September 2nd, 2016, is the 350th anniversary of the start of the Great Fire of London, 1666.
There is a slight possibility that without Samuel Pepys’ and John Evelyn’s diaries (first published in the 1810s-20s), that the Great Fire would have died out in the popular imagination long ago: the extraordinary vivacity with which they wrote about the destruction of their beloved city made the Pepys and Evelyn diaries classics of their genre, so that they have gone through innumerable reprints during the past 200 years, with countless quotations. The fire is typically the section to which one gravitates when picking up copies of their diaries for a little light reading.
In Canada, I first encountered Pepys’ diary in Grade 12 English Literature as part of the curriculum, reading his entry on the Great Fire. School children in England hear about Pepys and the Great Fire at an even younger age.
Some other diarists also recorded their experiences of the fire. The Oxford antiquary Anthony Wood,
“2 Sept., 1666, a lamentable fire broke out in London in the morning, being Sunday. The wind being eastward blew clouds of smoke over Oxon the next day, and chiefly Tuesday, and the sunshine was much darkned. The same night also the moone was darkned by clouds of smoak and looked reddish. The fire or flame made a noise like the waves of the sea. . . . . . Soe suddenly did it come and therby caused such distraction and severall forgat their names when they with their money or goods under their armes were examined by the watch that then immediately was appointed. Others that had occasion to write letters a day or 2 after it ended, forgat the day of the mounth and the mounth of the year. Others quite distracted for the generall loss they have received. Thousands utterly undone that had houses there. Those that had a house to-day were the next glad of the shelter of an hedge or a pigstie or stable. Those that were this day riding wantonly in coaches, were, the next, glad to ride in dung-cards to save their lives. . . . . This fire did soe much affrighten the nation that all townes stood upon their owne defence day and night, and particularly Oxon, every one being soe suspicious that noe sorry fellow or woman could pass but they examined him, noe gun or squib could goe off but they thought it the fatall blow.” [The Life and Times of Anthony Wood, 2.85-6].
Another is Richard Baxter in the Reliquiae Baxterianae (1696),
“. . . The people having none to conduct them aright, could do nothing to resist it, but stand and see their Houses burn without Remedy; the Engines being presently out of Order, and useless. The streets were crowded with People and Carts, to carry away what Goods they could get out: And they that were most active, and befriended (by their Wealth) got Carts, and saved much; and the rest lost almost all. The Loss in Houses and Goods is scarcely to be valued: And among the rest, the Loss of Books was an exceeding great Detriment to the Interest of Piety and Learning: Almost all the Booksellers in St. Paul’s Church-Yard brought their Books into Vaults under St. Paul’s Church, where it was thought almost impossible that Fire should come. But the Church it self being on fire, the exceeding weight of the Stones falling down, did break into the Vault, and let in the Fire, and they could not come near to save the books. The Library also of Sion-Colledge was burnt, and most of the Libraries of Ministers, Conformable and Nonconformable, in the City; with the Libraries of many Nonconformists of the Countrey, which had been lately brought up to the City. I saw the half burnt Leaves of Books near my Dwelling at Acton six miles from London; but others found them near Windsor, almost twenty miles distant. . . .
. . . . Thus was the best, and one of the fairest Cities in the world turn’d into Ashes and Ruines in Three Days space, with many score Churches, and the Wealth and Necessaries of the Inhabitants. The Number of Houses are recorded by others.
It was a sight that might have given any Man a lively sense of the Vanity of this World, and all the Wealth and Glory of it, and of the future conflagration of all the World. To see the Flames mount up towards Heaven, and proceed so furiously without restraint: To see the streets filled with people astonished, that had scarce sense left them to lament their own calamity. To see the fields filled with heaps of Goods, and sumptuous Buildings, curious Rooms, costly Furniture and Household-Stuff: Yea, Warehouses and furnished Shops and Libraries, &c. all on a flame, and none durst come near to receive any thing. To see the King and Nobles ride about the streets beholding all these Desolations, and none could afford the least Relief. To see the Air, as far as could be beheld, so filled with the smoak, that the Sun shined through it, with a colour like Blood; yea even when it was setting in the West, it so appeared to them that dwelt on the West side of the City. But the dolefullest sight of all was afterwards, to see what a ruinous confused place the City was, by Chimneys and Steeples only standing in the midst of Cellars and heaps of Rubbish; so that it was hard to know where the streets had been, and dangerous, of a long time to pass through the Ruines, because of the Vaults, and fire in them. No man that seeth not such a thing, can have a right apprehension of the dreadfulness of it.” [Reliq. Baxt. 3.16-17].
The classic book on the subject of the Great Fire is Walter George Bell’s, The Great Fire of London (1920; reprinted numerous times). Unfortunately I don’t yet have a copy at the time of writing this, but copies are readily available online. One can find references to this work in modern works on the topic.
T. F. Reddaway in 1940 published a timely book, The Rebuilding of London After the Great Fire. In 1943 he wrote, “Since this book appeared, London has been repeatedly bombed. Much damage has been done and in considerable though scattered areas every building is now demolished. Rebuilding, forbidden in most cases until the war ends, has been for that reason the more widely discussed. Inevitably, references to the rebuilding after the Great Fire have been freely made. Lessons have been sought and comparisons drawn.”
A certain emotional attachment comes with Reddaway, naturally, considering the firestorm that occurred during the Blitz on 29/30th December 1940, shortly after his book was first published. Aside from the famous link between the Great Fire 1666 and the Blitz fire; i.e., that the mediaeval St Paul’s was destroyed in the Great Fire and Wren’s replacement was a spectacular icon of indomitability in 1940 that still unites and strengthens hearts to this day (St Paul’s stood while all London burned); there are further contrasts and connections that can be made.
Unfortunately it was the case that hysteria and mob rule occurred among London’s populace in 1666: rumours abounded that fireballs and incendiaries were purposely thrown in houses about the city by the French and Dutch who were innocent. During the Blitz thousands of incendiaries were indeed dropped by Germans to purposely set the city on fire; i.e., the 17thC Londoner’s fears came true 274 years later, though no one then could have imagined the method.
Reddaway’s book is the text for knowing the rest of the story of 1666 (of which he says, “Every schoolchild in England learns the date”), once the flames were out and the devastation realized, how the long process of rebuilding was decided and progressed under Robert Hooke and Sir Christopher Wren and others; landowners, renters, lawyers, etc.
There are several more recent books on the topic of the Great Fire. Most of them are for children. For more mature readers, see Stephen Porter’s The Great Fire of London (1996). Porter in June 2016 gave a Gresham College lecture on the topic which is viewable online both at the Gresham website (with transcription and audio) and on YouTube.
The Dreadful Judgement (2001) by Hanson.
By Permission of Heaven (2003) by Tinniswood.
Coincidentally they were at some point given the same subtitle by publishers along the way, The True Story of the Great Fire of London.
They both have their merits. Both are splendid works of research and highly readable accounts. Both provide small maps of the daily gradual progression of the fire, as well as maps of the full extent.
Hanson is rather intriguing on the topic of Bishop de Braybroke’s corpse which was put on display. He contends that the body, which was as stiff as a plank and had a red beard and hair; nails, etc.; hailed as a miracle of preservation, “was almost certainly not that of de Braybroke but one of those fleeing from the Great Fire who sought sanctuary in St Paul’s. Finding himself cut off as the flames roared through the cathedral, the man would have taken refuge in the broken tomb. There he would have suffocated as the firestorm drew every breath of oxygen from the air, and then mummified, baked by the heat until the flesh of his body was as dry as bone. A similar body was found after the firestorm that engulfed Dresden during the Second World War, ‘a completely shrivelled corpse of a man, naked, his skin like brawn leather, but with a beard and hair on his head.'” Tinniswood by contrast goes along with the old story that it was de Braybroke (read more about it in Pepys).
If you can’t choose which to read, whether Hanson or Tinniswood, read both books. In my opinion the two complement each other nicely.
Regarding antiquarian items related to the Great Fire of 1666, aside from collecting early copies of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn (not just the diary, but Fumifugium and London Redivivum), the enthusiast might like to collect pamphlets of that time period. There were several pamphlets prophesying the fire; more pamphlets about the fire, such as Thomas Vincent’s Gods Terrible Judgments in the City, and the anonymous Observations Both Historical and Moral Upon the Burning of London September 1666 by Rege Sincera (shown below is my copy of the Observations printed in the Harleian Miscellany, 1793).
A copy of the original pamphlet printed in 1667 was sold at Bonhams.
Also printed at the time were poems, e.g., Dryden’s “Annus Mirabilis” printed 1667 (second edition 1688) which is a splendid piece. The fire begins around stanza 211.
“Such was the Rise of this prodigious fire,
Which in mean Buildings first obscurely bred,
From thence did soon to open Streets aspire,
And straight to Palaces and Temples spread.”
There were also common ballads about the fire, one of which can be heard on the CD Penny Merriments: Street Songs of 17th Century England on the Naxos label, track # 17, “London Mourning in Ashes” (here is another recording of it on Youtube).
Antiquarian engravings of the Great Fire and Monument are also available dating from the 18th-19th centuries. Plenty can be found on various sites such as ABE and eBay. Cassell’s Illustrated History of England comes to mind. Photographs of the Monument are another collectable.
Regarding printed books, collections of books printed in London just prior to and just after the Great Fire dating 1665-6-7 are also worth collecting. One such book is Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity, the first thus prefixed with Izaak Walton’s life of Hooker. Samuel Pepys bought a copy of this, which he records in his diary on April 15, 1667, “Thence I to my new bookseller’s, and there bought Hooker’s Polity, the new edition.”
One can also collect printed sermons preached and published shortly after the fire occurred. The most common perhaps are Seth Ward and Edward Stillingfleet preaching on the Fast Day, October 10th, 1666, to the houses of Parliament.
Stillingfleet is the more interesting historically; he is more expressive, seemingly venting his emotions somewhat,
“Who among all the Citizens of London could have been perswaded, but the day before the fire brake out, nay when they saw the flames for near a day together, that ever in four days time, not a fourth part of the City should be left standing? For when were they ever more secure & inapprehensive of their danger than at this time? they had not been long returned to their Houses, which the Plague had driven them from, and now they hoped to make some amends for the loss of their Trade before; but they returned home with the same sins they carried away with them; like new Moons, they had a new face and appearance, but the same spots remained still: or it may be, increased by that scumm they had gathered in the Countries where they had been. . . . But that which betrayed them to so much security, was their late deliverance from so sweeping a Judgement as the Plague had been to the City and Suburbs of it: they could by no means think, when they had all so lately escaped the Grave, that the City it self should be so near being buried in its own ruines; that the fire which had missed their blood should seize upon their houses; that there should be no other way to purge the infected air, but by the flames of the whole City.” (pp.8-9).
Stillingfleet’s sermon was almost attended by Samuel Pepys, “Thence with [Batten] to Westminster, to the parish church, where the Parliament-men, and Stillingfleete in the pulpit. So full, no standing there; so he and I to eat herrings at the Dog Taverne.”
On the same day, October 10, 1666, a sermon was preached before King Charles II., which in my opinion is the most sought-after – the title-page features Wenceslaus Hollar’s famous engraving of old St Paul’s Cathedral on fire – William Sancroft’s, Lex Ignea or, The School of Righteousness. A sermon preached before the King, Octob. 10, 1666, at the solemn fast appointed for the late fire in London.
Two passages are particularly memorable:
“And all to teach us this Lesson, That ’tis Sin puts the Thunder into Gods Hand, and turns Flames of Love into a consuming fire. And therefore dream no longer of Granado’s or Fire-Balls, or the rest of those witty Mischeifs; search no more for Boutefieus or Incendiaries, Dutch or French . . . Turn your Eyes inward into your own Bosoms; there lurks the great Make-bate, the grand Boutefieu between Heaven and us.” (pp.21-2).
“A City in the Meanness of the Materials, the Oldness of the Buildings, the straightness of some Streets, the ill Scituation of others, and many like Inconveniences, so expos’d to this dismal Accident, that it must needs have been long since in Ashes, had not his miraculous Mercy preserv’d it.” (pp.26-7).
Another antiquarian Great Fire collectable, though I don’t know how easily found, would be London indentures dating post-1666 during the rebuilding of the city. So far I have only one, dated 1681, a release to Mr Abraham Wessell of the ground rents of houses in St Clements Lane, Eastcheap.
Here is St Clements Lane in the upper left corner; detail map provided in Hanson’s The Dreadful Judgement facing p.109.
There is a splendid section in the indenture with the words “lately erected”, and the lane is near where the Great Fire began.
“Two Messuages or Tenements with the yards and Outhowses thereunto belonging Scytuate lyeing and being in St Clements Lane in the parish of St Clements Eastcheape London and there lately erected by Thomas Bristow Citizen and Turner of London upon certaine Tofts and peeces of ground fronting to the saide Lane called St Clements Lane on the East, and Conteyning from North to South in ffront Thirty Nyne foot and tenn ynches of assize little more or lesse, abutting upon the Messuage on the west of Richard Glover backwards from the said Streete,” etc. etc.
In rebuilding the city it was highly important that every inch was accounted for and that landowners rebuilt within the plots that they legally owned prior to the fire. To keep order and sort out the inevitable problems, a Fire Court was established.
It is worth remarking here that at the Vancouver Public Library, Special Collections, there is a folio KJV printed by Barker in 1617 (220.5 B58 AU26) that reputedly suffered damage in the Great Fire of 1666. Unfortunately it seems impossible to verify this.
The Bible was “restored” in Victoria’s reign, completely rebound in full leather (which has been covered with a removable black slip) over wooden boards; some of the pages were re-edged or mounted; and the block was gilt goffered, covering up whatever evidence may have existed. It is absolutely possible that it was in a church in London in 1666 and carried away during the fire (records exist of such scenarios occurring); but there is no evidence of church ownership extant that I can find, nor any evidence of damage such as from flames or smoke. That the first and last pages are tattered is commensurate with use.
Something rather more factual is held at Simon Fraser University, Special Collections, Weever’s Ancient Funerall Monuments (DA 28 W38 1631). The book was owned by an avid London antiquarian in WW2; he wrote up a sort of diary entry on the endleaves together with some mediaeval research. The book itself is an antiquarian’s dream as it records so many inscriptions of funereal church monuments destroyed in the Great Fire only thirty-five years after printing. Yet, the owner during the time of the London Blitz included an equally valid piece of modern history :-
“The Temple Church is one of 3 round ones in England, the other 2 being Cambridge and Northampton. Fortunately the Temple Church in London escaped the Erial(?) Fire but not an incendiary bomb in the May 1941 Air Raid – which burnt the roof and the great iron girders 14 ft long by 6 inches thick fell down on the Crusaders tombs below crushing their faces and legs and bodies in most cases but leaving some faces untouched and even some of the figures. It was a great mistake to leave built a heavy iron roof above these ancient relics, but (?) as they depict war (he that taketh up the sword shall perish by the sword) so did in part these ancient effigies. I myself went into the Temple Church in April 1941 (?) a month before they were bombed. I went because the Temple Library and (?) other buildings had already suffered by bombs, and even by land mines. I wished to (have?) a last (parting?) look at the old tombs. I was shocked that no brickwork had been built over these tombs to protect them from the (terrible?) fall of the roof. But (? ?) lose in money matters and even the necessary funds were not forthcoming to protect what they should have treasured. (?) wrong in saying they are (?) marble. For only Purbeck Marble is found in England. The (?) pieces showed only too well that they are made of a soft limestone. I felt sad I was one of the last to see them in their original condition. But I consoled myself that the Crusaders did not do any real good. They only irritated the Saracens and Turks so that (from?) Constantinople and almost to Vienna they came and conquered. Had they gone out as (r?) unarmed they might have won the people back to Christianity. But are we much better in AD 1942?”
He also pasted in a glossy postcard stamped Daily Mail depicting the Temple Church on fire during the bombings in 1941 onto a rear endpaper.
While not related in any way to the 1666 Great Fire, but specifically to the Blitz, nevertheless I’d like to share, that some years ago I bought a copy of Willis’ Architectural History of Canterbury Cathedral (1845), with no indication of its provenance. Upon receiving it in the mail and looking it over, I found that it had once belonged to Lambeth Palace and was given away by the librarian C. R. Dodwell in the 1950s during the post-war cleanup.
Since the book has no shelf marks (it was re-spined ca1970s with new endpapers), it’s impossible to tell where in the building the book was kept during the time that the Palace was bombed; likely the Great Hall; yet it seems certain the book was present in the Palace at the time of the air raids which did much damage to the library.
If you are in the London area, visit the Museum of London’s exhibit, Fire! Fire! which looks splendid. The exhibition is on from 23 July 2016 – 17 April 2017. A 17th century fire engine has been restored and is on display there.
Medieval Great Fires of London
Great Fire of London 1666
The Great Fire’s Great Column – a History of the Great Fire of London
Five ways the Great Fire changed London
Robert Hooke, Early Science and Surveying
Robert Hooke: Victim of Genius
Lisa Jardine on Christopher Wren and St Paul’s Cathedral
Scientists and Craftsmen in Sir Christopher Wren’s London
In 2015, Dr Anthony Geraghty gave a Gresham College lecture entitled Sir Christopher Wren and the Rebuilding of the City Churches, which is viewable online both at the Gresham website (with transcription and audio) and on YouTube.
In 2016, Dr Simon Thurley gave a Gresham College lecture entitled Sir Christopher Wren: Buildings, Place and Genius, which is viewable online both at the Gresham website (with transcription and audio) and on YouTube.
Peter Ackroyd’s London, Fire & Destiny
John Evelyn: Living for Ingenuity, by Gillian Darley, in which there is an excellent chapter on the Great Fire.
‘A More Beautiful City’: Robert Hooke and the Rebuilding of London after the Great Fire, by Michael Cooper.
England’s Leonardo: Robert Hooke and the Seventeenth-Century Scientific Revolution, by Allan Chapman. http://www.roberthooke.org.uk/leonardo.htm.
The Curious Life of Robert Hooke, by Lisa Jardine.
On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Career of Sir Christopher Wren, by Lisa Jardine.
A learned paper on the subject of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the legend that it was once the site of a Temple of Diana, considered by Wren and early antiquaries, http://www.academia.edu/5937963/The_Temple_of_Diana.
Revelation Restored: The Apocalypse in Later Seventeenth-Century England, by Warren Johnston.
Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker : Surviving the Great Fire of London, by Hazel Forsyth, recently published and can be bought at the Book Depository.