Image: Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, 1. (1797). The Great Fire of London, public domain, Yale Centre for British Art
It may be tempting fate to revisit a fire in a library, but as part of this autumn’s Being Human festival, the Institute of Historical Research is holding a ‘night at the library’ escape game in which participants, supported by librarians, will use the 250,000 volumes of published materials held at the library to solve a series of puzzles set by special guests from the past. Dr Matthew Shaw, who is leading this innovative event that also marks the 350th anniversary year of the Great Fire of London, explains that during the course of the night, guests will learn more about the disaster and the measures taken to save the country’s precious codices.
In September 1666, the ‘lamentable and dismal fire’ that we now know as the Great Fire consumed most of the City of London, from Fleet Street to the edges of the Tower of London, coating what remained in inches of soot, destroying homes, churches and ancient company halls, and causing many thousands to sleep out under the late-summer stars. As many as 100,000 people were rendered homeless, more than 80 churches were razed, along with St Paul’s Cathedral, the Royal Exchange and the Guildhall. Within three days, four-fifths of the ancient city had been destroyed.
The flames not only consumed buildings, but also paintings, tapestries, and evaporated thousands of gallons of wine, beer and other liquor (estimated at over £1m in value). Many thousands of books and manuscripts also joined the pyre in perhaps one of the most terrible, and perhaps neglected, losses of the Great Fire. As one chronicler of the fire notes ‘Never since the burning of the great library at Alexandria had there been such a holocaust of books’ (W G Bell, The Great Fire of London in 1666).
As the flames jumped from building to building, urgent action was taken to attempt to save precious codices. The Stationers’ Company’s books had been carried down to the west crypt, the peculiar site of the ancient parish of St Faith’s under St Paul’s, in the hope of escaping the flames. Partly abetted by the wooden scaffolding that surrounded the building as part of Christopher Wren’s restoration work, the fire also spread to the Cathedral, melting, as the diarist John Evelyn lamented, six acres of lead on the roof, which crashed into St Faith’s.
The books ‘were all consumed, burning for a week following’. In 1648, all but a handful of St Paul’s manuscripts had been transferred to Sion College, a guild/fraternity established for London’s clergy, whose long library room was its particular pride. Of those that remained at St Paul’s, two psalters survived, while the rich library of Sion College was desperately carried to the supposed safety of the Charterhouse when the seriousness of the fire became clear. Here, the conflagration destroyed a third of the library, including all but nine manuscripts originally held by St Paul’s.
Of the surviving texts, we might single out John Lathbury’s Commentary on Lamentations (Arc.L.40.2/L.32), spoiled but not destroyed by fire and water. It has a special pressmark (‘V.2’) on its first folio, marking its escape from the flames.
The fire also consumed private libraries, the stock of city-based booksellers and printers, presses and type, at a cost of between £150,000–200,000 (at a time when the cost of rebuilding a church was estimated at £8,000). It caused such bibliographic oddities as the unique fourth ‘Introductory’ volume to William Prynne’s An Exact Chronological Vindication (London, 1666; Wing P3962A), now held at Lincoln’s Inn Library after it was purchased from the Duke of Buckingham’s library at Stowe.
It was believed to be the only copy of this volume to survive the Fire. The others perished at the printer’s house, while the surviving volume was probably in William Prynne’s hands while he was ‘endeavouring to extinguish the flames, and to preserve the public records of the king and kingdom from their fury’ as the Keeper of Records in the Tower of London.
Like many, William Prynne also sought scapegoats to blame for the fire: the conflagration stoking religious and ethnic fears. He believed that papists, which in his suspicious mind included Quakers, were to blame, and began a letter-writing campaign to the court ‘speaking of fears and jealousies, of plots and designs of Jesuits and Romanists against the Church and Religion’ (quoted in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).
For others, it was the Dutch who were to blame. The Second Dutch War had stoked fears of foreign plots and invasion, and the Dutch navy had reached the Thames. A fortnight before the Great Fire, Sir Robert Holmes raided the islands of Vlieland and Terschelling burning 130 merchant ships and the town of West-Terschelling. Might the Dutch be plotting revenge?
In London, as sparks blew on the wind causing buildings to ignite seemingly without reason, rumours of foreign plots spread quickly. Stories of Dutch or French terrorists, with fireballs, matches and grenades, led to vigilante actions and mob violence. French shops were looted, and individuals physically attacked.
Religious tensions also surfaced, and by the second day of the fire, Catholics and foreigners had to seek protection from the Duke of York’s men. In an attempt to calm fears, Charles II issued a series of proclamations denying foreign sabotage. Yet fears continued, with the psychological trauma of the conflagration and a rhetoric of loss informing official narratives, sermons, diaries and poems for decades to come. On the Dutch side, the Great Fire was seen as divine punishment for this brutal episode, which was dubbed Holmes’s Bonfire. A medal was issued, with the words: ‘Sic punit’ (Thus He punishes).
But for some, a fire that razed the existing city was also the occasion for hope. At least for those such as Christopher Wren or John Evelyn, who had long scorned what they considered the crude clutter of medieval London. And, with arguably unseemly haste, they quickly proposed plans for rebuilding according to the modern, formal principles of Renaissance architecture.
The fearful inferno was an opportunity for a new, classically-informed city, one that would overshadow its continental competitors, a notion took on literary form, notably in John Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis, ‘the year of wonders’, 1666, which portrayed a London rising from the ashes (‘she from her Fires does rise: Her widening Streets on new Foundations trust’).
Yet practical considerations, including property claims, and the need to rehouse and reemploy thousands, ensured that the medieval street plan largely remained. Even the new stone buildings retained much of the shape and function of their razed forebears. The hope of the new, continental city does, of course, have at least one striking imprint on the cityscape – Sir Christopher Wren’s baroque St Paul’s, rebuilt with a new library chamber and granted special funds to restock its shelves.
Dr Matthew Shaw is the Institute of Historical Research’s librarian. His research interests include the French Revolution and, more broadly, the long-eighteenth century. Before joining the IHR in 2016, he was curator of 18th- and 19th-century political and historical papers and was lead curator of the Americas Collections at the British Library, where led a number of exhibitions, including Taking Liberties: the struggle for Britain’s rights and freedoms, Growing Knowledge, On the Road: Jack Kerouac’s Manuscript Scroll, Enduring War: grief, grit and humour and Animal Tales. He is visiting fellow at Northumbria University and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
Information on ‘Night at the library’ will be available on the Being Human website.