Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Great Fire of London

Painting from the 1700s of the Great Fire of London
My visit home to London last year coincided with the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, probably the most famous event in English history that isn’t a battle. The anniversary was marked by a special exhibit at the Museum of London and a thrilling reenactment of the blaze in a replica of the 1666 city constructed on floating barges in the Thames.
Street sign for Pudding Lane in London

As all English schoolchildren learn, the Great Fire broke out on September 2, 1666 at a bakery in Pudding Lane and soon spread, raging for three days and destroying most of the medieval city. Eighty-nine churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral, numerous public buildings and businesses, and about 13,000 houses went up in flames. By the time it had burned itself out, only a fifth of the old city was left. The most famous contemporary description of the fire is by Samuel Pepys in his diary. A master of the small human detail, Pepys gives a vivid account of panicked Londoners, even the birds:
Portrait of Samuel Pepys, London diarist
Samuel Pepys

“I rode down to the waterside, and there saw a lamentable fire. Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that lay off; 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. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies, till they some of them burned their wings and fell down.”

The writer John Evelyn gave a rather more apocalyptic description:

“Oh the miserable and calamitous spectacle! Such as haply the world had not seen since the foundation of it, nor be outdone till the universal conflagration thereof.” 

Proving that scapegoating and conspiracy theories are nothing new, rumors spread that the Dutch and French were responsible and that foreigners were seen “with balls of wild fire in their hands.” Preachers blamed the wrath of heaven and warned that worse was to come if Londoners did not repent of their sins.

Book cover for By Permission of Heaven: the True Story of the Great Fire of London
To learn more, check out this readable and thoroughly researched account: By Permission of Heaven: the True Story of the Great Fire of London by Adrian Tinniswood.

Of course, an event as dramatic as the Great Fire has inspired many novelists:

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor
When a body is found in the smoldering rubble of St. Paul’s Cathedral it turns out the man died not by fire but from a stab wound. Government spy James Marwood investigates in an atmosphere of crisis and dissent.

Dark Angels by Karleen Koen
Romance, politics, and intrigue at the Restoration court of Charles II, the Merry Monarch who surprised his subjects by his bravery in joining the fire fighters.

Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor
Called the Gone With the Wind of English history, this is the story of a penniless orphan who becomes a mistress to Charles II and lives through the dramas of his reign including the plague and the Great Fire of London.

From the Charred Remains by Susanna Calkins
In the aftermath of the Great Fire, lady’s maid Lucy Campion joins other stunned Londoners in the clean up effort, but becomes involved in investigating the death of a man whose body is found in the ruins, mysteriously untouched by fire.

Image of the Monument to the Great Fire of London
Monument to the Great Fire
From the ashes of London there arose a more beautiful city, much of it designed by the great architect Sir Christopher Wren. St. Paul’s Cathedral is his crowning achievement, but visitors to London should not miss the many surviving little Wren parish churches scattered throughout the City. A walking tour of these churches is one of the most memorable field trips of my schooldays. On my recent visit to London we made a pilgrimage to the Monument to the Great Fire, also designed by Sir Christopher Wren, which stands at the corner of Pudding Lane. From the top you have a panoramic view of 21st century London, worlds away from the cramped wooden city that burned in 1666.

English inscription describing the Monument to the Great Fire of London
Monument inscription
London skyline seen from the Monument

Rita T.

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