This is the third in my “live-blogging” of the Great Fire of London, which annihilated the world’s largest city 347 years ago this week.
Tuesday, September 4, 1666. At last Londoners started putting up organized resistance against the flames that were consuming their city. King Charles II had placed his brother James, the Duke of York, in charge of firefighting operations. Because putting out the flames was impossible, most of James’s strategy consisted of pulling down buildings to create firebreaks, hoping to halt the spread of the flames as they burned out whatever fuel remained in a localized area.
Part of the problem was that the hot wind–the “gale,” as contemporary reports called it–was still blowing. Sparks from the fire could spread anywhere through the air. The column of smoke hovering over London made bright daylight seem like gloomy night.
There were some successes, but the fire’s advance still continued. On Tuesday Cheapside, one of London’s most fashionable promenades, went up in flames. The fire consumed some of London’s most iconic taverns, such as the Half Moon, the Mitre, Standard, and the Bull’s Head. Goldsmiths’ Row, named (again) for the sort of businesses that congregated there, was next. The fire reached the old Roman walls of the city at Fleet Ditch, touching the water–the waters of the Thames actually boiled in some places due to the intense heat.
James, the Duke of York, who fought the fire, later ascended the throne as King James II upon the death of his brother in 1685.
As the fire consumed churches, an even weirder spectacle occurred. Most churches, made of wood, burned right to the ground, but the fire also crept along the ground, burning the remains of dead people buried in the churchyards. The corpses of recent dead were literally cooked inside their coffins. Bodies that had been dead longer were flash-mummified. One famous body that was found mummified after the fire was that of Bishop of London Robert de Braybroke, who had been buried in 1404.
With so many wood buildings going up, stone churches were thought to be safe havens from the flames. Many people crowded into St. Paul’s Cathedral, a stone church with a lead roof, and a place where many goods from the surrounding neighborhood were stacked. Alas, the church was under renovation and surrounded by wooden scaffolding. When the fire reached it, St. Paul’s went up. The intense heat caused the bricks and stones in the walls to explode like bombs. Most notably, the intense heat melted the lead roof of the church. Inside the burning cathedral it was literally raining molten lead.
St. Paul’s Cathedral today. On September 4, 1666, it rained lead here.
This image–the lead running down like water–is key in many cultural depictions of the disaster, including Neil Stephenson’s inventive baroque sci-fi novel Quicksilver, a part of which takes place during the Great Fire.
By the end of Tuesday, most of the old Roman part of London was in flames, or already in ashes. Neil Hanson, author of The Dreadful Judgment, calls September 4, 1666 the most fateful day in London’s history.