Category Archives: The Great Fire of London

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.

The History and Psychogeography of Blackfriars

Psychogeography was defined by its founder, the Frenchman Guy Debord, as “the study of the … effects of the geographical environment … on the emotions … of individuals”.

It can also be taken to be an exploration, often literally, on foot, of what it is about a place that evokes a sense of place.

In Blackfriars, that is history: inescapable; and inextricable from that of London as a whole.  History, or, as Peter Ackroyd put it, “chronological resonance”, or “time … moved or swayed by some unknown source of power”.

For it is here that London may be said to have begun, nearly two thousand years, or a hundred generations, ago.  Here, at the lowest point on the Thames at which it was fordable and bridgeable.  Here, on the comparatively high, dry and defensible ground around Ludgate Hill (and, a little to the east, Cornhill).  Here,  where the Romans  founded Londinium, on  the damp maritime frontier of their vast continental empire, with easy access to the sea, and the overseas dominions, and yet at the same time close to the hinterland and heart of England.

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Here, on the “lost” Thames tributary of the Fleet, where all those centuries ago a Roman barge sank with its fifty-ton cargo of Kentish building stone still aboard.  Here is why London is where it is.

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Blackfriars first came to be fully developed  in the Medieval period, when the first and later second Baynard’s Castles, and, in between, the  King’s Wardrobe,  were built here …

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… and when a fashion victim lost his winkle-picker shoe, or “poulaine”, here (that can now be seen in the Museum of London).   The first Baynard’s Castle was demolished after its Constable was found to have been complicit in a baronial conspiracy against King John in the early thirteenth century …

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… and the land was given over to allow construction in 1278  of the Blackfriars Priory, one of the largest and most important monastic houses in the country.   In 1322,  a  large number – possibly  hundreds – of needy poor people were reportedly crushed to death in a rush to beg alms  at the priory gates.

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Remarkably, given its later history, precious fragments of the stonework fabric of the priory still survive, and can still be seen and touched.

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Nothing remains, though, at least above  modern ground level, of the Parliament Hall, where, in 1529,  Henry VIII appeared before the Legatine Court to petition for the  annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, so as to enable him to marry Anne Boleyn.   The ultimate failure of the negotiations was to have far-reaching consequences for the church, and indeed for the entire country, of England, not the least of which was the Dissolution of the Monasteries, including that of the Blackfriars, which took place in 1538.

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After the dissolution of the Blackfriars, at the beginning of what we now consider to be the post-Medieval period, its properties and lands were made use of as the King saw fit.

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The priory church came to be owned by his Master of the Revels, Thomas Cawarden, and part of it used as his Office.

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A little later, in 1576, the Great Hall came to be adapted for use as the first Blackfriars Theatre; and, in 1600, the Parliament Hall, the scene of the aforementioned earlier real-life high drama, the second Blackfriars Theatre.  The second Theatre came to be owned by Shakespeare’s company, by then known as the “King’s Men”, in 1609, after the incumbent troupe of child-actors gave grave offence to the King, James I, during one of the performances they put on there in 1608.    Shakespeare evidently wrote some of his later plays, including “A Winter’s Tale”, “Cymbeline” and “The Tempest”, specifically for performance in the indoor arena of the “Second Blackfriars”, incorporating noticeably lengthier musical interludes, presumably designed to  keep the audience amused while the wicks on the lighting-candles were   trimmed midway through the performance.

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In 1613, according to the surviving Deed of Conveyance,  he bought for then princely sum of £140 a  “dwelling house or Tenement … within the Precinct, circuit and compasse of the late black Fryers London … ; part of which said Tenement is erected over a great gate …”, presumably as an investment.  What may once have been part of the cellar is preserved in what is now the public house known as the  “Cockpit”.

Essentially the entirety of Blackfriars, and indeed the greater part  of the City of London, was then burned down during the Great Fire of 1666 (the theatre by then already  having been closed down during the Civil War of 1642-51).

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The friendless church  of St Ann was never rebuilt, and the parish was united with that of St Andrew.

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Most of what was rebuilt was burned down again during the Blitz of the Second World War, much of it during the so-called “Second Great Fire of London” on the night of 29th/30th December, 1940.

To walk in Blackfriars is to walk in history.  More than anything, it is to walk  in the footsteps of Medieval monks and lay persons; and   to inhabit, however briefly,  their spiritual as well as their physical world.


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


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”.


The Great Fire of London contd. (Samuel Pepys, 1666)


On this day in 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary:

“Up about five o’clock … , … to go out, … to see how the fire is, to … Bishop’s-gate, where no fire had been near, and now there is one broke out: which did give great grounds to people, and to me too, to think that there is some kind of plot in this, … but … we did put it out in a little time; so that all was well again”.


The Great Fire of London contd. (Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, 1666)


On this day in 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote:

“About two in the morning my wife … tells me of new cryes of fire, it being come to Barking Church … .    I up; and finding it so, resolved …  to take her away, and did, and … my gold … ; but, Lord! what a sad sight it was by moone-light, to see the whole City almost on fire … .  Home, and whereas I expected to have seen our house on fire, … it was not.  … (G)oing to the fire, I find, by the blowing up of houses … by Sir W. Pen, there is a good stop given to it … ; it having only burned the dyall of Barking Church, and part of the porch, and … was there quenched.  I up to the top of Barking steeple, and there saw the saddest sight of desolation I ever saw… ”.

And John Evelyn wrote:

“[I]t crossed towards White-Hall … .  It pleased his Majestie to command me among the rest to looke after the quenching of fetter-lane … , to preserve (if possible) that part of Holborn, whilst the rest of the Gent: tooke their several posts, some at one part, some at another, for now they began to bestir themselves, … & began to consider that nothing was like to put a stop, but the blowing up of … houses, as might make a [wider] gap than any yeat made by the ordinary method of pulling them downe … : This some stout Seamen proposd early enough to have saved the whole Citty: but some … avaritious Men, Aldermen &c. would not permit, because their houses must have ben the first: It was … now commanded to be practised, & my concern being particularly for the Hospital of st. Bartholemeus neere Smithfield, … made me al the more diligent to promote it … : So as it pleased Almighty God by abating of the Wind, & the industrie of people … that the furie of it began … to abate, … so as it came no farther than … the enterance of Smithfield  …

It brake out againe in the Temple; but the courage of the multitude persisting, & innumerable houses blown up with Gunpowder, such gaps … were soon made … as the fire [was able to be got under control] …

[T]here I left this smoking … heape, … the poore Inhabitans dispersd all about St Georges, Moore filds, as far as higate, & several miles in Circle … : [and] returned with a sad heart to my house … ”.


The Great Fire of London contd. (Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, 1666)


On this day in 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote:

“(T)o the Tower Street, and there met the fire burning … .  And … Sir W. Pen and I did dig [a pit], and put our wine in it, and I my parmazan cheese”.

And John Evelyn wrote:

“The burning still rages; now gotten as far as the Inner Temple, al Fleetestreete, old baily, Ludgate Hil, Warwick Lane, Newgate, Paules Chaine, Wattling-streete now flaming & … the stones of Paules flew lie Granados, the Lead melting down the streets in a stream, & the very pavements … glowing with a fiery rednesse, so as nor horse nor man was able to tread on them, … : the … Wind still more impetuously driving the flames forewards: nothing but the almighty power of God … able to stop them, for vaine was the help of man”.


The Great Fire of London contd.  (Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, 1666)


On this day in 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote:

“(M)y Lady Batten sent me a cart to carry away all my money, and plate, and best things, .., which I did, riding … in my night-gown, in the cart … ”.

And John Evelyn wrote:

“The fire having continued all this night (if I may call that night, which was as light as day for 10 miles round …) when conspiring with a fierce Eastern Wind, in a very drie season, I went on foote to the same place [Bankside], when I saw the whole of the … Citty burning … to Bainard Castle, and … taking hold of St Paule’s Church, to which the Scaffalds contributed exceedingly.  The Conflagration was so universal,  & the people so astonish’d, that from the beginning … they hardly stirr’d to quench it, so … there was nothing heard or scene but crying out & lamentation, & running about like distracted creatures … as it burned … , … leaping after a prodigious manner from house to house … at great distance one from the other, for the heate … had even ignited the aire, & … devoured after an incredible manner houses, furniture, & everything: Here we saw the Thames coverd with goods floating, … barges & boates laden with what some had time & courage to save … [and] Cartes &c. carrying out to the fields, which for many miles were strewed with movables of all sorts, & Tents … to shelter both people & what goods they could get away: O … miserable & calamitous spectacle … : God grant mine eyes never behold the like [again], who now saw ten thousand houses all in one flame, … the fall of houses, towers & churches … .  Thus I left it … burning, a resemblance of Sodome … : London was, but is no more … ”.