Category Archives: The Great Fire of London, 1666

Praise be (St Paul’s)

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On this day in 1697 was held the first service in the present  St Paul’s Cathedral, at the time still in the process of being built by Sir Christopher Wren, after its immediate predecessor had been burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666 (*).  Building and repair work would continue until 1710, and the cathedral would only finally formally open on Christmas Day, December 25th, 1711..

There have been five  cathedrals on the site of the present St Paul’s.

The first was built  in 604, shortly  after the first Christian mission under St Augustine landed in Kent, by the King of Kent, Ethelburg, for the Bishop of London, Mellitus, and destroyed by fire in 675.

The   second, “The Church of Paulesbyri”, was built between 675-85  by the Bishop, Erkenwald,  and destroyed by the Vikings in 961.

The  third was built in 961, and destroyed by fire in 1087.

The  fourth, “old St Paul’s”, was built in the Norman,  or Romanesque, style in the years after  1087 by the  Bishop, Maurice and his successors; rebuilt and extended in the Gothic style in 1221-1240,  and in the “New Work” of 1269-1332; renovated in the Renaissance  style by Inigo Jones in 1633-1641, and again by Wren, after the Civil War, during which it had been occupied by  Parliamentary troops and horses, in 1660; and burnt down in  the Great Fire of 1666.  There is a model of it  in the Museum of London.  It was clearly an impressive building, measuring some 600’ in length, and over 400’, or, according to some estimates, over 500’, in height, inclusive of the spire (which  was destroyed by lightning in 1444, rebuilt  in 1462, and destroyed by lightning again in 1561).  As John Denham wrote in 1624:  “That sacred pile, so vast, so high|That whether ‘tis a part of earth or sky|Uncertain seems, and may be thought a proud|Aspiring mountain or descending cloud … ”.

The fifth, present cathedral  was built in the Baroque style by Wren between 1675-1710.  It is faced in plain Portland Stone  (66000 tons of it, quarried in Dorset and  brought round the coast and up the Thames to London in barges), wonderfully reflective of the City’s light and mood.  It is crowned  with a glorious and iconic dome, making it unique among all the cathedrals of England.     The stone-work is by the Master Masons  Joshua Marshall and the brothers Edward and Thomas Strong and their team, overseen by Grinling Gibbons; the wood-work by the Master Carpenter John Langland and his team, also overseen by Grinling Gibbons; and the demi-grisaille paint-work inside  the dome by the Painter-Stainer James Thornhill and his team.  Wren’s simple epitaph inside the cathedral reads “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice”, meaning “Reader, should you seek his memorial, look about you”.   On the pediment above  the  south door is a stone bearing  the image of a Phoenix rising from the ashes, together with  the inscription “Resurgam”, meaning “I shall rise again” (a different stone bearing the same inscription had happened to be found among  the smouldering ruins of the old  cathedral – a positive portent if ever there was one).

There are a great many important memorials in the interior of the cathedral.  The one in the south quire aisle to  the metaphysical poet John Donne (1572-1631) survived the Great Fire, although if you look carefully, you can still see scorch-marks around  its base!  The ones in the crypt to, among others, Nicholas Bacon (d. 1579), father of Francis, and Thomas Heneage (d. 1594), stepfather of Shakespeare’s patron Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, also survived the fire, although again not without a certain amount of charring!

(*) The service was one of thanksgiving for the end of the Nine Years War, also known as the War of the Grand Alliance or the War of the League of Augsburg, between France on the one side, and a coalition of European countries, including Britain, on the other.

My City of Ruins (Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn and William Taswell, 1666)

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On this day in 1666, in the immediate aftermath of the Great Fire, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary:

“Up by five o’clock; and, blessed be God! find all well; and by water to [Paul’s] Wharfe.  Walked thence, and saw all the towne burned, and a miserable sight of Paul’s church, with all the roofs fallen, and the body of the quire fallen into St Fayth’s; Paul’s school also, Ludgate, and Fleet Street. My father’s house, and the church, and a good part of the Temple the like.”

And went on to write, equally if not more fretfully:

“I home late to Sir W. Pen’s, who did give me a bed … ; … but still both sleeping and waking had a fear of fire in my heart, that I took little rest.  People do all the world over cry out of the simplicity of my Lord Mayor in … this business of the fire, laying it all upon him.  A proclamation is come out for markets to be kept at Leadenhall and … several other places about the town; and Tower Hill, and all churches to be set open to receive poor people”.

John Evelyn wrote:

“I wente this morning on foote from White hall as far as London bridge, thro the Late fleete streete, Ludgate hill, by St Paules, Cheape side, Exchange, Bishopsgate, Aldersgate, & out to Morefields, thence thro Cornehill, &c; with extraordinary difficulty, clambring over mountains of yet smoking rubbish, & frequently mistaking where I was, the ground under my feet so hot, as made me not only Sweate, but even burnt the soles of my shoes … : in the meane time his Majestie got to the Tower by Water, to demolish the houses about … which …  had they taken fire, & attaq’d the white Towre, where the Magazines of Powder lay, would undoubtedly have not onely … destroyed  all the bridge, but sunke … all the vessels in the river, & renderd … demolition …  even …  at many miles distance:

At my return I was infinitely concerned to find that goodly Church of St Paules now a sad ruine, & that beautiful Portico (for structure comparable to any in Europe, as not long before repaird by the late King) now rent in pieces, flakes of vast Stone Split in sunder, & nothing remaining intire but the Inscription of the Architrave which …  had not one letter of it defac’d: which I could not but take notice of: It was astonishing to see what immense stones the heat had in a manner Calcin’d, so as all the ornaments, Columns, freezes, Capitels & projectures of massie Portland stone flew off, even to the very roofe, where a Sheete of Leade covering no lesse than 6 akers by measure, being totally mealted, the ruines of the Vaulted roof, falling brake into St Faithes, which being filled with …  books … belonging to the Stationers … carried thither for safty, they were all consumed burning for a week following: It is also observable, that the lead over the Altar …  was untouch’d: and among the divers monuments, the body of one Bishop, remained intire.

Thus lay in ashes that most venerable Church, one of the antientest Pieces of early Piety in the Christian world, beside neere 100 more: The lead, yronworke, bells, plate &c all mealted: the exquisitely wrought Mercers Chapell, the Sumptuous Exchange, the august fabrique of Christ church, all the rest of the Companies Halls, sumptuous buildings, Arches, Enteries, all in dust.  The fountains dried up & ruind, whilst the very waters remained boiling; the Voragos of subterranean Cellars, Wells & Dungeons, formerly Warehouses, still burning in stench & dark clouds of smoke like hell, so as in five or six miles traversing about, I did not see one load of timber unconsum’d, nor many stones but were calcind white as snow, so as the people who now walked about the ruines, appeard like men in some dismal desart, or rather in some greate City, lay’d waste by an impetuous & cruel Enemy …

Sir Tho: Greshams Statue, though falln to the ground from its nich in the R: Exchange remain’d intire, when all those of the Kings since the Conquest were broken to pieces: also the Standard in Cornehill, & Q: Elizabeths Effigies, with some armes on Ludgate continud with but little detriment, whilst the vast yron Chaines of the Cittie streets, vast hinges, barrs & gates of Prisons were many of them mealted, & reduc’d to cinders by the vehement heats: nor was I yet able to pass through any of the narrower streets, but kept to the widest, the ground & aire, smoake & fiery vapour, continued so intense, my hair being almost seinged … : … nor could one have possibly knowne where he was, but for the ruines of some church, or hall, that had some remarkable towre or pinnacle remaining … ”.

And the  schoolboy William Taswell, on encountering the body of  one of the few recorded victims of the fire:

“Soon after sunrising I endeavoured to reach St Paul’s.  The ground was so hot as almost to scorch my shoes; and the air so intensely warm that unless I had stopped some time upon the Fleet Bridge to rest myself, I must have fainted … .  … And now … I perceived the metal belonging  to the bells melting; the ruinous conditions of the walls; whole heaps of stone of a large circumference tumbling down with a great noise … , ready to crush he to death.  [N]ear the east walls … a human body presented itself to me, parched up, as it were, with the flames; whole as to skin, meagre as to flesh, yellow as to colour.  This was an old decrepit woman who fled here for safety, imagining the flames could not have reached her …  . Her clothes were burned, and evry limb reduced to a coal”.

 

St Anthony’s Fire and St Anthony’s Hospital

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St Anthony’s Fire, also known as ergotism, was a disease, common in Medieval times, caused by eating – improperly-stored – cereals contaminated by an alkaloid-secreting fungus.  Its symptoms included a rash, fever and delirium (sometimes taken as evidence of bewitchment).

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St Anthony’s Hospital, or the Hospital of St Antoine de Viennois, specialising in the treatment of the disease, was founded on the site of a former synagogue on Threadneedle Street in 1242.  It was later expanded so as to incorporate, in 1429, a hospice; in 1440, a school, where  Thomas More (1478-1535) studied; and, in 1550, a chapel, where Protestant Huguenots, fleeing religious persecution in Catholic France, worshipped.  It was burned down in the  Great Fire of 1666, and subsequently rebuilt, only to be demolished in 1840.

 

St Ethelburga Bishopsgate

Another in the  series on City of London buildings that survived the Great Fire of 1666, and that still survive to this day …

The church of St Ethelburga Bishopsgate was originally built in around 1250, possibly on the site of an even older, Saxon, church, and extended in 1390, and again in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  It was undamaged  in the  Great Fire, although nonetheless restored   in 1861-2, and again, by Ninian Comper, in 1912,  and described by Nairn in 1966 as “one of the sweetest things in the City”. Sadly,  it was severely damaged by an IRA bomb on 24th April, 1993, and substantially rebuilt, and reopened as a Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, focussing on the role of faith in conflict resolution, in 2002.  The west front was rebuilt using stone from the Medieval church, the doorway along the lines of the fourteenth-century one, and the three-light window along the lines of the fifteenth-century one.

“The Tent” and “Peace Garden” at the back were built at the same time,  to encourage inter-faith dialogue.   Ethelburga was the sister of Erkenwald, the seventh-century Bishop of London after whom Bishopsgate is named.

 

All Hallows Staining

Another in the  series on City of London buildings that survived the Great Fire of 1666, and that still survive to this day …

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The church of All Hallows Staining was originally built  in around 1177, and rebuilt in the fourteenth  or fifteenth century (sources differ).  It was undamaged   in the Great Fire.  However,  most  of the church   fell down in 1671, due to undermining of the foundations by – Plague – burials,   and it had to be rebuilt in 1674-5, before being substantially demolished in 1870, when the parish was merged with St Olave Hart Street.

The  fourteenth- or fifteenth- century tower still stands, thanks to the initiative of the Clothworkers’ Company, who were also responsible for restoring it in 1873.  The foundations are  original, twelfth-century.  The crypt is also twelfth-century, although it has been transported from its original location in the chapel of St James-in-the-Wall.  Two sword-rests salvaged from the church can be seen in St Olave Hart Street, a third in St Andrew Undershaft.

 

All Hallows Barking

The first in a series on City of London buildings that survived the Great Fire of 1666, and that still survive to this day …

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The church of All Hallows Barking, also known as All Hallows-by-the-Tower, was originally   built in the Saxon period, and considerably added to in the later Medieval and post-Medieval.  It was undamaged in the Great  Fire, thanks to the action of Admiral William Penn (*), who ordered  his men to blow up some  surrounding buildings to create a  firebreak; although it was nonetheless partially rebuilt in the late nineteenth century.

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It was then gutted in the Blitz, when “the tower of the church acted like a chimney, drawing the flames upwards and intensifying them” and “wood blazed, stones calcinated, lead poured down walls and the bells melted”, and rebuilt again by Lord Mottistone in a “happy blend” of Ancient and Neo-Perpendicular styles, and rededicated in 1957.

A Saxon arch of around 675 survives in the nave; together with  two Saxon crosses, of 900 and 1000, in the crypt.  The cross of 900 bears a Saxon Runic inscription.  The one of 1000 features on one of its faces a depiction of Christ trampling beasts, a common motif in Dark Age iconography.

Among the  many surviving Medieval – to Post-Medieval – features are an  altar table of stone from the thirteenth-century Crusaders’ castle at At(h)lit below Mount Carmel in the Holy Land; numerous monuments, including brasses to William Tong (d. 1389) and John Bacon (d. 1437), and a canopied tomb to John Croke (d. 1477); a fine Flemish painted panelled altar-piece, known as the Tate Panel, dating to at least the fifteenth century; numerous sculptures, including a carved wooden one of St James of Compostela, dating to the fifteenth century, and a carved ivory one of Christ salvaged from the flagship of the Spanish Armada in 1588; and the seventeenth-century tower, from which Samuel Pepys watched the Great Fire.

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Also of note are the pulpit, originally from St Swithin London Stone, dating to 1678; and the exquisitely intricately carved lime-wood font-cover by Grinling Gibbons, dating  to 1682.

On a macabre note, the headless bodies of Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More, beheaded on nearby Tower Hill in 1535, and that of Archbishop William Laud, beheaded  in 1645, were once temporarily buried here before being moved to their  final resting places (Fisher’s and More’s in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London).

(*)  Admiral William Penn’s son, also named William, was baptised here in 1644.  Famously, he went on to found Pennsylvania in 1681.

City of London Buildings that survived the Great Fire of 1666

Of the 97 parish churches within the walls of the City of London at the time of the Great Fire of 1666, only 8 survived the fire,  and still survive, with at least some pre-fire structures standing above ground, namely, All Hallows Barking, All Hallows Staining, St Alphage, St Andrew Undershaft, St Ethelburga, St Helen, St Katharine Cree, and St Olave Hart Street (*).

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Of the secular buildings, only the Tower of London and the Guildhall, and parts of the Merchant Taylors’ and Apothecaries’ Livery Company Halls, and of the “Olde Wine Shades” public house, still survive.

(*) A further 5 churches, namely All Hallows on the Wall, St James Duke’s Place, St Katherine Coleman, St Martin Outwich and St Peter-le-Poer, also survived  the fire but were either rebuilt or demolished afterwards.

And 84 were burnt down in the fire, of which 49 were rebuilt afterwards, and 35 were not.