Opinion & Features

The great lie of London

A model of London’s 17th-century skyline is set alight on the River Thames (PA)

At around 9pm on Saturday September 1, 1666, London baker Thomas Farriner went to bed after a day making dry biscuits for the Royal Navy. Farriner, who lived with his daughter, maid and manservant in Pudding Lane, had something of a chequered history. As a 10-year-old he had spent time at Bridewell, a sort of borstal where youngsters might get an education, until eventually he was apprenticed and turned his life around. Until he burned down London by accident, that is. At 1am that night Farriner’s manservant found the ground floor filled with smoke and by Wednesday 70,000 people were homeless.

After a hot summer the capital was dry and the fire was spread by a strong easterly wind. It was aided by the incompetence of the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, who initially refused suggestions that he destroy houses to create firebreaks, on the grounds that their owners could not be found to seek permission. Panicking, he made his famous reply that “Pish! A woman could p— it out” – not the best soundbite in history. And then he left.

King Charles II and his brother James, Duke of York, might have taken control earlier but London had been heavily parliamentarian during the civil war, and many of its city elders were active in the struggle against Charles’s father. Indeed, it did not help that many former members of the New Model Army kept muskets filled with gunpowder in their homes.

But by Monday the king and duke had come down the river from Whitehall to run the operation, both men personally manning the pumps into the night. The following day, the fire took hold of St Paul’s Cathedral, where many people had stored their prized possessions in the misguided belief that they would be safe. So intense was the blaze, now a firestorm reaching 1,250° C, that the lead roof melted and the 11th-century cathedral came crashing down.

In the end 87 churches and 13,000 houses were destroyed, along with countless historic buildings such as Baynard’s Castle. The total financial loss was around £9.9 million, or £37 billion in today’s money. While officially the death toll was between six and eight, it was actually most likely in the hundreds.

On the Wednesday evening tens of thousands were camped out at Moorfields, Hampstead and Islington. The wind and fire had now died down, but the rumour mill – like a blaze in its own uncontrollable way – would take longer to subside. Among the refugees stories spread that a light in the sky was a signal for 50,000 French and Dutch immigrants in the city to rise up, killing the men and raping the women.

On Thursday King Charles issued an order stating that people should “attend the business of quenching the fire”, rather than attacking random foreigners, as they had been doing. He said the fire was an act of God, not a “Papist plot” – but then he would say that, being the son of a papist and, many suspected, a secret papist himself.

The mob was not being entirely irrational. England was in a state of on-off war with the Netherlands and France, and indeed the English had burnt the Dutch port of West-Terschelling to the ground just two weeks earlier, so you could hardly blame them if they had started the fire in London.

Soon enough a Frenchman, watchmaker Robert Hubert, turned up claiming to have started the whole thing as an agent of the pope, although after his death it turned out that he had been in the middle of the North Sea on September 1. Despite the lord chief justice declaring the man’s confession “disjointed” and that he couldn’t be guilty, Hubert confessed and was hanged on October 29.

But after a Dutch and French invasion never materialised, blame turned elsewhere.

A government committee was set up on September 25 to hear from the public, encouraging every crackpot in London to come forward with their own credulous tale about Catholic plots, mostly heard in pubs. The parliamentary report was dismissive of these “very frivolous” claims, and declared there was no evidence “to prove it to be a general design of wicked agents, Papists or Frenchmen, to burn the city”.

It didn’t matter. The following year came Pyrotechnica Loyolana (“Ignatian fireworks”), a book claiming that Catholics had started the Great Fire because the Jesuits were experts at fireworks, apparently. Words such “fire”, “flames” and “gunpowder” were highlighted throughout the book.

And when in 1681, a plaque was erected on the site of the Pudding Lane bakery, it read: “Here by the permission of Heaven, Hell broke loose upon this Protestant city from the malicious hearts of barbarous Papists, by the hand of their agent Hubert, who confessed.” It was only taken down in the 18th century because it was causing people to get in the way of traffic; a similar papist claim at the Monument remained until 1830. And so, despite the papist plot of 1666 being as ludicrous as the 1678 hysteria led by Titus Oates, Catholics somehow still became the wrongdoers in the narrative.

Yet as with much of English history, whether it be the Conquest or the Reformation, what was a brutal and tragic affair ultimately led to something positive: in this case, the birth of Wren’s London, and the end of the plague (although this is heavily disputed). What a pity then that, as with all aspects of Whig history, Catholics had to be cast as the baddies.