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Alight ‘by the hand of God’

02 September 2016

The Great Fire, which destroyed the City’s churches and cathedral, was widely believed to represent divine, or diabolical, judgement. Peter Street sets the scene


London’s burning: the Great Fire, as seen from a boat in the vicinity of Tower Wharf (painting)

London’s burning: the Great Fire, as seen from a boat in the vicinity of Tower Wharf (painting)

THE Great Fire of London, 1666, is one of the most familiar dates in English history. The destruction that the fire wrought in terms of the City’s housing, institutions, and places of worship (notably London’s cathedral, then known as “Paul’s”) is well known. The religious outlook of the time, and attempts to explain the catastrophe — and the signific­ance for Anglicanism of church rebuilding in London after the fire — are perhaps less familiar. A new exhibition at the Museum of London marking the 350th anniversary of the fire’s outbreak covers both aspects.

Given the mid-17th-century preoccupation with numerology, 1666 was regarded as noteworthy even before it began. Because of the reference in Revelation 13.16-18, three sixes were widely known as “the number of the Beast”; despite disagreement over who or what con­­stituted “the Beast”, learned tracts and almanacs were full of forebodings for the year ahead.

Many were to attribute the outbreak of the Great Fire to unearthly powers, but would remain divided over whether this was the work of the devil (or his agents, notably the Roman Catholic Church), or the Divine. European Catholic societies viewed it as God’s punishment of London for being a Protestant city.


THE Great Fire broke out in the early hours of Sunday 2 September, and spread rapidly. Its starting-point was the King’s bakery in Pudding Lane. As the exhibition’s chronology shows, it raged continu­ously for four days, consuming most of the City, and was brought under control only when the strong prevailing wind changed direction. It stopped at Pye Corner, in Smith­field. Since food featured in the names of the loc­ations where the fire both started and ended, one Nonconformist explanation was that God was pun­ishing the City for the deadly sin of gluttony.

Although fire was a daily hazard of life, churches were rarely affected. Their structures were more fire-resistant, and they were believed to enjoy divine protection. After St Magnus the Martyr escaped being burned down in 1633, the “Fire Sermon” was instituted to recall its deliverance.

Thirty-three years later, churches were not to be so fortunate. The first to fall victim was St Margaret’s, Fish Street Hill — the baker’s parish church. The Great Fire destroyed 87 of the City’s 109 churches, but the greatest casualty was what would later be called Old St Paul’s.


THE pre-fire cathedral was far larger than its successor. It was 586 feet long (Wren’s is 518 feet), with 12 bays to the central crossing and another 12 bays beyond it. It had suffered neglect during the Civil War and the Commonwealth era (1642-60), when it had even been used as stabling for horses.

When all Deans, Chapters, and other cathedral appointments were abolished in April 1649, St Paul’s was no exception. It was also in­­cluded in a (failed) parliamentary motion of 1651, that cathedrals should be demolished and the proceeds devoted to the poor.

After the Restoration, a repair programme for St Paul’s had finally been agreed in 1666, and the most vulnerable parts of the cathedral’s roof were encased in wooden scaffolding just a few days before the fire started. The cathedral also housed two parish churches, one of which (St Faith’s) was in its crypt. St Faith’s acted as the guild church of the Stationers’ Company. Believing it to be sufficiently remote from where the fire had started, and invulnerable, the Stationers decided — as did many of the booksellers whose premises were concentrated in the vicinity of the cathedral — to transfer their stock to the crypt for safekeeping.

The fire had raged for two days before it reached St Paul’s on the evening of 4 September. Windswept firebrands settled on the wooden scaffolding, eventually generating enough heat to dislodge some of the roof’s masonry, which crashed, smouldering, into the cathedral’s interior and crypt, where the stored books and manuscripts acted as a tinderbox. One witness described how “[six acres of] lead melts and runs down as if it had been snow before the sun.” People who had sought sanctuary faced incineration instead.

The heat caused tombs to break open and give up their dead, including Braybrooke, a 14th- century Bishop of London, the spec­tacle of whose intact body fright­ened those who saw it; Pepys de­­scribed his flesh as resembling “a spongy dry leather”. Such scenes justified Evelyn’s description of the City during the Great Fire as re­­semb­­ling “Sodome [sic] or the last day. . .”.

The exhibition features a scorched Bible and broken stone­work and monuments from Old St Paul’s, and contemporary illustrations.

In due course, St Paul’s Cathedral would be compared to Christ, as both descending into hell and rising again. Judgements were proffered about those responsible, but the first response was a day (10 October) of “Fasting and Humiliation in consideration of the late dreadful Fire”. The service was held through­out the kingdom, with special collections to help the “distressed poor”. It was incorporated into the recently published (1662) version of the Book of Common Prayer, and continued to be observed by St Paul’s until it was withdrawn by Royal Warrant in 1859.


IN ADDITION to St Paul’s, many (though not all) parish churches would be rebuilt, also designed by Wren, and reflecting their archi­tect’s sensitivity to their Anglican character. In particular, this meant greater emphasis on the pulpit (often complete with sounding-board) to expound scripture rather than any overhang at the east end for the celebration of the communion.

Wren designed naturally well-lit auditory churches, which led him to be described as the “ecclesiastical architect of the Enlightenment”. He wanted the congregation to be able both to see and to hear the sermon. Galleries, already an established feature of both Protestant and Cath­olic churches on the Continent, were often added to achieve this; they maximised seating at little extra cost.

During the rebuilding process, several parish churches erected temporary structures which they called “tabernacles”. All Hallows the More established the first of these in August 1669, financed in part by the sale of the church’s melted lead and bell metal. The term’s Nonconform­ist associations developed only in the 18th century.


WORK on the first newly built cathedral since the Reformation did not begin until 1675. Initial attempts to incorporate parts of Old St Paul’s into its successor failed, and Wren’s design underwent significant changes before rebuilding could begin.

His preferred floor plan was in the shape of a Greek cross (four equal arms), but the authorities wanted, and secured, the more familiar Latin-cross form, in part to symbolise the cathedral’s continuity with its medieval predecessor.

The cathedral’s furnishings drew on the skills of Continental-born immigrants: Caius Cibber (Denmark, stone carver); Grinling Gibbons (the Netherlands, wood carver); and Jean Tijou (France, ornamental iron-worker). Services in St Paul’s resumed in 1697.

Legislation for the rebuilding of the City had also stipulated that “a Column or Pillar of Brase [sic] or Stone [be raised] . . . in perpetual Remembrance” of the catastrophe, and the Monument to the Great Fire was designed by Robert Hooke. Although now best remembered as a scientist, Hooke was also an archi­tect who worked closely with Wren. His design reflected both interests, although ultimately the Monument did not facilitate scientific inquiry, as had originally been intended.

The Monument was erected on the site of the now burned-out St Margaret’s, and completed in 1677. Its height — 202 feet — not only made it the tallest isolated stone column in the world, but was also its distance from where the Great Fire had started.

The wording of its inscription needed careful consideration. The King, Charles II, believed the Great Fire to be the work of “the hand of God and no plot”, but there was unease that attributing such a disaster to God would compromise his omnipotence.

In 1681, in the wake of the so-called “Popish plot”, the attempt to blame the Roman Catholic community for the fire was reinforced, with a further comment added to the Monument that the “Popish Frenzy which wrought such horrors is not quenched”. These words were erased by Charles’s Roman Catholic successor James II, but restored on the accession of William and Mary. After Catholic Emancipation in 1829, Charles Pearson — now best remembered as the inspiration behind the London Underground — campaigned successfully for this wording to be removed from the Monument.

The Museum of London’s exhibition includes the original plaque displayed on the site of the bakery, declaring that “Here by Permission of Heaven, Hell broke loose upon this Protestant City.”


STONE from Old St Paul’s was used in the foundations for its successor. Famously, Wren noticed that one remnant bore the word resurgam (”I shall rise”); this was later in­scribed on the pediment of the south door of the new cathedral, beneath a carved phoenix, itself a symbol of the resurrection. The Church in London had indeed risen from the dead.


Peter Street is a retired Lecturer in History and Religious Studies for the Open University.


“Fire! Fire!” at the Museum of London, 150 London Wall, London EC2, runs until 17 April 2017. Phone 020 7001 9844. www.museumoflondon.org.uk

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