The seventeenth century was a very bloody century indeed. And yet the Great Fire which devastated London 350 years ago this weekend, and which resulted in relatively few casualties, is seared onto our historical consciousness with rather greater intensity than the rebellions, revolutions, and wars of the 1600s.
Besides the catastrophic destruction of London’s built environment, one explanation for how brightly the embers of the Great Fire continue to burn is what contemporaries made of it. For the fire was integrated with almost immediate effect into a long-established conspiracy theory which held that, ever since the process of Reformation which began with Henry VIII, Roman Catholics had been seeking the reconversion of England’s Protestants to the ‘old religion’.
So powerful was this attribution of the calamitous events of September 1666 to Roman Catholics, in fact, that a line was added in 1681 to the inscription at the foot of Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke’s ‘Monument’ to the event which warned of how the ‘Popish [i.e. Roman Catholic] frenzy, which wrought such horrors’ had not been ‘yet quenched.’
But Roman Catholics were not the only group in Restoration society who were accused of starting the Great Fire. Writing to Edward, Earl of Conway shortly after the blaze, Sir Heneage Finch explained that ‘some lay [blame] upon … the fanatics, because [the fire] broke out so near the 3rd Sept., their so celebrated day of triumph’.
Using the slur ‘fanatics’, Finch was referring here to the Protestant ‘Dissenters’ (or ‘Nonconformists’) who could not conform to the Church of England as it was established after the restoration of Charles II in 1660. The term was laden with memories of Britain’s recent past, evoking as it did the participation of a number of Dissenters in the wars against, and deposal of, Charles I in the 1640s, as well as the establishment of a republican Commonwealth and Protectorate between 1649 and 1660.
What Finch alluded to in his letter to the Earl of Conway was that, for some at least, the date upon which the Great Fire broke out was reason enough to suspect that radical and republican Dissenters had been behind it. For, as Finch pointed out, the Great Fire began on 2 September ‘near … their so celebrated day of triumph’, that is, on the eve of 3 September, the anniversaries of parliament’s civil war victories over the royalists at the battles of Dunbar in 1650 and Worcester in 1651.
The date was most noteworthy, however, as the anniversary of the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658, the man who had been behind parliament’s successes in the civil wars and became ‘Lord Protector’ in 1653. Having been taken ill at his residence at Hampton Court Palace at the end of August 1658, Cromwell was carried to the (now largely lost) Palace of Whitehall where he died on 3 September.
For some onlookers, then, the Great Fire comprised yet another effort by London’s fanatics to overthrow the monarchy on a day which, as Samuel Pepys pointed out in 1662, had been ‘fatal twice to the King, and the day of Oliver’s death.’ If the Great Fire possesses a particular place in our imagination, therefore, we should not forget that it provided a lens through which contemporaries sought to understand a struggle with a much longer heritage.
Dr Edward Legon, Research Grants Trainee