London is burning: The Great Fire (September 2, 1666) - History Key

London is burning: The Great Fire (September 2, 1666)

The heart of London was devastated by a fire which started on this day in 1666 and lasted for four days. The disaster was so great that it remained in history as The Great Fire. What or who triggered the fire? It was really an accident at a bakery in Pudding Lane or it was a plot of Catholics?

London in Fire
The Great Fire of London © Image Source: Wikimedia

Fire vs. Bubonic Plague

Well, fires weren’t something unusual in London at that time. For instance, one year before the Great Fire, King Charles II had warned the mayor of London that the narrow streets and the wooden houses are a huge danger. The risk was even greater in case of a drought. However, the greatest fear of Londoners wasn’t the fire, but the bubonic plague, which killed over 60,000 people in the previous years.

Charles was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 23 April 1661. Coronation portrait by John Michael Wright, c. 1661
Charles was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 23 April 1661. Coronation portrait by John Michael Wright, c. 1661 © John Michael Wright/Image Source: Wikipedia

In September 1666 a small spark made the inevitable. It all came from Pudding Lane, near London Bridge. It was 2:00 AM when the baker’s assistant smelled the smoke and awakened the tenants. Everybody was saved except for the maid. She became the first victim.

Panic

The fire spread very quickly because of the narrow streets and the wooden buildings. By the end of the day, the London Bridge was also on fire. Only a third of the bridge burnt, stopping the spread of fire from the northern shore of the Thames.

Central London in 1666, with the burnt area shown in pink
Central London in 1666, with the burnt area shown in pink © Bunchofgrapes/CC BY-SA 3.0/ Image Source: Wikipedia

By September 3, the fire spread in the north and west. Now in the city was a huge chaos. Most of the citizens were panicked and started to leave the city. But, because of the narrow streets the traffic was blocked by the wagons carrying the ones who wanted to leave the city. The fire was headed toward St. Paul’s Cathedral, which didn’t escape from the destruction.

The fire continued until September 5, despite all the attempts made by the authorities. Finally, the fire was stopped literally by a brick wall and the wind direction.

The Great Fire of London
The Great Fire of London © Image Source: london-fire.gov.uk

Who’s to blame?

The heat was completely extinguished on Thursday, September 6. It had destroyed 373 acres of the city, 13,200 buildings and 84 churches. Officially, only four people died, but some historical resources refer to the terrible smell caused by the rotting bodies. Despite the massive destruction caused in the city, the fire had “cleaned” London’s bubonic plague.

After the fire was completely eliminated, several Londoners started to blame the foreigners from the city. However, the King addressed to the people that the fire wasn’t caused by the foreign powers, but instead it was an act from god.

At the end of September, the Parliament made an investigation. During the investigation, a French Protestant, Robert Hubert, confessed that he had started the fire intentionally helped by 23 people. Those who knew the man claimed that he was mentally ill, and the details of his testimony came out as being false. Even so, Hubert was sentenced to death by hanging.

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