SPOILER ALERT: This page reveals plot points that spoil the story. Read the book first!
T he Great Fire of London of 1666 sets the foundation for Jack’s introduction to the Ministry of Trackers. Jack must retrace the history of the blaze to recover the artifact that caused it and get his father back. My selection of this historical event as a backdrop for a modern mystery is no coincidence. The story of the Great Fire has mysteries of its own.
What caused the Great Fire of London?
Most histories on the subject agree that a fire started in the bakery of Thomas Farriner (also Farynor), thanks to a wayward ember from a stove that should have been put out. After that, high winds, tightly packed structures, and flammable waterfront commodities took over (not thatch—for a good thatch burning, see the Great Fire of 1212).
The bakery story, endorsed by King Charles II and his lord chancellor, the Earl of Clarendon, seems simple enough. We know, at least, that the first flames were sighted at the bakery. However, there are some complications.
The Missing Window
According to Farriner’s testimony there were no windows or external doors in the bakery by which the wind could have blown the ember. This testimony is often misused to imply there were no windows in the whole house, for the purpose of posthumously exonerating confessed arsonist Robert Hubert (more about Hubert shortly).
Either the wind did it, or Hubert did it. If Farriner was telling the truth, the wind could not have blown through the bakery section of the building, but Hubert could certainly have sent a fireball through an upper window (which is exactly what he claimed).
The Baker’s Denial
Farriner swore to his dying day that he raked the ash in the stoves and properly put them out. Farriner also remained the king’s baker after the fire. It seems odd that Charles II did not sack the man who burned London to the ground.
The Arsonist’s Confession
French watchmaker Robert Hubert confessed to starting the blaze along with twenty-three co-conspirators. Hubert was led blindfolded to several parts of the city and identified the spot where he tossed a fireball through the bakery’s upper window by means of a long pole. The whole street was burned beyond recognition so that even its own residents might not be able to identify it. Thus, how could this crazy foreigner (who we will later be told arrived two days into the fire) so readily identify the location of the former bakery. Hubert was executed for the crime, but the Earl of Clarendon claimed that he was too insane and cripple to have done it.
Hubert would seem to be exonerated by the testimony of the ship captain who brought him to London. The captain claimed that he did not arrive until two days into the fire. Of course, during the fire, London was in chaos. Countless records were burned, particularly down on the docks. A captain who suddenly discovered he brought in the twenty-four arsonists that burned the city might feel compelled to fudge the date of his arrival. This being the sole piece of evidence used to exonerate Hubert in the royal account, makes it suspect.
A number of “arsonists” were caught by members of the public, according to a parliamentary report issued in 1667. The report includes eyewitness accounts of fireballs similar to those described by Hubert. Many contemporary historians discount these claims and attribute them to mass hysteria and the anti-Catholicism of the period. They also discount the report because—and this is not an exaggeration—the king simply didn’t like it. The report took months of investigation to compile. Charles II had his own counter-report composed in the space of five days. That’s not suspicious at all.
However, foreigners were indeed maimed and killed without cause during the blaze, which may account for Clarendon’s assertion that Hubert was too cripple to have done what he claimed. It is likely that Hubert, having confessed out of sorrow for his actions, received quite a beat-down from the public long before Clarendon ever saw him. In that case, Hubert did not lose his physical or mental competence until well after his act of arson.
As to anti-Catholicism, an inscription on the Monument to the Great Fire blamed the conflagration on “popish frenzy,” and remained there until 1831.
The Duke of York
James, the king’s brother was a Catholic and thought to be a French sympathizer. This would be confirmed in 1688 when James, having been ousted, landed in Ireland with French Troops and attempted to invade England.
Within the original parliamentary report, multiple constables describe handing suspected arsonists over to the duke, who was acting as a magistrate. The report implies that James spirited these criminals away. To let blame fall on James, heir to the throne, would certainly have spelled disaster for Charles II, the first king of the restored monarchy following the Cromwellian period. The English Civil War was barely a decade past, anti-royalist sentiment still ran deep in London, and the French and the Dutch were circling like vultures.
Confusion over the history stems from two official reports. The first was published on 22 January 1667 by a seventy-man task force from the House of Commons, who spent four months on their investigation. This first report, found here in the Museum of London digital archive, is filled with eyewitness accounts and confiscated letters that imply a plot of arsonists and implicate the Duke of York himself. Certainly, some of it is hearsay. But all of it?
The king’s council took offense at the allegations. A second parliamentary report was issued a mere five days later, composed by a known royalist named Sir Robert Brooke, claiming that the previously presented evidence was invalid, and that the fire in the bakery was there and forever the official cause. The shame of it sent poor Thomas Farriner to his grave.
How many people died in the Great Fire?
The official number—the number of confirmed deaths—is six (four in some accounts), leading to the common but rather macabre joke that more people died by falling off of or throwing themselves from the Monument to the Great Fire than actually died in the fire itself. However, that number may be wishful thinking. The real number may be far greater.
The census taken in 1673 shows 3500 tenancies unoccupied in London. This indicates that approximately 100,000 people were missing—one fifth of the pre-fire population. Many of these might simply have moved away and started a new life elsewhere. However, to think that so many would not have returned when new and better tenancies were built for them seems a stretch.
The fire swept fastest through crowded, timber slums. Most of those lost would have been the nameless poor, difficult to verify and of no priority to the upper classes
The claim that only a handful of people died suited King Charles’s attempts to sooth a public out for blood and looking for scapegoats—which included his brother.
The fire burned far hotter than the temperature necessary to cremate bodies. Combined with the high winds, it is likely that most bodies became indistinguishable from the ash remains of the city itself.
John Evelyn, a contemporary of Samuel Pepys, described the stench of burning corpses, despite observing from the other side of the river. It is unlikely that four to six burned bodies could account for such a stench.