Thursday, September 02, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Great Fire of London


As long ago as 60 CE - when Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni, first burned what was then called Londinium to the ground - Londoners were well aware of the risk posed to their city by fire. That particular blaze of hers was so successful that modern-day archaeologists still use the layer of ash it produced to determine the age of any new findings beneath the ancient city. Again and again - in 675, 1087, 1133, and 1212 - the city's warren of narrow streets and wooden buildings have succumbed to ravaging flames...

What started at Thomas Farriner's bakery in Pudding Lane just after midnight on this day in 1666 would, within three days, leave 70,000 of the city's 80,000 inhabitants homeless; having destroyed more than 13,000 homes, 87 churches (including Old St. Paul's Cathedral), and all administrative and government buildings, the fire was kept from Westminster (and so spared both Whitehall and Parliament) only after stores of powder held in the Tower of London were used to create fire breaks. Despite the toll the fire took on the city's infrastructure, there were relatively few deaths directly related to the fire.

Although much has been written about the Great Fire which devastated most of London in 1666, the account of record is still that of Samuel Pepys. His gossipy, slightly bemused accounts of life in London before, during, and after the Great Fire are great fun to read; they are available online here (as well as permanently in the blogroll at right) but have yet to come to the descriptions of the fire that would establish his reputation posthumously.

From the ash and cinders of the medieval city consumed by the mighty conflagration arose the London we know today, including a new St. Paul's Cathedral whose dome refused to fall even under a much worse threat than fire, namely bombardment by the Luftwaffe nearly 400 years later*. Bubonic plague, which had, well, frankly plagued the city in 1665, never did return with the same ferocity again - providing the silver lining to the clouds of smoke and ash that hung over the smoking ruins of medieval London.

Much of the area known today as the City of London was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren over the next half century, supervised of course by Charles II, James II, William and Mary, and Queen Anne each in their turn. The fire is commemorated today by the Monument to the Great Fire of London, located near the site where the fire began.

*In fact, the events of December 1940 have been referred to as the Second Great Fire of London.

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Rich said...

I've always understood that the ancient childs rhyme "ring around the rosie, a pocket full of posies,
ashes! ashes! they all fall down"

referred to the bubonic plague and the great fire that suceeded it.

michael sean morris said...

That's what I'd always been told too, but apparently not. The rhyme itself doesn't appear before 1790 (long after the plague had left Britain) and the definition is from World War II.

There's a similar myth about the V-sign (the reverse of a peace sign) that the British favour as a vulgar gesture being a hold-over from the archers who, if captured by the French during the Hundred Years War, would have their arrow fingers amputated.

Well, there are vast middens at the site of many battles filled with the bodies of English prisoners and not one of them is missing any fingers. The whole thing appears to be a fabulism dreamt up as late as the 1970s by folklorists.

Rich said...

it's a great myth, though. just enough plausibility and morbidity to make it compelling and repeatable.