Thursday, August 4, 2016

Burning of St Paul’s by Katherine Pym

London burning
Of late there has been a plethora of articles re: the London Fire. The reason for this is we are nearing the 350th year anniversary of this spectacular event. Books are coming out. We’ll probably see a television special on it, maybe a movie.

If you believe in reincarnation, people who were there will remember it while we are being inundated with its drama. If you believe that memories can be passed down from one generation to another from the genes of our ancestors, if you are in any way related to them who lived through this event, you will remember the horror of it today.

The fire began in the wee hours of Sept 1, 1666 in Pudding Lane. A great wind rose that stoked the fire into a conflagration that did not end until Sept 5.

St Paul’s Cathedral was 2 churches in one. Underneath the grand structure, in the crypt, was St Faith where booksellers and their families worshipped. It was also a storage place for books, paper and printing presses. While the fire consumed the eastern portion of London city, people stored their goods there, expecting the great cathedral’s stout walls would protect them. 

View of London burning from Tower of London
When built 150 years earlier, the roof had been layered with lead, but over the years, holes had been patched with wood to keep out the weather. During the Civil Wars, horses had been stabled in the church. A blacksmith had worked within those vaulted walls, his forge chimney piercing through the cathedral’s lead roof.

In 1663 or so, a committee gathered to repair the old building. The closest they came was to enclose it with a webbing of wooden scaffolding. By Sept of 1666, the old cathedral was a neglected pile of stone. All it needed was a spark to meet its end, and what a spectacular end it was.

Wind whipped the London fire into a frenzy. It burned so hot, the glow and smoke could be seen for miles.  

People fled into the old church because it was stanchion against all adversity. They ran with what they could carry on their backs and huddled within the nave. Tuesday, as night fell over the burning city, the worst was yet to come.

“The pall of black, oily smoke over the city grew more and more dense, forming clouds so thickly charged with particles that a thunderstorm broke out, but it was unlike any storm the watchers... had ever seen. Out of the lowering pall of smoke, lightning began forking down around St Paul’s, the bolts stabbing into buildings that already were ablaze. The peals of thunder were lost in the roar of the flames and screaming of the wind...” pg 134 Great Fire of London

“The dry timber forming the roof above the stone vaulting burnt furiously... Large parts of the roof, both stone and burning timber, fell in, and the Cathedral became a roaring cauldron of fire...” pg 177 The Story of London’s Great Fire

The choir loft crashed into the vaults, causing the floor of the cathedral to collapse.  Tombs split open, their contents furiously burning.  Walls burst apart like cannon torpedoes, and the massive lead roof melted, pouring off the sides of the walls like silver rain.  It covered everything in a silver sheen before running in molten streams down London streets. 

Ludgate burning w St Paul's in the background
The next morning, a man named Taswell walked through the smoking ruins of London to Paul’s Cathedral. “The ground was so hot as almost to scorch my shoes; and the air so intensely warm that unless I had stopped... I must [would] have fainted... I perceived the metal belonging to the bells melting; the ruinous condition of the walls; whole heaps of stone of a large circumference tumbling down with a great noise just upon my feet, ready to crush me to death.” pg 181 The Story of London’s Great Fire 

Flames still burned from St Paul’s 48 hours later. Those who had sheltered in there slept with dead in their vaults. Piles of stone cooled under a sheathing of lead. It covered ancient relics in silver relief, reminders of the cathedral’s better days.  

The city hissed and smoked for weeks after. Over the months, spontaneous explosions would burst from cellars where the fire had never stopped smoldering.

Yes, we’ll see more of this in the coming weeks, but I don’t know if the extent of the calamity will ever be felt by those glued to their seats. Only those whose memories have drifted through the eons to this moment will really know what it was like.

Map of the destruction

Many thanks to:

Wikicommons, Public Domain
Bell, Walter G. The Story of London’s Great Fire, London 1929

Hanson, Neil. The Great Fire of London in that Apocalyptic Year, 1666. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New Jersey, USA. 2002

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