On this day in 1666, one Robert Hubert was hanged at Tyburn for allegedly having deliberately started the Great Fire of London the previous month. As his dead body was being taken down to be handed to the Company of Barber-Surgeons for dissection, it was torn limb from limb by an angry mob of Londoners.
Although the fire is now almost universally regarded as having been brought about by “the hand of God”, or perhaps more accurately, the negligence of Thomas Farriner or Farynor, who owned the bakery on Pudding Lane where it started, it was at the time, a time when the tide of xenophobic sentiment in England was running more than usually high, widely regarded as having been brought about by a foreign hand (*). In its aftermath, Hubert, a watchmaker from Rouen in Normandy in France, quickly – and almost certainly “under duress” – confessed to having set the fire while acting as an agent of the Pope (he was actually not a Catholic, but a Huguenot, or Protestant). He was equally expeditiously convicted of the supposed crime – by a jury containing members of Farriner’s family – who had their own dark reasons for wanting to attach the blame for the fire to such a convenient scapegoat. After his execution, exculpatory evidence came to light that he had been aboard a Swedish ship called the Maid of Stockholm at the time of the outbreak of the fire.
(*) Indeed, until as recently as 1830, the inscription on the Monument to the Great Fire included lines to that effect!