The Great Fire of London

The Arson Theory

Suggestion that the Great Fire was initially by design is surprisingly easy to find. Indeed, there are so many recorded claims, when it came to writing The Crown Jewels Conspiracy, I didn’t need to make much up. The one exception is the lost pages from Pepys’s diary, which itself relies heavily on Thomas Middleton’s account before the parliamentary inquiry.

As indicated in the novel, and inspired by the real words that appear on the plaque from 1681, one Robert Hubert, a watchmaker from Rouen, did willingly admit to starting the Great Fire. He was subsequently executed after a ludicrous trial brought about primarily from an indictment against him backed by seven signatories, three of which were Farriners. Intriguingly, while much of Hubert’s testimony was inconsistent, on being asked to point out where he started the fire, he was successful in locating the former position of Farriner’s bakery. Curiously, he’d previously said the plan had been to raze Whitehall to the ground, which was one area the fire never touched despite his claim he’d thrown a fireball near the palace. Adding to the intrigue, he initially stated he was one of a group of twenty-four that included one Stephen Peidloe about whom nothing is known. Nor is anything known of his other, supposed, accomplices.

While Hubert was exonerated of blame by the captain of the ship he’d travelled on who reported that Hubert wasn’t even in London at the time, the French watchmaker was by no means the only person who could, possibly, have been responsible for starting the fire. Among the most extraordinary claims, as also mentioned in this book, is the testimony of a Wiltshire farmer regarding the English response to something later known as Holmes’s Bonfire.

At the time of the fire, the Second Anglo-Dutch War had been raging for about eighteen months. Two weeks earlier, Rear-Admiral Robert Holmes of the Royal Navy had inflicted a hammer blow on the Dutch by destroying a fleet of 140 of their warships, followed by the burning of the coastal town of West-Terschelling.

Whereas the Dutch inevitably reeled from the surprise attack, back in England, news of the event was received with a grand celebration. So much so that Charles II decreed in Holmes’s honour that the traditional custom of lighting bonfires would be observed – something that was recorded in a contemporary poem:

Where are those boasting boors, what are their names?
That swore they blockt us up i’th River Thames
Brave, were it done: I must confess the Hogan
Was very willing, but wanted Mogan
Our streets were thick with bonfires large and tall
But Holmes one bonfire made, was worth ’em all
Well done, Sir Robert, bravely done I swear
Whilst we made bonfires here, you made ’em there!

If the attack itself caused outrage in the Dutch Republic, the English celebrations went down little better. In his hometown of Chippenham, the farmer told the inquiry it had been said to him by a Dutchman, ‘You are brave blades at Chippenham. You made bonfires lately for beating the Dutch. But since you delight in bonfires, you shall have your bellies full of them.’ Later on he was also reported to have added, ‘If you should live a week longer, you shall see London as sad a London as ever it was since the world began.’

The coincidence here is seemingly astounding. The same could be said of the testimony of one Elizabeth Styles that a French servant had boasted to her back in April that English maids will like the Frenchmen better when there’s not a house remaining between Temple Bar and London Bridge – an event that would come to pass between June and October. Based on such reports, it seems highly probable that the fire resulted from a French or Dutch conspiracy, if not a joint effort. Proving it, however – or even verifying the claims, or who made them – was anything but straightforward.

Of the motley collection of candidates, only one had a solid background and connection with the city. The fireworks maker mentioned in this book, one Monsieur Belland, was a real person – records confirm he was in the king’s employ. Though Belland proved his innocence, his actions in the build-up to the fire were suspicious to say the least. When some pasteboard that he ordered was delayed in its arrival, he was reputed to have retorted that if it didn’t arrive by the following week, he would no longer need it. During the same conversation, he was also quoted as saying the fireworks he was making included rockets which ‘fly up in a pure body of flame, higher than the top of St Paul’s, and waver in the air’.

What feelings must have been going through the mind of the questioner a week later on witnessing such bodies of flame from his boat on the Thames, we can only imagine. When the Frenchman’s servants, followed by a duo of concerned citizens – apparently the stationer and the questioner – attempted to locate Belland, by which time the fire was threatening to destroy St Paul’s, they found him and his son safely inside the Palace of Whitehall. Whether the Frenchman was guilty or not, or if there was anything in the arson rumours, remains unclear.

Other than being able to pinpoint where it started, exactly what caused the Great Fire of London remains a mystery.