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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 did it all start? With an accident in a bakery in Pudding Lane or, as it was believed for 150 years, with a Catholic conspiracy?

Fires were not uncommon in London; they were inevitable, given the large number of wooden buildings specific to the era. Many expected the city to be destroyed by fire one day. Even in 1665, King Charles II had warned the Mayor that the narrow streets and wooden houses were a huge danger. The risk was all the greater as the hot and dry summer of 1666 left behind a dry city with no water reserves.

Nonetheless, the biggest fear of Londoners was not the 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 because of the plague, the danger was still great, especially because of the strong east wind and the rapid spread of the disease.

King Charles II (Source: TimeToast)

Thus, in September 1666, only a small spark was needed for the inevitable disaster to occur. It all started with the house of Thomas Farynor, the king’s baker, on Pudding Lane near London Bridge. It was two in the morning on a Sunday. The baker’s help smelled smoke and woke the occupants, the family escaped from the burning house, but the maid could not escape. She would become the first of the four confirmed victims of the fire.

Four days of hell

The Great Fire of London (September 1666) with Ludgate and Old St Paul’s, ca 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, the news of the fire reached Mayor Thomas Bloodworth, who was not impressed by the news. Nevertheless, by daybreak, even London Bridge had caught fire. Only a third of the bridge burned, as an open space on the bridge, which separated two groups of buildings, stopped the spread of the fire, thus limiting the fire on the northern bank of the Thames.

Most of the information about the fire is left in Samuel Pepys’ diary. Seeing the fire spread and the Mayor not taking action, he went 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 needed 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 north and west, and the city had panicked. By noon, the smoke could be seen eighty kilometers from Oxford, and the inhabitants of the capital began to take refuge in the open spaces on the outskirts of the city. Therefore, until the evening, the streets were blocked due to carts transporting those who wanted to flee, and the fire was heading to St. Paul’s Cathedral, 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 homes, and eighty-four churches. Officially, only four people died, but John Evelyn’s diary refers to the horrible smell caused by rotting 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 Fleet River, which then flowed into the Thames and was extremely dirty, was practically sterilized by fire.

Who’s to blame?

Once the fire was extinguished, the issue of guilt was immediately raised. Who was to blame? 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 assaulting 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, be they Dutch Protestants or French Catholics, when religious bigotry and xenophobia, born during the Reformation and accentuated by the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, reappeared in society.

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 not anyone but a stranger. They did not have much to look forward to.

A parliamentary committee was set up to investigate the fire at the end of September. During the investigation, a French Protestant watchmaker, Robert Hubert, confessed that he started the fire intentionally at the Pudding Lane bakery, assisted by twenty-three conspirators. However, those who knew him claimed that the man was mentally unbalanced, and details from his testimony came to light as false. Even so, the man was tried and sentenced by a jury to death 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 that preceded September 2nd. Still, as the baker loudly claimed that he had completely turned off his ovens that night, various conspiracy theories continued to emerge in the following years.

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

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