Divine Wrath or the Dutch?: Who Londoners Wanted to Blame for the Great Fire of 1666

Written for my “History of England Since 1660” class at the University of Georiga. (I received an A if you were curious)

When a horrific event occurs, humans never fail to find someone to blame. The event may actually have been an accident, like the great fire of London which was actually started by a bakery fire on Pudding Lane. But that is unacceptable answer to the human mind. So, it will create reasons to blame others. The citizens of London generally accepted two answers to the question, “what caused the fire?” in their city in 1666. The first one was that the fire was an act of God. The second was that the fire was an act of terrorism.

England already had “a vague foreboding about what 1666 might bring.” (pg. 19) London had been the subject of several prophecies by astrologers, which predicted doom for the city. A mathematician also expressed concern for the very number of the year. 666 is “an apocalyptical and mysterious number” (pg.21) The number is referenced in Revelation, the last book of the Bible, which is a prophecy about the end times. Londoners felt like the day that God was going to judge them for their sins was drawing near.

London did not have a clear conscious. They had the blood of a king on their hands. London had played a dramatic role in King Charles I’s downfall. In a time where kings in England ruled with divine right, disobeying the king was the same as disobeying God. In divine right theory, the king does not answer to any earthly authority. The monarch is only responsible to God. Yet, in the very city of London, the king’s own subjects had put him on trial and executed him. In the ballad Mourne London Mourne, the anonymous writer described at length what would befall the city for playing a role in regicide. The writer depicts that “fire raging fire, shall burn thy stately towers down.” (pg. 20) Londoners thought that the fire was the wrath of God come upon them for the role that they played in death of their king.

Puritan ministers, did not waste time in saying that God’s judgement had come from heaven by fire for the wicked deeds done there by its people. A pamphlet was circulated comparing the city of London “to Lucifer in its proud arrogance and its spectacular fall.” (pg.146) It said that the fire was caused by “the godlessness of its citizens”. (pg.146) Many Londoners began to think that the fire was also a judgement upon their wickedness, especially upon King Charles II for his immoral ways.
King Charles II even accepted that this fire was an act of God saying that “the hand of God (was) being laid on the city by raging fire.” (pg. 78) Charles wanted to reassure his subjects that the fire had been an accident, and not a plot. That the fire had come from the Hand of God, but Charles did not say why he thought this divine judgement had come to pass.

Now, when have humans ever blamed themselves for their own calamities when there is another group that the blame could be cast upon? The rumor quickly grew that “the disaster was no accident.” (pg. 58) As soon as the fire broke out, people were running up and down the street yelling that “the Dutch and the French were in armes, and had fired ye Citty” (pg.51) The general consensus was “that the Dutch had struck back in revenge for Sir Robert Holmes’s bonfire” (pg. 58) The English and the Dutch were at war. The English and the French had been at war, hated each other with a burning passion, and were always about to come to blows. It is easy to blame your enemies for your problems, which in this case the citizens of London did quickly.

“A nasty strain of xenophobia already ran deep in the hearts of many Londoners” (pg. 60). The English were suspicious of people who had come from outside their isle and unfortunately “foreigners were easy targets for the fear and anger” (pg. 61) These foreigners in London served as a punching bag and scapegoat for the pain, loss, fear, and anger the victims of the fire were feeling. “One of the first foreigners to be arrested was Cornelius Rietvelt, a Dutch baker with a shop in Westminster” (pg. 61) Now we know that poor Cornelius did not start the fire. He just had the misfortune of being Dutch and a baker.

Everyone was coming up with fantastic theories of how the Dutch and French were working together to destroy the English. “By Thursday, it was accepted as fact 200 miles away in York that the Pudding Lane Bakery belong to a Frenchman; that the French, Dutch, and Walloons had started the fire; and that the culprits had already been apprehended along with ten baskets of fireballs and grenades” (pg. 66) The only information that this tidbit of gossip got right was that the fire did indeed start at a bakery on Pudding Lane, but this was the kind of fantastical drama the citizens were coming up with to explain why the fire was happening. Many people thought that the fire was a “precursor to an invasion- a softening-up process which would be followed by a rising of all the French and Dutch nationals in the city.” (pg.109)

The need to blame someone for the fire was fierce. It even “crossed Parliament’s factional boundaries.” (pg.153) “There seemed to be no shortage of evidence for a well-planned conspiracy to burn down the metropolis” (pg.155) People were coming up with fantastic stories left and right; the details ever changing. There was enough commotion that parliament decided to form a committee to inquire into the cause of the fire. Many people were interviewed, but with the “exception of Robert Hubert, not one prosecution resulted from the plethora of accusations made before the committee” (pg. 177) It was finally determined by council and his majesty’s ministers that there was no other evidence that the fire had been a plot, and it was determined that “the fire in London to have been caused by other than the hand of God, a great wind, and a very dry season.” (pg.176).

Tinniswood, Adrian. By Permission of Heaven: the True Story of the Great Fire of London. Riverhead Books, 2004

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