Continuing our series looking at the darkest chapters from the capital’s history.
Today, a ‘fatal vesper’ might be something you’d find on a martini menu in one of the capital’s packed speakeasy bars. In more god-fearing days, a Londoner’s idea of a good night out might be to attend evensong, or ‘vespers’.
It was 5 November 1623, the 18th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, at least according to the ‘New Calendar’ recently introduced by the Catholic church. Those keeping the King’s religion would see it as 26 October. Around 300 people wandered over to the French Ambassador’s house in Blackfriars. Hudson House, as it was known, was a recently established centre of Jesuit prayer. Leading the service that evening was Robert Drury, a noted and distinguished preacher. The penitent masses huddled into a third floor room within Hudson House, eager to hear Drury’s words.
You can probably guess what happened next. About half way through the sermon, the great weight of the congregation broke the main beam in the floor. The crowd plummeted onto the floor below, which also gave way, depositing their broken bodies in the Ambassador’s withdrawing room at first floor level. In all, around 95 people lost their lives, including Drury and fellow priest William Whittingham. Many of the bodies were interred in two great pits at the scene, with the Bishop of London refusing them burial on consecrated ground.
As with many great tragedies, blame and bigotry were quick to spread. This, some said, was clearly a judgment from God against Catholics, an observation fuelled by the coincidental anniversary with the Catholic plot to blow up Parliament. A contemporary account suggests that the survivors were treated with malice rather than sympathy. The rabble “being grown savage and barbarous…refused to assist them with drink, aqua vitæ or any other cordials in their necessity, but rather insulted upon them with taunts and gibes.”
The Fatal Vespers, also known as the Dole-ful Evensong, is all but forgotten today, yet it remains the greatest peacetime tragedy in central London since Medieval times. The exact location of the building is uncertain. However, this wonderful and detailed modern account suggests a possible link to the Blackfriars house once owned by Shakespeare.