At staff meeting this week, the RedState Department of History began working on its bucket list – not because it was ill, mind you, but because as fans of history, it always has places it wants to visit before it becomes history itself.
One of those places is London, which as it turns out could have used a few buckets filled with water used in a timely fashion on this date in 1666.
London, while a large city even then, wasn’t exactly the best place in the world to live at that time. Plague had killed over 68,000 citizens within the previous two years and the city’s narrow streets coupled with heavy use of timber in construction and an extremely dry summer, made it a firetrap.
So it was that when the king’s baker, Thomas Farynor, went to sleep on the night of September 2, 1666, the fire which started in his kitchen went unchecked long enough to create a major disaster which is still well noted today.
The Great Fire of London had modest beginnings. Awakened to receive news of the blaze, London mayor Sir Thomas Bloodworth derisively said that a woman could extinguish the fire through, shall we say, use of bodily fluids, and went back to bed. However, by morning London Bridge was on fire and the city was in dire peril.
At the time, as today, the way to combat large fires was to create firebreaks. The only way to do this in the crowded city of London was to destroy houses, through the use of explosives.
Unfortunately, a strong east wind – which the natives also believed had helped spread plague – now spread the fire faster than the firebreaks could contain it. King Charles II had been alerted and ordered the mayor to destroy as many houses as needed to contain the fire, but now the beast had grown so large that it was able to spread against the wind.
The next evening, the fire was large enough to be seen and smelled as far away as Oxford, and still showed no signs of being contained. By this time the fire had nearly reached the wealthy district of Cheapside and was threatening St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The grand structure couldn’t be saved, its lead roof melting and flowing into the streets before the fire consumed the rest of the building, and Cheapside as well. By this time the King himself was joined by the Duke of York in helping pass fire buckets to the firefighters, but an immense amount of damage had already been done.
Finally, the break the firefighters needed arrived, but not until Wednesday, September 5. The wind shifted to the north, blowing the fire toward the Thames River and back onto itself. The blaze was finally extinguished the next day.
The disaster consumed about eighty percent of the City of London. It’s estimated that 13,200 homes were lost along with 84 churches and 44 company halls. Officially, only six people were listed as killed, which beggars belief in light of studies which estimated that the temperature inside the fire reached over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which would have resulted in burning bodies to ashes.
However, not all the great buildings of the old city were consumed in the fire. To see some of the oldest buildings in the city which weren’t burned down, click here.
Al that said, the fire had the beneficial effect of virtually wiping out the plague, due to the mass deaths of the rats which carried it — but now the huge task of rebuilding the city began to take shape.
Design work for this task fell to Christopher Wren, who soon submitted plans to King Charles II. His formal plans were never adopted due to lack of finances, but he did redesign St. Paul’s along with over fifty of the destroyed churches on a royal commission.
This process took over thirty years. Due to the national importance of the cathedral and the various competing interests involved, Wren redesigned the cathedral even as it was being built. This led to an observation that:
“Taken at face value, Sir Christopher Wren took risks which would be unconscionable in architectural practice today . . .Wren was not only an exceptional master of the science and craft of architectural design, he also commanded almost complete control of the entire construction process. Thus the risks he encountered – and originated – were well matched by his extraordinary talents.”
Virtually all of Wren’s drawings and designs survive today and many are available to view online. It took 35 years, but Wren supervised the rebuilding of St. Paul’s Cathedral from start to finish.
Wren is also buried there. Upon his death in 1723 at age 90, Wren’s son commissioned an engraved dedication containing the famous words which described the second half of Wren’s life:
“Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice” (“Reader, if you seek a monument, look about you”).
Happy Sunday and enjoy today’s open thread!