit the fire. Unfortunately, these first attempts to create empty spaces to stop the fire failed due to the force of the wind.

By Monday morning, the fire had spread to the north and west and the city was in a panic. By midday the smoke could be seen fifty miles from Oxford, and the inhabitants of the capital began to take refuge in the open spaces on the outskirts of the city. Therefore, until evening, the streets were blocked by carts carrying those who wanted to flee, and the fire was directed at the Cathedral of Saint Paul, which did not escape destruction.

The Great Fire of London, c.1666 (Source: Museum of London)

The fire continued for the next two days, despite all attempts by the authorities to stop it. It calmed down only on Wednesday when the fire literally hit a brick wall, and the empty spaces created by the demolition finally did their job when the wind changed direction.

The fire was extinguished on Thursday. By then, it had destroyed 373 acres of the city, 13,200 houses, and eighty-four churches. Officially, only four people died, but John Evelyn’s diary refers to the horrible smell caused by decomposing bodies.

Despite the massive damage caused to the city, the fire “cleansed” the heart of London of the plague: even the narrow, dirty streets where the plague had spread in 1665 burned, and the River Fleet, which then flowed into the Thames. and it was extremely dirty, it was practically sterilized by fire.

Once the fire was extinguished, the issue of guilt was immediately raised. Who had the fault? Hysteria gripped the people of London, who began to point fingers at strangers. In this case, the foreigners were mainly those of another religion (Roman Catholics) or the French. The king’s guards began to attack those who did not speak English well and fear spread among the French and Dutch in the city. Under these conditions, the Spanish ambassador opened his doors to all foreigners who feared for their lives, whether they were Dutch Protestants or French Catholics, when religious intolerance and xenophobia reappeared in society, born during the Reformation and accentuated by the Conspiracy of Gunpowder of 1605.

Wenceslaus Hollar’s map of London after the fire (Source: National Archives)

On Thursday, King Charles traveled to Moorfields, where 100,000 homeless Londoners had taken refuge. He addressed the people and declared that the fire had not been caused by foreign or subversive powers but had been an act of God. Few were convinced. People were looking for a scapegoat and no one but a stranger. They didn’t have long to wait.

A parliamentary commission was set up to investigate the fire at the end of September. During the investigation, a French Protestant watchmaker, Robert Hubert, confessed that he intentionally started the fire at the Pudding Lane bakery, with the help of twenty-three conspirators. However, those who knew him claimed that the man was mentally unbalanced, and details of his testimony came to light as false. Even so, the man was tried and sentenced by a jury to die by hanging.

In January 1667, the parliamentary committee concluded that no evidence had been found that the fire was anything other than God’s will, aided by strong winds and very dry weather preceding 2 September. Still, as the baker loudly claimed that he had completely turned off his ovens that night, various conspiracy theories continued to surface in the years that followed.

In 1678, during the “papal conspiracy” concocted by Titus Oates, the idea that the Catholics burned down the city in 1666 resurfaced. Then, in 1685, the Duke of Monmouth—who had rebelled against the new Catholic King James II—accused him to start the fire. It was not until 1831 that the inscription that the fire had been caused by “the treason and malice of the papal faction” was removed from the monument dedicated to the fire. Thus, for 150 years the baker’s mistake was blamed on the Catholic community, since it most likely was.

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