Before the ashes settled on the devastation that was London after the Great Fire in 1666, rumours spread like erm… fire about who had started it and why they felt the need to burn the hell out of the city!?
Mid 17thC London was a suspicious place, with many goings on. We were in the middle of a war with the Dutch and on less than friendly terms with the French.
The devastating Great Fire Of London…an eternal ‘Who’ Dunnit’?’
We all know where the fire started; in Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane. Located in the heart of the City, the flames soon spread to neighbouring timber-framed houses, aided by a strong westerly wind. The Great Fire burned for 5 whole days from the 2nd to 7th September. Eventually it subsided at Temple, along Fleet Street, just outside of the city gates. Many could not believe it to be an accident caused by a humble baker – including Farriner himself. In court he swore that his house could only have been set alight maliciously, as he had checked all the fires before going to bed.
By 26th September, a committee had been set up to investigate the causes and bring any miscreants to justice. Many came forward claiming to have seen people throwing fireballs into houses. One Edward Taylor confessed that he, his father and his Dutch uncle threw fireballs into the bakery on Pudding Lane and other properties around London. Given that Edward was ten years old, the committee didn’t take him too seriously.
Map showing the extent of the Great Fire.
So, Who Were The Suspects?
1. Monsieur Belland
The king’s firework maker, Monsieur Belland, was accused by his neighbours of amassing a huge amount of gunpowder before the fire, despite no royal celebrations being planned. Now, if you ask me that is fishy! Despite him neither being interrogated nor charged, this does not prove his innocence.
2. The Duke of York
In all this, Charles II’s brother came out the worst. The Duke of York was a confirmed Catholic and many feared another papist on the throne. The burning of Protestants by Catholic monarchs had happened not long before in England, and even more recently on the continent. It was thought that he may have instigated the fire in order to introduce more draconian powers for the king; in the hope that he would take the throne after his brother’s death. Makes sense, I guess.
3. Robert Hubert
By 11th October, a Frenchman named Robert Hubert appeared at the Old Bailey. Originally confessing to firing a house near the “King’s Palace” (did he mean the Palace of Westminster, or the Tower of London – who knows, he was rather vague). He went on to claim to have started the fire at Thomas Farriner’s bakery. He mentioned he was ‘put up to’ it by an unknown person in France. Despite his testimony changing several times, the jury sentenced him to ‘hang by the neck until dead’.
Some believed Hubert to have been unsound of mind, and that the fire was more likely to have been caused by Farriner’s negligence. The official line, though, was recorded on the Monument, which was built in the 1670s to commemorate the Great Fire;
“in perpetual remembrance of the most dreadful burning of this protestant city, begun and carried on by the treachery and malice of the popish faction”
The inscription was erased when the Duke of York became James II, and re-inscribed after he fled the country in 1688.
It could have well been a propaganda set up against the Catholics. As a result, public opinion changed towards them and many sanctions against them were lifted in the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829. The accusatory words inscribed on the Monument were finally erased in 1830.
A Very Famous Eyewitness
Samuel Pepys kept a secret diary written in code. This diary was finally decoded and published in 1825. In it, the events he related clearly pointed to an accidental start to the fire, which was stoked by various factors; a) the layout of London b) the foregoing dry summer and c) the high winds.
Samuel Pepys recorded the events of the fire which ravaged the city.