James Jonathan Gray Hist 3372 Fall 2009 Dr. Willis According to Adrian Tinniswood, seventeenth-century Londoners vacillated between seeing the Great Fire of London as an act of terrorism and an act of god. What were the major components of these explanations and why were contemporaries so eager to search for a reason for the calamity other than simple accident. Was the Great fire of London an act of terrorism or an act of God? There are numerous explanations that attribute to the belief in either.
London in the seventeenth century was no paradise and was actually a quite unpleasant place to live. Coupled with thousands dying from an outbreak of plague, with the dead sometimes populating the streets of London, it is quite obvious that something had to be done and London needed a very serious change. Perhaps it was divine intervention, and God, through fire, actually cleansed the city for a great renewal; but there are other reasons as well that lead people to believe this Great Fire was from heaven.
On the other hand, England had been involved in an ongoing war with the Dutch, and many suspected that this was retaliation for some very real damage that the British had done to the Dutch during the course of the war. In this paper, I will discuss the components of each of these possible realities of the fire and why seventeenth century Londoners believed these reasons, thusly causing some people to want to explain the fire besides calling it a simple accident. Perhaps the fire was an act of God. Many Londoners of the day were certain that it was.
It not only was a rescue from unfavorable living conditions, but many believed it was just a matter of time until God’s judgment on London was to come. Firstly, London was struck in 1665 with a horrendous bout of bubonic plague. It is estimated according to Tinniswood that 20,000 people of every 100,000 died because of the great plague. That is to say that one out of every five Londoners died (9). Coupled with the fact that the city was a polluted and dirty place to live, a “cleansing” was definitely a welcome change.
This contributed to many a belief that the fire that paved the way for a rebuilding of a new, more grandiose city was a gift from God. To paint a picture before the fire of London, Tinniswood called London smoke polluted with deformed buildings, so much so that the magistrate would not warrant any extreme haste when fire, which was common among a town full of old wooden buildings, happened there (11). Furthermore the industries in London polluted the air (12). It is easy to picture how lowly and poverty stricken the pre-fire London really was.
In addition to all of this, many people believed apocalypse and judgment were to befall the great city anyways; that it was only a matter of time until God was to act there. When the British attacked and sunk the Dutch fleet, there was the presence in the date of three sixes, the year 1666, and this caused great fear, causing many to consider this a prophecy, and Londoners of the day took prophecies very seriously. This is pointed out in the book by astrologer John Booker entitled: New Almanack and Prognostication, which Tinniswood references in his text (20-21).
This grand fanaticism in belief of God’s judgment upon London among the people can be further displayed in some writings of one of the Duke’s helpers under Lord Berkeley. He wrote: “Nothing can be like unto the distraction we were in, but the Day of Judgment. Another fellow wrote different words at the site of winds from all directions spreading the fire to the city’s center and through the streets: “The time of London’s fall is come; the fire hath received its commission from God to burn down the city, and therefore all attempts to hinder it are in vain”.
Thirdly, this fire can be viewed as the setting of the stage for a great renewal. This is because the new London that was to replace the old filthy, polluted city with deformed buildings, even the buildings of royalty and the cathedrals, was to be a much more spectacular one. In fact, if some members of the ever skilled council to rebuild and commission to rebuild had their way, it would have been so amazing as to put the Palace of Versailles to shame.
The only limiting factor was the funding, Tinniswood called this opportunity of the “commissioners of rebuilding”, Robert Boyle, Roger Pratt, Hugh May, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and Edward Jerman, “one of the most challenging and exciting opportunities in the history of urban design” (211-212). As a result of the great care chosen in rebuilding the city, three major happenings took place to make London not only more glorious, but more functional of a city. Firstly, a new leadership emerged, the lack of which, prior to the fire, most certainly contributed to the rapid spread of the fire.
Secondly, there was an emergence of a new and more modern type capital, as Charles and Parliament, were to buy the entire city for the purpose of this rebuilding (190). Within this more eloquently designed city the trades were to be moved away from the inner-city, preventing the pollution that made London so unfavorable before (194). These three things have to be why, Evelyn, an architect involved in the design of new London, states,” Truly there was never a more glorious phoenix upon Earth, if it do at last emerge out of cinders (190)”. Before the fire the city was nearly a cest pool of filth, pollution, and plague.
People of the age also believed that God was going to inevitably judge them. Also a more “glorious phoenix” emerged from the ashes of the fire. This is why seventeenth century Londoners could not accept the idea that a simple accident occurred to set their city ablaze, and that an act of Providence is the only explanation. However, England had been at war with the Dutch, and with Robert Holmes setting a bon fire to the entire fleet of Dutch ships, retaliation attempts were not only expected, but had to be quickly considered. There were also discoveries during investigation that warranted greater probability of a Dutch retaliation.
For instance, the Bakers of the Pudding Lane bakery were French (15-18). Could this be merely coincidence? That certainly was a large question. Also, there were many groups in England advocating rebellion during this time. One of the most notable is a man by the name Precious Man, who with an army of 1,800 armed conspirators, were ready to serve Precious Man’s intentions. Also, Cromwellian veterans against rumors of the bringing in of Popery of the monarch, could and would raise an army of 2,000 men or more in only an hour proclaiming that, “the good old cause will be the cause again efore a year is over”. Also Quakers were prepared to rebel and continually rallied for Quaker, anti-government support. Also according to Tinniswood, there has been the threat of an attack all summer long by Hogen Mogens and their French Allies, a threat that was very, very possible (28-29). With all of these very serious threats to London, it seems impossible to rule out that the fire was not a possible attack. This of course causes many to rule out the idea of a mere accident, and causes a search for a more specific cause.
With all of this being said, there is one very real reason to rule out the cause as an accident, or at least a very strong reason to seek a reason other than pure accident, with the confession of a man named Robert Hubert. Though many did not believe him, calling his testimony contradictive, there was significant proof that Hubert was able to provide himself. Though the bakery was just a small house on Pudding Lane, it did burn completely to the ground with no remnance at all. Hubert was able to point to the location exactly, stating he was recruited from France to do the deed (165-168).
After the fire there were beliefs of God’s hand causing the fire, conspiracy theorists, and confessions. All of these are quite contradictory to the suggestion of only accident in a little bakery on Pudding Lane. People sure did belief in prophecies and judgments in the seventeenth century. There had been numerous threats of conspiracy, retaliations, and rebellion. There was also a confession. Because of these, people most certainly were eager to, and almost necessarily had to, search for a reason of the calamity other than pure accident.