Last week was the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London of 1666, a cataclysmic event in London’s history in which the medieval City of London, captured by the top notch Czech drawer and etcher, Wenceslaus Hollar in his ‘Panorama of London’ just 19 years earlier … was lost. Just under 14,000 homes were burned to the ground, along with 87 churches, including the gothic monster that was Old St Paul’s cathedral.
The occasion has been marked by a number of events, including a ceremonial burning of a wooden model replica of the old City on the Thames, the centre piece of a ‘London’s Burning’ weekend created by the creative company Artichoke. The Museum of London have a ‘Fire Fire’ exhibition which will be open until April 2017. A plethora of other exhibitions, talks, concerts and walks are happening throughout the City over the coming months, all of which are listed on the Visit London #GreatFire350 website.
When I first started learning stuff about London (in my early days of being a tour guide), there was something about the Great Fire that caught my imagination more than any other period or event. One of the things I very quickly discovered, learning about history, is that we never seem to actually learn anything. History certainly does seem to repeat itself, and the more I read about the Great Fire, the more connections I saw with the present day, many of which are (unfortunately, in my view) glossed over. Perhaps this is why we fail to learn. One of the main aspects of the fire that intrigued me, was not the immense destruction caused, but the reaction of Londoners, which manifested itself in xenophobic attacks; that omnipresent need to blame foreigners, those that ‘don’t belong’. Although today, kids are taught that the fire was an accident, their 17th century ancestors, had a very different view. As far as they were concerned, the Great Fire was a terrorist attack. I have read horrendous accounts of foreigners being bludgeoned to death in the street or hung up on make shift gallows and murdered, whilst the fire was raging. The first thing that the King, Charles II did upon entering the City to take control, was to arrest and imprison foreigners, to save them from the angry mobs. The Monument, which has stood since the 1670s, close to where the fire started on Pudding Lane, commemorating The Great Fire, is adorned with Latin inscriptions around the base. On the north side, the inscription detailing the aftermath and rebuilding of the City had a line removed in 1830, a line, which in itself was incendiary. In English it read “But Popish frenzy which wrought such horrors is not yet quenched” … or the nutter Catholics did this and we still haven’t sorted them out. Londoners in 1666 had good reason to suspect foul play, in fact, they’d be waiting for a revenge attack after an admiral in the English Navy called Robert Holmes, had just, a few weeks earlier, committed an absolutely unnecessary atrocity on Dutch soil, known as ‘Holmes’s Bonfire’, an act which Londoners had just been celebrating.
The Great Fire occurred also in a fascinating period of English history, just six years after the restoration of the ‘Merrie Monarch’ (after twelve years of being a Republic), one year after the Great Plague, whilst we were embroiled in war with the Dutch and were, as a country, financially crippled. All of this was well documented obviously by our very own diarist, philanderer and cheese burier, Samuel Pepys. A book entitled ‘1666: Plague, War & Hellfire’ by a young historian called Rebecca Rideal has just been published, examining this whole period of London’s tumultuous history. Had this book existed 8 years ago, I’m sure I would have found it an incredibly useful source of research, as it was about that time that I began writing a novel set in the days leading up to and during The Great Fire of London.
The novel, ‘Sixteen Sixty-Six’ begins a few days before the fire breaks out, plunging a number of characters in to the midst of it. I began initially to try and write the idea as a film script, but very quickly realised that it wasn’t enough; I didn’t just want to write dialogue with brief descriptions like “He rows across the river”, “They walk down the street”. I wanted to know what the City smelt like, how it sounded, how it looked, what they wore, what they ate, what it tasted like and much more. Once I made the decision to turn my idea in to a novel, I realised I was creating a world of pain, and about 5 years later I finished it (that was two years ago).
The same xenophobic concerns and prejudices that permeated society in 1666 are very much still swirling around today, as illustrated by the recent EU Referendum ‘Brexit’ vote in June, and its aftermath and the rhetoric of Donald Trump in the States. The Great Fire of 1666 also opened the flood gates for violence and crime, after the thin veneer of law and order had been broken. I had actually already started writing Sixteen Sixty-Six in 2011 when the ‘London Riots’ broke out in various hot spots around the capital. At the time I was living very close to one of the affected areas in Hackney and realised that the behaviour I was seeing was exactly the same way Londoners behaved during those few days in September 1666. It was quite illuminating. This aspect of the Great Fire is just one piece in a much larger puzzle that forms ‘Sixteen Sixty-Six’, but certainly something I explore.
I have added a page to the website called 'Writing' where you can find a synopsis of Sixteen Sixty-Six. Maybe it’s rubbish, perhaps I’ve wasted 7 years of my life. Who knows … but if you think it is something you might like to read, have a Kindle or some kind of e-reading device then it is available to download through Amazon.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.