Fortean London: The Great Fire of Superstition & Hatred

By Scott Wood Last edited 166 months ago

Last Updated 02 September 2010

Fortean London: The Great Fire of Superstition & Hatred

Great Fire of London - Monument.jpg The Great Fire of London started in a bakery on Pudding Lane 344 years ago today. It destroyed four-fifths of the city and prompted Samuel Pepys to protect his prize parmesan by burying it. The destruction is thought to have cleansed the city of plague and gave Christopher Wren quite the career boost.

Events like the Great Fire generate their own mythologies and madness and London before, during and afterwards was a place of hysteria, superstition, prophecy and religious persecution. London’s Catholic and foreign minorities were openly blamed for the fire and French and Dutch Londoners (England was at war with France and Holland at the time) were imprisoned under suspicion of starting it.

A pamphlet published 5th November 1666, linking the Great Fire to the gunpowder plot, was circulated, as was an invented confession by a turn-coat ‘papist’ who had 'too great a share in the firing of the City', warning that the “French intend to land at Dover and the papists in England have express command from Rome to hasten their business before the next parliament and dispatch.” Protestant citizens were warned to remove “all the papists in England”.

Plaques were posted on Pudding Lane and Pye Corner condemning the ‘malicious hearts of barbarous papists’ that had started the fire. When the Monument was erected is too blamed 'the treachery and malice of the Popish faction' until the offensive text was removed during renovation in 1831.

Matters were not helped by Robert Hubert, a French watchmaker living in Romford, who confessed to being in the pay of the king of France and starting the fire by putting a fireball through the window of the bakery on Pudding Lane. He claimed he had accomplices who stopped the water cocks in the area to prevent the fire from being put out quickly.

Hubert's story didn't stand up: the bakery did not have a window like the one he described, he first claimed to have started the fire in Westminster, and he was actually out of the country when the fire began. Despite all this the ‘moppish besotted’ (and suicidal) Frenchman was convicted and executed by the infamous Jack Ketch. During the execution an effigy of the Pope was burned with a head full of cats that screamed for the pleasure of the crowd as the flames reached them.

After the fire Londoners lived in terror of agitators throwing make-shift incendiary devices such as fireballs or wildfire into their homes. When a brewer's home in Southwark caught fire he blamed it on “a ball of wildfire ” placed by a pile of timber. A Frenchman in Moorfields was “almost dismembered” when caught carrying a chest of tennis balls which were mistaken for fireballs.

The eye of suspicion also fell on astrologer William Lilly, who was called to the Houses of Parliament on 25th October 1666 after claiming to have successfully predicted the Great Fire by way of astrological hieroglyph in his 1651 book Monarchy or No Monarchy in England. Lilly found himself having to persuaded the committee that his prediction had not been too precise.

Lilly wasn’t the only predictor of the Great Fire: the Quaker seer Humphrey Smith published a Vision Concerning London in 1660 that predicted a fire “for the city herself, and all her suburbs”.

Nostradamus is credited with predicting that the “blood of the just will be demanded of London, Burnt by the fire in the year 66” but what he actually predicted was London being struck by lightning ‘twenty three the sixes’ times. A prophecy that must come true quite regularly depending on when you start counting the strikes

The Yorkshire seer Mother Shipton inadvertently destroyed more of London than any imagined religious terrorists. During the Great Fire Londoners refused to fight the flames because Mother Shipton “had said that London would be reduced to ashes, and they refused to make any efforts to prevent it.” Another prophet told Londoners “no power on earth could prevent the fulfilment of the prediction, for it was written in the great book of fate that London was to be destroyed.”

Photo by AKinsey Foto from the Londonist flickr pool.