In 1666, a major and devastating fire, which would later be known as the Great Fire of London, ravaged the city for days. The medieval city, 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral and most of the buildings of the City authorities were destroyed and hundreds of people left homeless. King Charles II instead than leaving London and giving orders from afar, helped in the fire fighting operations, displaying great courage and bravery which increased his prestige and the love his people had for him.
At the time, most of the city buildings and constructions were made of wood. Small fires were a frequent occurrence and, in the April of the previous year, the King had warned the Lord Mayor of London of the dangers posed by the narrow streets and overhanging timber houses and wanted to tear them down. But noone heeded him. In addition, the summer of 1666 had been very long and very hot and, as a result, the city was dry and its water reserves depleted. The Great Fire of London was an announced tragedy, yet, because of how common fires were at the time, no one grasped the extent and gravity of it until the next day, when it had become very difficult to extinguish it considering the inefficient means available at the time.
The fire started before dawn on 2nd September in the bakeshop of Thomas Farynor, the king’s baker in Pudding Lane, near London Bridge. The family managed to escape but one maid remained trapped in the house and became the first victim of the fire. Because of how close the houses were, the fire soon took hold but when the alarm was given, it wasn’t taken seriously. “A woman might piss it out”, declared Sir Thomas Bloodworth, the Mayor. Diarist Samuel Pepys had seen the fire too that night, but he didn’t think much of it either.
But the fire was still raging in the morning and Pepys decided to go to Whitehall to inform the King and his brother James, Duke of York.
The King straight away ordered to tear down the houses to contain the fire (something the Lord Mayor had hesitated to do until then because he was worried of the high rebuilding costs), but the wind was blowing so strongly that it was difficult to create a clear zone. The King also sent his guards to help, and later he too, together with his brother, went to the site of the fire. The royal brothers travelled by royal barge all the way to Queenshithe, stopping once to watch the fire from the roof of a tall building. The Duke took charge of the fire-fighting operation while Charles too gave orders, imperilling his life in the effort. But the fire wasn’t quenched. The flames, now headed to Cheapside. The smoke could be seen from Oxford and Londoners had begun to flee to the open spaces of Moorfields and Finsbury Hill.
The next day, it reached Blackfriers, the whole parish of St Bride’s and Ludgate Hill. The Cathedral of St. Paul, which was covered in scaffolding that soon caught fire, was destroyed in a few hours. As contemporaries put it, you would have thought it was Doomsday. The King and his brother went to the City on horseback early in the morning to again help in the fire fighting operations. Charles, armed with a spade and a bucket, and up in his ankles in water, helped both throw water on flames and demolish houses. He encouraged the soldiers and workmen to the same, offering money to those reluctant to tear down the houses. By the end of the day, Charles was dirty and muddy, his face black and his clothes soaked. But he had gained the love and respect of his people by fighting the fire with them.
Finally, that night the wind dropped and the clear zones began to be really effective. The next morning, there were still outbreaks of minor fires as the smouldering amidst the ruins of the city continued, but the Great Fire Of London had been quenched. In all, an area of about one-and-a-half mile long and a half-mile deep had burned. A member of Lincoln’s Inn recorded: “you may see from one end of the City almost to the other. You may compare London (were it not for the rubbish) to nothing more than an open field.” There is no accurate recording of how many people died. The official death toll is very low, but the deaths of poor people weren’t always recorded at the time, so the number of victims could be higher. The only positive effect of the fire was that also the rats who carried the plague were burned and so this horrible disease declined.
Most of the survivors had set up camp at Moorfield and the King ordered the Victualler of the Navy to send them food (however,the biscuits provided from the sea stores were sent back as inedible). And then announced that markets selling bread would be set up all over the perimeter so that people could buy it. The King also went to Moorfield himself to reassure the people the fire had not been set up by Papist as rumours spread by his political opponents claimed. Still fearing a rebellion, he encouraged the homeless poor to move away from London and settle somewhere else, ordering “all Cities and Towns whatsoever shall without any contradiction receive the said distressed persons and permit them the free exercise of their manual trades.” In addition, he appointed a day of fasting accompanied by collections in aid of the poor.
It was now time to rebuild London. The King appointed six commissioners to redesign the city and Christopher Wren as the principal architect (he would design about 50 new churches, including St. Paul’s Cathedral). The new city that literally rose from its ashes after 4 long years of work was cleaner and safer, with wider streets and brick buildings with better water supplies. Charles II had also asked Wren to design a monument to commemorate the Great Fire, which still stands today at the site of the bakery that started it, although the street has now a different name, Monument Street.
King Charles II by Antonia Fraser