The Great Fire of London: Casualties and Aftermath

This week marks the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Although my series, The Southwark Saga, begins five years after the fire, the characters are still feeling its effects. It would take years for the city to rebuild and in 1671, when Tyburn begins, parts of London are still covered in ash. In the next book of the series, we’ll meet a Dutchman who was very nearly killed in the aftermath of the fire. Let’s take a closer look in this post from the archives.

The Great Fire of London began in a bakery on Pudding Lane after midnight on Sunday, September 2nd and incinerated the medieval City of London until it died down the following Wednesday. Reaching an incredible 1700 degrees Celsius, it destroyed at least 13,200 houses, 87 churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and most City authority buildings.

Although there were only six confirmed deaths, historian Neil Hanson believes that the true number of casualties of the fire and its aftermath numbered in the thousands. (1) The deaths of the poor and middle-class were not recorded, and their remains would have been burned beyond recognition. Some French and Dutch people were actually beaten and even lynched amid fears that the fire had been intentionally set by immigrants, and they had been England’s enemies in the Second Anglo-Dutch War.

The houses had been mostly wooden with thatched roofs, and almost met across the streets with their projecting upper floors (jetties). Though these would have provided a shelter from the rain, the congested streets allowed the fire to spread faster with no more help than a good eastern wind.

Quite apart from the houses themselves, London was extremely flammable. The riverside alone was full of pitch, oil, tar, coal, tallow, alcohol, and turpentine. There were wooden tenements along the wharves and tar paper shacks for the poor. Homes were filled with black powder left over from the war, there were barrels of it beside the wharves, and an extra six hundred tons stored in the Tower of London.

Diarist Samuel Pepys saw the City burn, and recorded in his diary entry for September 2nd, 1666:

“Having stayed, and in an hour’s time seen the fire rage every way, and nobody to my sight endeavouring to quench it, I [went next] to Whitehall (with a gentleman with me, who desired to go off from the Tower to see the fire in my boat); and there up to the King’s closet in the Chapel, where people came about me, and I did give them an account [that]dismayed them all, and the word was carried into the King. So I was called for, and did tell the King and Duke of York what I saw; and that unless His Majesty did command houses to be pulled down, nothing could stop the fire. They seemed much troubled, and the King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor from him, and command him to spare no houses. . . .

[I hurried] to [St.] Paul’s; and there walked along Watling Street, as well as I could, every creature coming away laden with goods to save and, here and there, sick people carried away in beds. Extraordinary goods carried in carts and on backs. At last [I] met my Lord Mayor in Cannon Street, like a man spent, with a [handkerchief] about his neck. To the King’s message he cried, like a fainting woman, ‘Lord, what can I do? I am spent: people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses, but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.’ . . . So he left me, and I him, and walked home; seeing people all distracted, and no manner of means used to quench the fire. The houses, too, so very thick thereabouts, and full of matter for burning, as pitch and tar, in Thames Street; and warehouses of oil and wines and brandy and other things.” (2)

The King and the Duke of York went so far as to fight the fire themselves, pulling down burning buildings alongside their people. In spite of their best efforts, the fire raged on until Wednesday, when the winds died down and the firebreaks made by the Tower of London garrison finally proved effective.

More than 13,200 houses were destroyed

The Dutch saw it as divine retribution. During the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the English had burned a Dutch town in Holmes’s Bonfire. A French watchmaker names Robert Hubert confessed to setting the fire in Westminster on orders from the Pope. After he was tragically hanged at Tyburn, it was discovered that he could not have possible set the fire as he was as sea at the time.

The Aftermath

Fires were common. Fire was actually the second most common cause of death among women in this period due to the open hearths, ovens, and candles that filled their homes, just waiting to catch on the hem of a skirt. In the rebuilding of the City, cheap wooden and thatch houses were outlawed, and carpenters found themselves out of work by the hundreds, many of them forced to move out of London along with the homeless to seek shelter and work elsewhere.

Thousands of London’s inhabitants were left without homes and many died of exposure during the following winter. The only immediate positive to come of it is that the fire is generally believed to have eradicated the Plague that had devastated London the year before as it never returned.

It is this sad turn of events that inspires out-of-work carpenter Mark Virtue to turn to highway robbery in The Southwark Saga, preying on the wealthy who were living far enough west that the fire did not reach them. You can see the effects of the fire on the people even five years on in Virtue’s Lady, when the rebuild is beginning in earnest.

The Great Fire of London is very well-documented, thanks in no small part to diarist Samuel Pepys. You can read more about it here.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Hanson, Neil (2002). The Great Fire of London: In That Apocalyptic Year, 1666. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons.

Pepys, Samuel (1995). Robert Latham and William Matthews (eds.), ed. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Vol. 7. London: Harper Collins.

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Monsters Are Real: Hieronymus Bosch and the Medieval Mind

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The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch. Undated triptych.

Hieronymus Bosch, born Jeroen Anthonizoon van Aken, was born around 1450 in the market town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in Brabant in the Netherlands. Very little is known about the man himself outside of the work he left behind. Part Flemish tradition, part surreal fever dream, his unflinching depictions of the follies of man and nightmarish vision of hell offer the modern viewer an unparalleled look into the medieval psyche. His work is a window into the religious fervor of the middle ages through which we can see questions of morality, harsh lessons on the nature of sin, and the pervasive fear of eternal damnation.

He is, without a doubt, the most metal painter of the Renaissance.

Bosch was one of the first artists known to paint primarily from his imagination. When travelers and traders brought stories of the middle east and Iceland to ‘s-Hertogenbosch, he incorporated their descriptions into his work, giving his landscapes a distinctly foreign flavor. Animals appeared in paintings that he had never seen in person, notably a little silver giraffe in the left panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights (above. In case you don’t see it right away, it’s between the bear and the striped porcupine, beside the two-legged dog).

As a teenager, Bosch witnessed a massive fire that destroyed more than 4,000 houses in ‘s-Hertogenbosch and killed countless people and livestock. Fire is a recurring theme in his work and particularly vivid are his flaming skies.

Unlike many artists, Bosch enjoyed success during his lifetime due in no small part to the Church’s patronage. His art may have been a calling, but it was also his profession, and he worked mainly on assignment. We may be able to glean a little about his worldview from his paintings, however. Many of his humans are grotesque and inherently sinful, and his judgement of them is clear. His work suggests a deeply pious man with a sharp intellect, a visionary imagination, and a rather dark sense of humor.

The detail demands your full concentration. In order to take in all the monsters and nightmarish punishments, you can easily lose an hour staring into hell. This is no vague impression of hellfire or in the older tradition, ice, but a painstakingly detailed depiction of the imagined horrors of damnation that is both oddly comic and deeply disturbing. It draws your attention in a way that is not coincidental; as most of his work was commissioned by the Church, it was intended to encourage meditation and to inspire the kind of fear of divine punishment that would keep the churches full come Sunday. Given the intent was to scare people straight, it’s no wonder that his depictions of hell are particularly detailed and imaginative.

Bosch’s surrealist vision was so ahead of his time, it looks like something that would fit more easily alongside Dali than in the Northern Renaissance. It’s difficult to look at it without immediately thinking of hallucinogenic drugs that could not have existed in the Netherlands in the 16th century.

LSD might have been a long way away, but there are over more than a dozen species of poisonous mushrooms in the Netherlands, including the Death Cap and the iconic red and white Fly Agaric that was thought to have inspired Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Most of these would have been found in the dense forest surrounding ‘s-Hertogenbosch. By the sixteenth century, the the Fly Agaric had been used in Northern Europe for spiritual as well as culinary purposes for some time, while the Death Cap can easily be mistaken for other edible varieties of mushrooms.

We’ll never know for certain whether Bosch used mushrooms, but as Grunenberg points out, “in The Haywain, there is evidence suggestive of Bosch’s knowledge of the Amanita muscaria mushroom and the apocalyptic hallucinations it can induce.”

Bosch’s monsters have been attributed to mushrooms, rancid rye bread, alchemy, Freudian theory, and even a mystical sex cult, but the truth was probably more mundane.

It was the middle ages. Monsters were everywhere.

St. John’s Cathedral in ‘s-Hertogenbosch was under construction over the course of Bosch’s entire life. The cathedral is decorated with intricate monsters and angels, so not only was Bosch not the only one seeing them, he wasn’t even the first. While we might not think of most supernatural beings as part of the Christian tradition today, in the middle ages, many still believed in magic and mythical creatures were thought to haunt everything from forests and ponds to the very air they breathed. He used arcane symbolism to communicate his meaning, so many of the aspects that confuse us today would have made more sense at the time.

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The Last Judgment, Hieronymus Bosch. Undated triptych.

Death was a constant threat and people turned to the Church for salvation. It was not in the Church’s best interest to comfort them. It was fear that brought them in, and fear that drove them to purchase indulgences as insurance for the afterlife. Interestingly enough, Bosch himself was a member of the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady, a deeply religious organization that was sustained through the sale of indulgences. The Brotherhood claimed indulgences purchased for the dead could pull souls directly out of hell, and after getting a good look at what that might have been like, it’s no wonder people would have wanted to save their loved ones from it.

After his death, all of Bosch’s paintings were snapped up by collectors across Europe until at one point, every single piece was in a private collection. Philip II of Spain – husband of “Bloody” Mary and patron of the Inquisition — was a huge fan, and bought up most of Bosch’s work. As a result, Spain still has the best collection of it today. According to the monk Fray José de Siguenza, Philip had a now unknown companion piece to Bosch’s The Seven Deadly Sins in his bedroom and was said to meditate on it every day.

Bosch has become more popular again over the last few years, and now you can find his paintings on everything from leggings to coloring books. You know, in case you want to take your meditative coloring to the next level of religious contemplation.

To end on a high note, in The Garden of Earthly Delights, there is music painted onto the butt of one of the souls in hell. Jim Spalink has actually recorded this and you can listen to it on YouTube. The result is haunting, distinctly Renaissance, and beautiful in a deeply, deeply creepy way. I’m listening to it now and it’s actually freaking out my cat, so Lord knows what kind of Boschian creatures are lurking between the bars. Maybe don’t play it by yourself in the dark and in the middle of the night, like I am.

Or do. 

In the meantime, I’ll be trying to calm down my cat.

Jessica Cale

Sources

The Atlantic. Hieronymus Bosch, the Trendiest Apocalyptic Medieval painter of 2014.

Byrne, David. 11 Things I learned from the Hieronymus Bosch Show.

Cooper, Paul M. M. Hell in a Handcart: The Secrets Behind Hieronymus Bosch’s The Haywain.

Grunenberg, Christoph and Harris, Jonathan. Summer of Love: Psychadelic Art, Social Crisis and Counterculture in the 1960s.

Hickson, Dr. Sally. Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Khan Academy.

Schuster, Clayton. The Last Judgment, Hieronymus Bosch. Sartle.

Zeidler, Anja. Heironymus Bosch’s The Seven Deadly Sins Table Painting.