London’s Burning: Conspiracy Theories & Fictional Accounts of the Great Fire
This September will mark the 350th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great Fire of London – that awful conflagration which destroyed much of what is now the City of London. Most schoolchildren in the UK will have studied this event at some point in their education, and the catastrophe lurks somewhere deep in the nation’s psyche. There have been many historical accounts published, and more recently a prime-time television series in 2014, as well as numerous fictional versions. These latter include two novels just published, which cover aspects of the Fire of London and are both reviewed in this issue – C.C. Humphrey’s Fire (Century / Doubleday Canada, 2016) and Andrew Taylor’s The Ashes of London (HarperCollins, 2016).
The core elements of the Fire are fairly widely known, and it is safe to say that, if asked, most people would be able to identify a few key facts or beliefs – that the fire was started in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane; that the Mayor of London, Bludworth (or Bloodworth), was initially sceptical about the extent and danger the blaze presented and asserted that “a woman might piss it out,” – as was reported by Samuel Pepys; and also that this same diarist left us with an invaluable, detailed eye-witness account of the spread of the Fire and devastation that it caused.
One other popularly perceived tenet is the perception at the time, and afterwards, about the cause and origins of the Fire. It was generally thought to be the work of plotting papists, and/or French or Dutch antagonists – all a devastating preliminary action to the destruction of the Protestant regime. The fact that Charles II’s brother, the future James II, was a Catholic, as well as the popular rumours about Charles’s innate sympathy for Rome (his wife Catherine of Braganza was also a Catholic), added fuel to the general consternation.
An anonymous verse about the Fire (much was written and published in broadsheets in the aftermath, most of it dreadful in quality) summarises the popular feelings. Entitled A Poem on the Burning of London, it started with the following lines:
Is’t still unknown from whence our ruin came,
Whether from Hell, France, Rome or Amsterdam.
As ever in periods of crisis, groups at the edges of society came under suspicion. There were countless episodes of Catholics (which made up only one percent of the population of England), foreigners, and very often both, coming under suspicion, and various military groups were mobilised to prevent invasion or to deter internal papist uprisings.
With widespread reports and belief in an imminent Catholic insurrection, many Catholics, and some Dutch, went into hiding as a precaution – their disappearance heightened doubts against them for this seemingly suspicious behaviour. Even the 2014 television series developed a fictional line that the unfortunate baker Thomas Farriner and his family in Pudding Lane were part of a popish cabal and conspiracy.
One man, a Frenchman from Rouen, Robert Hubert, was hanged for starting the Fire at the end of September. He had confessed to the act, but it is almost certain that he had nothing to do with it, especially as evidence indicates that he was not in England when the Fire started. Hubert claimed that he had accomplices, was a French spy, and worked for the Pope as well. He was either tortured into confession, or, as seems more likely, he simply confessed because of some form of mental aberration, presumably the same motivation that convinces others to falsely claim that they are notorious serial killers. His death, while seemingly punishing the arch villain of the disaster, also confirmed that there was a real plot to overthrow the regime, and that other extreme papists were still at liberty, plotting another outrage.
The lewdness and licentiousness of the court of Charles II was becoming popularly known, and frowned upon. Many thought the Fire was a response from an enraged deity to the wickedness that emanated from the very top of society. The Fire occurred after the dreadful Plague of 1665, which killed up to 100,000 Londoners and had still not entirely disappeared. Two such disasters occurring one after another could not be a simple accident – this was clear evidence of divine wrath. London had ignored the Plague sent by a furious God in 1665, and therefore had to be given a second salutary reminder to reform its sinful ways. In 1667, Thomas Vincent, a London clergyman, published a discussion of the Great Fire in which he analysed God’s response to sin at great depth, with the widely held conclusion that “God doth sometimes speak unto a people terrible things.”
Even as early as 1660, John Milton had warned of the horrors of a “dissolute and haughty court [with] vast expense and luxury, masks and revels, to the debauching of our prime gentry both male and female… by the loose employments of court service.” The figurehead and prime mover of what was fast becoming a dissolute court was Charles II, who encouraged, enjoyed, and participated in a variety of what was commonly seen as immoral, improper and repugnant behaviour. He seduced women as and when he so desired and needed a diet of constant amusement and novelty, which his courtiers and favoured female companions competed to supply.
The first well-known novel about the Great Fire was written by the hoary recorder of seventeenth-century England, William Harrison Ainsworth, in Old Saint Paul’s. First published in 1841, the novel appears rather stilted and indigestible to the contemporary ear. In his story, a character based upon the arch dissolute John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, tricks a woman into sleeping with him after arranging a fake marriage. The seduced female sickens and dies after this ineradicable stain on her virginal character. The Fire is started by a group of religious zealots who are appalled that such behaviour seems to be increasing at the apex of society. Much of Old Saint Paul’s is associated to the Book of Revelation, with some appropriate apocalyptic language.
Both of the newly published novels by Humphreys and Taylor also feature the anger that extreme religious dissenters felt about the Restoration regime, and both, coincidentally (one presumes) focus on the role, both actual and perceived, of the so-called Fifth Monarchy Men in the build-up to, and the actual blaze of the Fire.
The Fifth Monarchy Men, or the Fifth Monarchists, were an extreme dissenting religious movement, which was prominent in English and Welsh society and politics from 1649 until 1661. Their name is derived from the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament of the Bible, which tells of the prophecy about the four monarchies or kingdoms on earth – thought to be Babylon, Macedonia, Persia and Rome. The adherents waited for the arrival of the fifth kingdom, which would see the arrival of Jesus as omnipotent sovereign over miserable, sinning society.
Initially, the Monarchists supported the rise to power of Cromwell, but soon became disenchanted with his consolidation of secular power. And then the Restoration of the sovereign with Charles II prompted a further disenchantment, culminating in Thomas Venner’s uprising in early January 1661, when nearly a thousand Fifth Monarchists attacked main centres of state power. Venner had assumed leadership of the movement after the gruesome execution for Regicide of Major-General Thomas Harrison in 1660; Harrison had signed the death warrant of Charles I, and was thus exempt from Charles II’s general Act of Indemnity and Oblivion. The Monarchists inspired fear and achieved some initial success, but when the militias were raised and sent to oppose Venner’s men, the uprising was soon defeated. Many of Venner’s troops were killed, and Venner himself was wounded and captured. He and his rebel leaders were swiftly tried and executed. More than a hundred Fifth Monarchy believers or sympathisers were arrested, even though they often did not play an active part in the insurrection. Most received prison sentences or heavy fines, which effectively emasculated the movement.
Nevertheless, the movement survived and its adherents watched in horror as Charles II’s court descended, as they saw it, into filth and immorality. Particularly, they thought Christ would return shortly after the year 1666, due to the “666” which signified “the Beast.” For those who looked for patterns to confirm the ominous nature of the year 1666, they could point to the unique fact that the year was the sum of the Roman numerals in descending order MDCLXVI – a portent indeed that the believers could expect something special to happen that year.
The general belief that the Fire was caused by malign human agency or a wrathful deity survived. It was only in 1830 that the inscription blaming Catholics for starting the Fire, found on the 200-foot tall Monument to the Fire built under the auspices of Charles II and completed in 1677, was finally expunged.
1. Jack Gilpin, “God’s Terrible Voice: Liturgical Response to the Great Fire of London,” Anglican and Episcopal History, 82:3 (2013), pp. 318-334.
2. Alan Marshall, The Age of Faction: Court Politics 1660-1702 (1999), London: Manchester University Press.
3. Timothy G. Shilston, “Thomas Venner: Fifth Monarchist or Maverick?” Social History, 37:1 (2012), pp. 55-64.
4. Adrian Tinniswood, By Permission of Heaven: The True Story of the Great Fire of London (2003), London: Jonathan Cape.
About the contributor: DOUGLAS KEMP is one of the UK team of review editors for the Historical Novels Review.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 77, August 2016