fire! and “a very fearful stink”

Samuel Pepys diary. There is nothing quite like his account of Restoration England in all its gaudy excess of sex, scandal, fire and plague…

The final blow to English morale was the Great Fire of London, which razed most of the old city between September 2 and 6, 1666. It has been likened to the fires started by German raids in 1940, but, in fact, the greater combustibility of seventeenth-century houses, and a high wind, make it more akin to the terrible fire storms started by the British at Hamburg and Dresden. On the first night Pepys crossed to the south bank of the river and found a vantage point, in an alehouse, at the present position of the Southwark Bridge:

When we could endure no more upon the water; we to a little ale-house on the Bankside, over against the ‘Three Cranes, and there staid till it was dark almost, and saw the fire grow; and, as it grew darker, appeared more and more, and in corners and upon steeples, and between churches and houses, as far as we could see up the hill of the City, in a most horrid malicious bloody flame, not like the fine flame of an ordinary fire. Barbary and her husband away before us. We staid till, it being darkish, we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side the bridge, and in a bow up the hill for an arch of above a mile long: it made me weep to see it. The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once; and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruins. So home with a sad heart, and there find every body discoursing and lamenting the fire; and poor Tom Hater come with some few of his goods saved out of his house, …

—The Earl of Rochester, c. 1665-70. After Jacob Huysmans. John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, among the most prominent of the dissolute courtier-poets and wits whose behaviour scandalised many of the King’s subjects.—Read More:

The fire came at a time when the nation was profoundly war weary, though there had been no land fighting except in the colonies. During the winter peace negotiations got under way at Breda, and the English fleet was kept in the harbor at Chatham, on the Medway, preparatory to being laid up. But on June 8 the Dutch fleet appeared off the mouth of the Thames, and the following day it entered the river unopposed. Pepys and John Evelyn were later to sneer at the King because he and his courtiers could find nothing better to do that evening than chase moths in the gallery at Whitehall, but Pepys himself was not very active.

Jacob Huysmans (circa 1630‑circa 1696)
Portrait of a Lady, as Diana
Date ?circa 1674
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensionssupport: 1197 x 1013 mm
Tate Read More:

Next day, Sunday, he went from church to church in the morning, looking for a good preacher, or a pretty woman, and in the evening he went on a solitary boat trip to Barn Elms, reading “a merry satyre” called The Visions of Quevedo, translated from the Spanish. On Monday the Dutch took and burned Sheerness and Commissioner Pett at Chatham, “in a very fearful stink for fear of the Dutch,” as Pepys noted, demanded help “for God and the King and Kingdom’s sake”

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