Saturday, September 2, 2017

Hero's Journey: Royal Brothers and the Great Fire of London

by Sally A. Moore

351 years ago on September 2, 1666, the Great Fire changed the face of London forever. Its advance ignited the spirits of its people for good and bad, and tested the mettle of the two brothers who governed England: Charles II and his brother, James, Duke of York.

By Anonymous [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

Sometime between the hours of midnight and 2 a.m, a flame sprung up in the baker’s oven of Thomas Farriner. 
By daylight, most of Pudding Lane and Fish Street Hill were destroyed and the fire showed no signs of stopping. Samuel Pepys, an administrator for the Royal Navy, arrived at Whitehall to report to the King. 
“So I was called for, and did tell the King and Duke of Yorke 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 [Sir Thomas Bludworth] and command him to spare no houses, but to pull down before the fire every way.” (1)
Charles II and his brother James had returned to London in 1660 on the invitation of Parliament to end the Commonwealth and restore the throne of England. In those first six years of Charles’ reign, the Stuart brothers had garnered a reputation for a dissolute lifestyle with a people still in the throes of a Puritan hangover.
“The loose morals of Charles’s court were an unfailing source of public scandal, and as early as August 1661 Pepys was commenting on ‘the lewdness and beggary of the court, which I am feared will bring all to ruin again’.” (5)
King Charles II, by Unknown artist
National Portrait Gallery (NPG 1313)

Charles and James kept many mistresses and their profligate spending drew the criticism of his people. Contrary to Puritan doctrine, the Merry Monarch and his band of favourites spent long hours gambling and drinking, and the King’s courtiers publicly engaged in duels and verbal attacks one another. 
“These high-spirited gentlemen… diverted themselves at times with poetry, plays and literature in general, at times with sardonic comment on everything about them, couched, very often, in scabrous language.” (4)
Who was this self-indulgent Stuart king with a brother to mirror him, and why should the English people tolerate such pleasure-seekers as the governors of their nation? Wasn’t the plague two years before and the recent severe drought evidence enough of God’s displeasure?

The fire was to challenge the worth of these men at home and earn them notoriety abroad. Pepys, despite noting; the indulgence of Charles’ court; the mistresses of both men at hand; the King in his bed with dogs everywhere; and his nobles in the outer chamber at cards on a Sunday, also recorded the King’s immediate action upon hearing news of the fire.
“A clerk was summoned and the King dictated and signed a parchment. He handed it to Pepys, instructing him to find Sir Thomas Bludworth and give him the royal orders.” (3)
In addition to the instructions for the Mayor, the King promised the assistance of the King’s Royal Guard. The Duke of York informed Pepys that if soldiers were needed by the mayor, he would have them.

Duke of York, by Peter Lely
[Public domain], Wikimedia Commons

Pepys hastened to find Bludworth, but upon handing him the royal orders, the poor man, more suited to enjoying the royal favour of his appointment than in carrying out its duties, expressed himself overwhelmed.
“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.’ That he needed no more soldiers; and that, for himself, he must go and refresh himself, having been up all night.” (1)
Bludworth retired without carrying out the King’s orders to continue the effort of pulling down houses. The King and the Duke of York took a barge on the Thames to see the extent of the damage. What they found was a city in dire threat of destruction.
“In the eighteen hours or so since the fire had broken out at the Farriner’s, it had destroyed twenty-two alleys and wharves, nearly a thousand homes and ships, and six Livery Company Halls, including those of the Vintners, the Watermen and the powerful Fishmongers... Nine churches were in ruins along with the parishes they served.” (2)
It was evident to the royal brothers that the fire would not be contained without immediate and sustained effort. Watching the flames devour the city, street by street, Charles and James became convinced that their intervention was crucial to saving the city.
“In a risky move which showed how seriously he viewed the situation, Charles overrode the Lord Mayor’s authority as chief magistrate and told Browne [London Alderman, Sir Richard Browne] to [continue the effort to] pull down buildings, concentrating on the area below London Bridge towards the Tower, where the presence of large quantities of gunpowder was making everyone nervous. He also ignored Bludworth’s refusal to ask for troops.” (2)
In spite of these actions, the fire took on a demonic momentum, devouring homes, shops, warehouses, and even spilling onto the Thames on slicks of oil and tar. The people fled in panic, unable to comprehend the destruction that seemed without end. Black smoke hung over the city and the sky turned blood red in reflection of the flames.
“Beside the dreadful scenes of flames, ruins and desolation, there appeared the most killing sight under the sun, the distracted looks of so many citizens, the wailings of miserable women and the cries of poor children and decrepit old people with all the marks of confusion and despair.” (3)
Faced with the loss of life and every material thing they had, the people gathered in the street and made a pitiful appeal to their king.
“The glow of the fires and the spurts of flame soaring into the heavens had lit up the windows of the Palace of Whitehall during the night. Citizens gathering outside the walls of his palace, held back by the company of Guards stationed before the gates, had woken Charles with their pleas of ‘God and the King save us.’ ” (3)
The hapless Bludworth was nowhere to be found, and Pepys noted that he was not seen for three days. While the mayor fled, the “dissolute” Charles and his brother sprang into action, declaring themselves stewards of the city. Recognizing the dire nature of this threat, they left the comforts of Whitehall on Monday morning, September 3, and spent most of the day and night fighting the fire.
“The streets were a bedlam of noise: the rumble of iron wheels, the cracking of whips, the rattle of carts jolting over the cobbles, the stamp of hooves, the sound of running feet and a cacophony of shouts and yells, voices raised in curses or prayers, and ‘the fearful cries and howlings of undone people’.” (3)
By Unknown- Display in Museum of London,
copy from Pepys Library in Magdalene College,
Cambridge [Public domain]

Wading into the fray without regard for personal safety, the brothers toiled alongside the citizens, alternately encouraging the people and the troops and passing off buckets of water or pulling down houses and calming the residents, acting with the determination of men of who would not shrink from the responsibility of saving the city that had welcomed them home six years before.
“By the end of the day the King’s clothes were soaking, his face black, his whole person muddy and dirty. But there were many testimonials to his bravery and resolution as he stood up to his ankles in the water, joining in the work with a will, wielding a bucket and spade with the rest, and encouraging the courtiers to do likewise.” (4) 
Their efforts were frustrated by changing winds and empty water reservoirs as a result of a drought, as well as the panicked flight of people. Charles carried a bag of coins to entice men into joining the effort, adding his personal royal plea to stand and fight. There were few takers, and even the royal guards were balking at their duty in the face of the growing wall of fire.
“By mid-morning on Tuesday the pall of smoke hanging over the city had grown to biblical proportions. It was so great, claimed Thomas Vincent, ‘that travellers did ride at noon-day some miles together in the shadow thereof, though there were no other cloud beside to be seen in the sky’. On the rare occasion when the sun did manage to break through the gloom, it was as red as blood.” (2)
Pepys described the fire from his garden as “…extremely dreadful, for it looks just as if it was at us; and the whole heaven on fire.” (1)

By Wednesday night, September 5, the fire was quelled, leaving a smouldering heap of destruction that covered up to 80 percent of the city and an estimated 100,000 homeless. In all, 13,000 homes, 89 churches including St. Paul’s Cathedral and 52 Guild Halls were destroyed.

The fact that anything was still standing and the loss of life estimated to be low was a miracle of heroic proportion. Without the courage of the royals it is likely that the fire would have consumed the rest of the city. The veneer of Charles’ court had burned away and exposed the men beneath who claimed the ruling class. While so many minor officials ran away, the royal brothers led their courtiers and people to triumph over the engulfing flames.

The Paris Gazette, in spite of relief on the part of the French that the fire would prevent an impending attack by the English, published a glowing story about the role of the Stuart brothers.
“[The Gazette] had nothing but praise for Charles II, crediting him with personally organising the firefighting and, through his kindness and courage, earning the lasting tenderness and veneration of his people.” (2)
James, too, was cited for his bravery and his ability to stay calm in the crisis, organizing the destruction of buildings to create a break for the fire.
“ ‘Next, Princely York, with sweat and dirt besmear’d/ (More glorious thus than in his Robes appear’d. James was seen ‘handling Bucketts of water with as much diligence as the poorest man did assist’. John Rushworth, a witness who wrote these words, went on to point out that ‘if the Lord Maior had donn as much, his example might have gone far to saveing the Citty’.”
In London, superstitions, despair and anger caused riots, the people blaming alternately the Dutch, the French or the wrath of God toward the ways of the King and his court for the catastrophe.
“Charles was anxious to reassure his subjects. So he addressed the crowd, telling them that the Fire had been an accident, and not a plot. It had come from the Hand of God. Just why God should have chosen to punish London in such a dramatic fashion he declined to say, although in the coming weeks and months there would be plenty who thought it an obvious and well-deserved judgement on Charles’s dissolute ways.” (2)
The aftermath of the fire was a period of hard-earned growth for England, with the new building slowly revitalizing London and a renewed respect between king and his people that lasted, with a few notable bumps, throughout his reign.
“…pleasure-loving, easy-going as the Court of Charles II was, it was not a bad and certainly not an evil place.” (4)
Charles never lost his taste for the pleasure-loving life that his people both loved and criticized him for. He continued to collect mistresses as some collect coins. But he and his brother had proven what Charles had professed to the people during the Great Fire: that they had the will and the means to protect their kingdom, a promise that was to test Charles’ resolve again in the years to come.

1. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 1660 – 1669
2. Permission of Heaven, the Story of the Great Fire of London, by Adrian Tinniswood, Pimlico, Random House UK, 2004 
3. The Dreadful Judgement, the True Story of the Great Fire of London, by Neil Hanson, Doubleday, 2001
4. Charles II, His Life and Times, by Antonia Fraser, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1993
5. The Life and Times of Charles II, by Christopher Falkus; Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1992

This Editor's Choice was originally posted September 2, 2016

Sally A. Moore is an award-winning writer from Kingston, Ontario in Canada. Represented by The Rights Factory Literary Agency in Toronto, she is currently writing a historical fiction/fantasy trilogy. Her writing credits include fiction and creative nonfiction, as well as poetry prizes from the Ontario Poetry Society and the Montreal International Poetry Prize. Sally is Past President of the Writers’ Community of Durham Region (WCDR), a member of the Historical Novel Society, and the recipient of the Len Cullen Writing Scholarship. Sally holds certificates of achievement from Humber School for Writers and a diploma with Distinction in Commercial Communications. 
Connect with her through Twitter (@SallyMoore11), LinkedIn, and her Website. For more information about her work, check out her portal, Legend of Three Crowns.

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