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The City Churches and “the Glory of all Christendom”

By Mark Kirby

The Great Fire created a rare opportunity for the London Church to express its character and identity in the building and furnishing of fifty-one new churches. In some ways, the Church of England had always had to address the question of its spiritual and ecclesial identity. If they believed themselves to be part of the universal Church, how could they respond to the taunt from Rome “Where was your Church before Luther?”. In part, the furnishing of the new churches was intended to answer precisely that question in the language of joinery and wood-carving.

From the beginning of the English Reformation, and more intensely from the early seventeenth century and onwards, English Protestants increasingly sought to find the roots of the Church of England in the Early Church of the post-Apostolic Age, as well as with Israel, especially with the Golden Age of David and Solomon.[i] It was self-evident to the early modern mind that the closer one got to these two periods in how one modelled the life of the Church, then the more likely it was that one would identify both doctrine and worship practice untainted by heresy or corruption. Initially a defence against Catholic accusations of schism, this also became a defence against dissenting accusations of crypto-popery, especially after the Restoration.

Reference to the Early Church or Ancient Israel was not a uniquely Anglican assertion, but European contemporaries (both Protestant and Catholic) observed that English clergy were unusually obsessed with it, seeming to believe that the English Church was uniquely blessed.[ii] Edward Pelling, rector of St Martin Ludgate, went so far as to claim that the Church of England was “the Envy of Rome, and the Glory of all Christendom”.[iii]

In the context of church buildings and furnishings, published works describing the Temple of Solomon became best-sellers and were used both before the Civil War and after the Restoration to justify and give context to the beautification of churches, using words such as “comely”, “seemly” and “decent”. Several made very direct connections between the Temple and the decoration of the Anglican parish church.[iv] Indeed in Thomas Comber’s commentary on the Book of Common Prayer, A Companion to the Temple, and the 1571 Homily for Repairing and Keeping Clean, Comely Adorning of Churches, the terms “Temple” and “Church” are used almost interchangeably.

“Why then ought not Christian people to build them temples and churches, having as great promises of the presence of God, as ever had Solomon for the material temple, which he did build?”[v]

If, then, a critical part of the parish objective in furnishing their new churches was to distance themselves from popery, it might seem strange that they and their craftsmen so frequently looked to contemporary French designs for inspiration. However, the process by which these designs were adapted to English requirements helps to show us how important was the notion of the Solomonic Temple to the Church of England. This was particularly true for the reredos.

English designers relied heavily on engraved prints and pattern books in this period, the export of which from continental Europe to England provided the mechanism by which much design was transmitted. Thus an engraving such as from Jean Barbet’s Livre d’Architecture d’Autels et de Cheminées, reprinted in London in 1670) could become a model for an English reredos such as at St Margaret’s, Lothbury (and at five other City churches.)

Jean Barbet, Livre d' Architecture et d' Autels (c.1650) © Victoria and Albert Museum.
Jean Barbet, Livre d’ Architecture et d’ Autels (c.1650) (c) Victoria and Albert Museum

 

 

St. Margaret Lothbury; the reredos, photographed in 2014. © Mark Kirby.
St. Margaret Lothbury; the reredos, photographed in 2014 (c) Mark Kirkby

 

Comparing the two shows that a careful process of de-Catholicisation has taken place. In the French high altars of this period, the key components of statuary, paintings, relics, the presence of the consecrated Host in a tabernacle and representations of the Godhead are all necessary to make the high altar function properly as a machine for praying and providing the spiritual power of the Mass. Any one of these components could have provoked violence in late seventeenth-century London and at Lothbury they have all been removed. Even the scale and materials used represent significant ecclesiological change. Extrapolating from the height of the doors, the Barbet design would have been 40’ high; the Lothbury reredos is a third of that height. French high altars were mostly executed in polychrome marbles and inlay; the Lothbury reredos is of oak.

The iconography of the reredos replaces that of the Catholic high altar with a set of Temple references. Solomon’s Temple was decorated with carved gourds, open flowers, cherubim and palm trees, all of which recur in the City church reredoses (Lothbury is more modest than most in this regard). At the centre of the Jerusalem Temple was the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. The Ark was a gold-covered box in which the stone Tablets of the Law given to Moses at Sinai were kept (Exodus 25). At Lothbury we see the tablets represented in their characteristic arched shape, set in a gilded frame. On the lid of the Ark were two golden cherubim, facing inwards towards the centre, reflected here at Lothbury and many other parish churches.

The special sanctity of the Ark resulted from God’s declaration to Moses that he would meet with him and give his commandments for the Israelites from above the Ark (Exodus 25:22) and his Glory would be on the “Mercy Seat”, the space between the two cherubim on the lid of the Ark. At Lothbury, the cherubim above the Commandments face inwards to a cartouche, on which was originally painted the Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew name for God, YHWH. This was the standard Protestant way to represent the Glory of the LORD in non-representative (and therefore not idolatrous) form.

The use of unfamiliar Hebrew and Greek script was very probably intended to add to a further sense of the sanctity of the place. Here then is where God’s justice and His mercy come together in a representation of God’s Covenant with His Israelite – or should be that His English? – people.

The Barbet design also incorporated an upper panel between the two pediments. This too was originally present at Lothbury but in the form of the Royal Arms, which replaced what in the French design would have been a representation of the Godhead: not so much a case of lèse majesté as lèse divinité.

 

St. Margaret Lothbury; the reredos, photographed in 2014; the Royal Arms are Photoshopped from St Margaret Pattens. © Mark Kirby.
St. Margaret Lothbury; the reredos, photographed in 2014; the Royal Arms are Photoshopped from St Margaret Pattens (c) Mark Kirkby

 

Clearly the City reredoses were not intended to be exact pictures of the Temple of Solomon or of any features of early Christian church buildings. Nor do they deploy all the iconography in the same arrangement. Rather, they used the accepted early modern motif of a triumphal arch to act as a pin-board on which could be attached a carefully chosen selection of symbols and iconography.[vi] Thirty-six of the fifty-one new reredoses presented themselves explicitly as an evocation of the Holy of Holies. The architectural shape may vary but the Solomonic theme is a uniting message. The London populace of the time was well-versed in decoding iconography of this type, whether in the form of political broadsheets or carved religious symbolism.

The Glory was the most important element. It not only reminded congregants of the Temple of Solomon and the Anglican claim to descend from it but it was also a direct representation of the presence of God with his English people. After the Restoration, nobody quite dared to quote the martyred Archbishop Laud but the assertion was very much the same. The Anglican church sanctuary was indeed “the greatest place of God’s Residence upon Earth”.[vii]

Mark Kirby is a PhD candidate at the University of York. His research looks at the furnishings of Sir Christopher Wren’s churches as expressions of late seventeenth-century Anglican identity.

Notes

[i] See in particular Jean-Louis Quantin, The Church of England and Christian Antiquity: The Construction of a Confessional Identity in the 17th Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); and Achsah Guibbory, Christian Identity, Jews, and Israel in 17th-Century England (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[ii] Quantin, 279-282, 296.

[iii] Edward Pelling, Sermon preached before the Lord Mayor and Court of Aldermen at St. Mary le Bow, 5 November 1683 (London: 1683), 37; cited in Quantin, 291.

[iv] E.g., Joseph Mede, Clavis apocalyptica (1627); “R.T.”, De Templis (1638); Thomas Comber, A Companion to the Temple (1672).

[v] The Second Tome of Homilies (1673), 162. Charles II ordered the Homilies to be re-issued in 1673, right at the start of the period in which the new churches were being furnished.

[vi] E.g., Sir Howard Colvin, “Pompous Entries and English Architecture” in Essays in English Architectural History (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1999), 67-93.

[vii] William Laud, The History of the Troubles and Tryal of the Most Reverend Father in God and Blessed Martyr, William Laud, Lord Arch-Bishop of Canterbury (London, 1694 edition), 361.

 

 

‘A designed buisines’: The Great Fire According to John Allin

By Lara Thorpe

In a letter back home to Rye(Sussex) after the Great Fire, ejected minister John Allin wrote that the conflagration was ‘now too apparent to bee a designed buisines’[1] of the Catholics. At the end of October he remained convinced that the Papists were to blame; swept up in anti-Catholic hysteria, he reported that ‘Feares and yt not groundless are so many about London of a sudden massacre from ye papists that I am forced… to repaire home though I come up but on Thursday’.[2]Clearly, by the end of the October—a full month after the Fire—anti-Catholic hysteria and fear mongering were still acute. Allin’s own fears were so acute that they were informing his actions; he was taking them very seriously. What I wish to do is orient Allin’s hysterical reaction to the Great Fire on his own life and times, particularly on Restoration England’s tempestuous religious climate. But why was blaming the Catholics so convincing and so appealing to Allin?

Almost everything we know of John Allin comes from a collection of 212 letters held by the East Sussex Record Office, all written between 1663 and 1674. Allin was born in Norfolk in 1623, though by 1637 his family had immigrated to Massachusetts for reasons that were probably religious, as his family was fervently Puritan. He himself was trained for the puritan ministry at Harvard College; however, probably due to a lack of job openings, Allin returned to England, where he was soon elected to be the vicar of Rye.

Allin—along with Samuel Jeake, Rye’s town clerk—oversaw a period of immense religious preoccupation in Rye, which was described in biblical terms as ‘a city set on a hill’ by one observer. Their radical form of worship was not appreciated by all, however; during a visit to Rye in 1652, the diarist John Evelyn wrote that, ‘On Whit Sunday, I went to the church (which is a very fair one), and heard one of the canters, who dismissed the assembly rudely, and without any blessing’.[3] In Rye, under Jeake and Allin, moral offenses—particularly Sabbath breaking—were swiftly and efficiently pursued and punished.

Allin and Jeake’s religious reforms, however, were brought to a swift halt with the Restoration; in 1662, he was ejected from his ministry for refusal to subscribe to that year’s Act of Uniformity. John Allin would have taken massive exception to this Act—and clearly did, as he refused to swear its accompanying oath. The Act clearly defined how public prayers should be said, how the sacraments should be administered, and how other rites were to be carried out.  And for an Independent Puritan like Allin, who was convinced of the right of each congregation to decide on the form of its service, this act was downright offensive. The problem was, obedience to the act and the swearing of an oath that promised ‘unfeigned assent and consent to all and everything contained and proscribed’ were necessary in order to hold office in the government or the church—and so Allin, along with 2,000 other ministers, lost his living. The act was one of four pieces of legislation known as the Clarendon Code, named after the Earl of Clarendon who was Charles II’s Lord Chancellor. The other three included the Corporation Act, which forbade nonconformists to hold public office; the Conventicle Act, which forbade unauthorised worship in groups of 5 or more; and the Five Mile Act, which forbade former ministers like John Allin from coming within five miles of an incorporated town or the place of their former livings.

The end of 1664 found Allin attempting to build a new life for himself in London, where he found work doing a mixed bag of jobs including running errands for his friends, treating patients as an irregular physician and preaching to conventicles. He remained in London during the Plague of 1665, writing about the alchemical cure he intended to create to treat the disease ravaging the city. However, at the beginning of 1666, the year of the Fire, things suddenly changed, and these things can give us an idea of the circles that Allin may have been involved in.

allins-demonstration-of-how-to-address-letters-to-him-from-fre-5520-20-march-1666
1. Allin’s demonstration of how to address letters to him from FRE 5520, 20 March 1666.

On 20 March 1666, Allin suddenly informed his friend that ‘My tyme here is now worne out & I must bee gone ye next satureday to a Freinds house in Essex… where I think I shall dwell.’ He further instructed Frith, ‘I would not have you to direct any more letters to mee by name, but as under written observing the exact move of the two round dashes wth the penn, over London: wch is to distinguish my letters from that mans own letters’ (see image 1).[4] Despite this rather sudden and unexpected announcement of his forthcoming move, this on its own is not incriminating. However, later in the same letter, he expounded, ‘in convenient time everyone shall have where ever I am: I would have no body but yorselfe… know how to direct their letters to mee in ye Manner exposed but let it bee knowne if you will yt I goe out of London: and let them bring their letters to you to direct & send’. At around the same time as his move, Allin’s signature changed as well, transitioning from his full name to an abbreviated version (see images 2 and 3).

allins-full-signature-john-allin-from-fre-5477-26-october-1665
2. Allin’s full signature (John Allin) from FRE 5477, 26 October 1665.
allins-abbreviated-signature-jlin-from-fre-5543-25-august-1666
3. Allin’s abbreviated signature (Jlin) from FRE 5543, 25 August 1666

What caused this sudden move and change in signature is, unfortunately, left to the speculation of history. Allin’s concern with the concealment of his identity and location suggests, possibly, that he was on the run from something or someone. Donna Bilak has suggested that Allin was at one point a Fifth Monarchist, a particularly radical group of millenarian sectaries who as recently as 1661 had led a failed uprising against the new king.[5] A handful of other possibilities should be considered as well, including the fact that he had, throughout his time in London, been preaching at nonconformist conventicles and even performing baptisms. Additionally, the mere fact of his living in London was illegal under the Act of Uniformity. We can only speculate as to the reasons for Allin’s quick departure of London at the beginning of 1666.

So, by the time the Fire caused the ‘dreadfull disolation of this sometime famous city’[6] we know that Allin was very likely a radical among radicals. He was fervently Puritan and believed in the right of every congregation to decide its worship. The wrongdoings of Rye were aggressively punished under his ministry. After being ejected from this ministry, he flouted the Clarendon code, moving to London and preaching to conventicles; and there are tantalising glimpses of his possible life as a Fifth Monarchist in between the lines of his correspondence. From his new habitation in Essex, Allin was convinced that Catholics were at blame for starting the fire. In London, another ejected minister, Thomas Vincent, was just as convinced of Papist culpability, writing that, ‘this doth smell of Popish design’.

The fact of the matter is that Catholics had been at the root of a series of conspiracies and disasters for nearly a century leading up to 1666. Just sixty years earlier, Guy Fawkes had been discovered stowing massive casks of gunpowder beneath Parliament with the aim of blowing up the Protestant government, including the king and his heirs. The failed plot heralded an era of unprecedented anti-Catholic sentiment and legislation. The Oath of Allegiance, passed the following year, made it unmistakably clear that Catholics, because they recognised the authority of the Pope in addition to that of the king, were inherently treasonous. Loyal Catholics were barred from public roles, not trusted with any type of real authority. Bonfire Night has been celebrated in one form or another since the first anniversary of the plot’s failure.  In the seventeenth century, for example, this night was celebrated by the parading of a pope effigy, which would be pelted with mud and then burned, accompanied by the wailing of trapped cats, a sound which was meant to represent ‘the Whore of Babylon’.[7] The ritualistic memorialisation of the plot would have been a type of indoctrination for English Protestants.

In November 1666 the metropolis saw yet another fire; Allin related that:

‘last night was a night of feare & danger & watching; Scotland yard that adjoynes to Whitehall being in flames… & divers buildings blowne up to stop ye pceedings of it ye streetes… were as light as candles could make ym & every one at his doore watching  & expecting what might happen in the morning.’[8]

Once again, Allin suspected the Papists to be at blame and made his usual rounds for news in London’s coffeehouses and Exchange certain that some decisive evidence would come forth. By now it should make more sense why a man like John Allin would have fed into this anti-Catholic hysteria after the Great Fire. For him, Catholic influence on church and state led to the emigration of his family; the Restoration, with its Catholic-infused government and court, brought an end to his holy work in Rye, heralding Allin’s exile. And as a (possible) Fifth Monarchist, he was himself at the opposite end of the spectrum from Catholics. The fear and distrust with which he viewed Catholics was embedded in his faith and his culture. And the use of fire to destroy the City of London would have reminded him, and many others, of an earlier Catholic attempt to blow up Parliament.

Notes

[1] East Sussex Record Office (hereafter ESRO), FRE 5547, 12 October 1666.

[2] ESRO FRE 5548, 27 October 1666.

[3] John Evelyn, The Diary of John Evelyn, ed. William Bray (London: M. Walter Dunne, 1901), 4 June 1652.

[4] ESRO, FRE 5520, 20 March 1666.

[5] Donna Bilak, ‘Alchemy and the End Times: Revelations from the Laboratory and Library of John Allin, Puritan Alchemist (1623-1683),’ Ambix 60 (2013): 397.

[6] ESRO FRE 5545, 22 September 1666.

[7] Justin Champion, ‘Popes and Guys and Anti-Catholicism’ in Gunpowder Plots: A Celebration of 400 Years of Bonfire Night ed. Antonia Fraser, Brenda Buchanan, David Cannadine, David Cressy, Justin Champion, Mike Jay and Pauline Croft (London: Penguin Books, 2005), 89.

[8] ESRO, FRE 5550, 10 November 1666.

Lara Thorpe is a PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, where her research focuses on medical intervention during the plague of 1665.

The Great Fire, 1666, and the conspiracy mentalitiè in Restoration England

By Alan Marshall

‘The sad news of London’s being on fire’, as Daniel Fleming put it, reached Kendal, in Westmorland, on 8 September 1666. A panicked Fleming immediately went into action: troops were sent out to guard bridges and roads; the trained bands were called up and, as he said later:

‘not knowing w[ha]t designes might been therein, nor w[ha]t influence it might have throughout ye whole kingdome amongst discontented p[er]sons’ …all suspect p[er]sons were ordered to bee secured.’[1]

Local Quaker correspondence was also intercepted, and this raised even more suspicions for Fleming who found that there was ‘no sorrow for ye late burning downe so many steeple-houses (as they call them) in ye City’.[2] This local example of the ripples from the ruinous Great Fire of London in early September 1666 demonstrates the widespread plot mentalitiè that existed in the Restoration era. Ultimately, for many contemporaries, a belief in sinister plots explained why things went wrong in their world and it also provided easy solutions to the chaotic nature of contemporary politics, religion, and society. To many, in 1666 therefore ‘plot’ and Great Fire were swiftly connected.

Yet, why and how did this happen? And how did the plot mentalitiè really influence contemporary views of the Great Fire of 1666?

We can begin by noting by way of context that Restoration Britain itself was already a troubled state with some deeply entrenched political and religious fissures, and, perhaps, some very unique memories of plotting (both real and imagined), even before September 1666. The country was living under the shadow of the past: a recent and damaging civil war, a regicide (1649), and a recent republican government whose actions could not be just washed away. Furthermore, the Restoration government itself often played upon this history and related fears for its own purposes.

Within the Stuart regime itself, of course, there were some genuine worries of internal political and religious dissent after 1660; this was mainly the result of an accumulation of experiences. History, or at least the mythological history of a threatened Britain, certainly played a part and some ministers of Charles II, and the King himself, had themselves been long-term plotters against the Cromwellian government in the 1650s. Consequently, they bought into the plot mentalitiè and now expected plots to appear and were not surprised when they did.  There may, of course, have been some real cause for worry. Historically the reputation of the seventeenth-century was already one of the more bloody eras experienced by the three kingdoms, a cycle of instability, civil war, violence, and destruction.

So, the events of the fire of 1666 in London, accidental though they seem to have been, fitted all too well into an already primed public history.  And, within this history, it was perhaps the Gunpowder Plot of November 1605 above all that provided the paradigm for all the versions and variants of plot that followed later in the century, which even helped to explain the Fire. For this event carried with it all of the tropes related in plot literature: sinister machinations; secret dealing; danger, destruction, and drama; the Roman Catholic ‘enemy within’; mysterious letters; a plot foiled; England saved from a foreign power (Spain in this case); spies and informers; and lots and lots of ‘might-have-beens’.

The constructed literary narratives of such events evidently had a part to play in creating the plot mentalitiè and provided a lens though which many could interpret the Great Fire of London. Such narratives clearly needed to confirm to the reader the actual guilt of the individuals involved (despite the sufferers frequent protestations of innocence), and they also tended to follow the cultural conventions of a genre as to how such material should be presented. The accounts were disposed, for example, to flourish first-hand evidence, reproduced confessions, depositions, and trial evidence. Yet the very ideas embedded in these narratives take us into the heart of the plot texts themselves. Invariably, we find them locked into a tavern culture of drink and braggadocio, lies and fabrications, with many secret assemblies and mysterious meetings. It was a literature indeed that with its reported speech and dialogue sometimes paralleled the emergent novel and drama of the day.

Some of the public testimony that emerged from the Great Fire was remarkably similar to such plot confessions, and it might be said the witchcraft confessions of the day– for it too transmitted comparable responses and answers to what otherwise would be inexplicable and traumatic events[3].

foxe
A Woodcut from John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments of These Latter and Perilous Days, 1563

We can also add to this what could be called the language of the flame. Here too there were precedents to follow. By 1666 Protestantism already had its own ‘poetics of martyrdom’– its own constructions, narratives and debates about the purging nature of fire. It was a language born from the history of the Marian Martyrs, from John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, from the Bible itself, from Millenarianism, and from the many eschatological responses to the outside world. So, the plot narratives that the public relied upon for explanations were constructed narratives, eliding and shaping the truth of mysterious events, and they were as much cultural concepts as bearers of reality.

Such narratives are, of course, a place where we can sometimes catch the real voices of those involved; but even this certainty was constantly distorted. Such evidence was mediated, not just by the convictions and experiences of the authors, who naturally transmitted the plotters stories, but also by the very idea of the plot confession itself. It was not always fiction, but then again nor was it always the truth.

For confessions themselves had regular tropes and boundaries. This was material created out of oral evidence; it was an immediate response to leading questions from questioners, who already had preconceived ideas and notions of what the answers should be. And in the ‘standardised nightmare of the group’, lay the resonances to the ‘folk tales’, the rumours, the rhetorical devices, the motifs, the clichés, all with their own figurative language that was current amongst the commonality–and which were grasped at for explanations in times of crisis and disaster. Importantly, these narratives were also restricted by the very ‘mechanism of interrogation’ itself. These were the ideas behind the techniques of repeated questioning, under pressure, of suspects, and the collusion, or the voluntary ‘revelations’ of the informer to explain and make sense of what otherwise would be a chaotic and apparently meaningless world. The aim in such interrogations was an ever present- it was the maintenance of the elite view of the political norm as established in May 1660. All else was considered abnormal and was tainted by the blood -guilt of the regicide of 1649.

Clearly even the suspect’s own inclination was to give answers the hearer wanted to hear – to satisfy the questioners, even to the extent to endangering themselves  – via confession of guilt- brought a natural closure for many of those undergoing interrogation. Of course, by admitting their guilt and by giving their listener a ‘general account of past sinfulness’, it also gave them a ‘penitent end’[4].

In short, the plot narratives of the period were the narratives they were because of such elements. Such narratives then were as much artificial, or even fictional, as they were a revealed reality, and therefore must be used with some caution.

Finally, there is little doubt that the plot texts fed off other texts, and in turn they spawned other texts that plagiarised yet more ideas and in this the greatest of all disasters the afterlife of the burning of London in the Fire of 1666 had a unique part to play.

The early Restoration plot narratives and those of the Fire, for example, had a clear influence on those conspiracies that were later explained, invented, or imagined, by Titus Oates and his cronies in 1678, and they in turn were narratives that had been influenced by the devices and tropes of 1605. One might even argue that the Popish Plot (1678-1683)– itself a textual fiction if there ever was one- only emerged as it did, and was indeed largely accepted, due to the pre-existence of the previous plot literature and myth in which the disaster of the Great Fire had played a part and had been embedded in the plot history.

So early-modern society lived in an anxious age; an era in which inexplicable tragedy and helplessness; one in which fire, plague, and plot were located in the face of providence, and yet were also part of the cultural and social environment of the plot mentalitiè.  And once the Great Fire and plots were linked, as Richard Steere was to write in 1682: ‘ can Eighty-Eight, th’ accursed Powder Plot,/ And Strombolonian London be forgot?’[5]

 Notes

[1] Daniel Fleming to Joseph Williamson, TNA, SP29/171, fo.170

[2] Ibid.

[3] See in particular the many true and false depositions that were printed in Anon., ‘London’s Flames discovered by informations taken before the committee appointed to enquire after the burning of the City of London &c (1667)

[4] J. Sharpe, ‘Last Dying Speeches’: Religion, Ideology and Public Execution in Seventeenth-Century England’, Past and Present, 107 (1985),  144-167; p. 152.

[5] Richard Steere, The History of the Babylonish Cabal, or the intrigues, progression, opposition, defeat, and destruction of the Daniel- Catchers: in a Poem (1682), 13.

Alan Marshall is Associate Professor of History at Bath Spa University.

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Ballads about the Great Fire of London

By Una McIlvenna

london-mourningThe picture above is of London Mourning in Ashes, a broadside ballad written to tell the news of the Great Fire of London. And full of news it is: in 16 verses we get the details of where and when the fire started; how it spread and the route it took; the damage to specific buildings; the panic as people began to evacuate; the actions of the king, the duke of York, and other nobles; the fire’s eventual subsidence; the search for scapegoats; and – as is typical of almost every news ballad in early modern Europe – a final warning: we need to repent and reform, or else God will punish us with something worse than a fire that has just destroyed our entire city, never mind the plague that’s just killed a quarter of London’s population in the same year! The ballad predicts that famine is the next curse to visit London if her people do not heed these many warnings that God has been good enough to give us of our potential eternal damnation.

I’ve only found two ballads that are exclusively about the Great Fire, which does seem surprising when one realises how many were written about the Anglo-Dutch wars also happening in 1666. I’m interested in how these ballads disseminated news in the days – or years – after the event. How did they correspond to, or differ from, other news accounts of the fire?

We have various sources for the unfolding of events, some, such as the diaries of Pepys and Evelyn, written while the events progressed, while others like the London Gazette summarised the events shortly after the fact. But what kinds of sources would a ballad composer be using to document events?

The main difficulty with answering this question is of course the almost complete lack of information regarding dates for the ballad itself. As usual, we have no author – most ballads are anonymous. All we have are the printing details: it was printed in London by E. Crowch for F. Coles, T. Vere and J. Wright. This, however, allows us to date it with some precision. Francis Coles, Thomas Vere and John Wright set up a printing partnership on their own between 1663 and 1674, so the ballad must have been printed in the time between the fire and 1674, a space of some 8 years. So it may have been a topical news report, informing the populace of very recent events, or more of a revisiting of what were now sad historical memories.

To return to sources: the diaries of Pepys and Evelyn were private journals that were unlikely to have been available to the person composing the ballad. The London Gazette, however, was available to anyone, so there was plenty of information available about the route of the fire’s progress and the reaction to it, by commoners and aristocracy alike. Look at how closely the ballad sticks to the relation of the fire’s progress in the Gazette:

una-blogAt Temple-Church and Holborn-bridge,
and Piecorner ’tis stench’d,
The Water did the Fire besiege,
at Aldersgate it quench’d;
At Criplegate
(Though very late)
And eke at Coleman-street,
At Basing-hall
The Fire did fall,
we all were joy’d to see’t.

Bishopsgate-street to Cornhill end,
And Leaden-hall’s secure,
It to the Postern did extend,
Fanchurch doth still endure
Clothworkers-Hall,
Did (ruin’d) fall,
yet stop’d the fires haste;
Mark-lane, Tower-dock,
Did stand the shock,
And all is quench’d at last.

So although we can’t be sure as to the exact date of printing of that ballad we can ascertain that it was at least concerned with the transmission of accurate details. There are details in the ballad that are not included in the Gazette that do, however, occur in other accounts. The mention of the melting lead of the church spires, evoked beautifully in the lines,

The Leads they bear,
Drop’s many a Tear,
To see their Fabricks burn;

is a detail mentioned by Evelyn, when he describes the devastation he sees when he visits St Paul’s:

It was astonishing to see what imense stones the heate had in a manner Calcin’d, so as all the ornaments, Columns, freezes, Capitels & proje[c]tures of massie Portland stone flew off, even to the very roofe, where a Sheete of Leade covering no lesse than 6 akers by measure, being totaly mealted

What’s different about the ballad is its closing verses of warnings to repent; while such warnings were not missing from prose, this type of encouragement to repentance is not found in the Gazette. What’s intriguing as well in that final verse is the mention of how warships, military drums, cavalry and foot soldiers will not defend us from God’s judgment. Composed as this was during the second of the financially ruinous Anglo-Dutch wars, could this be a sly dig at Charles II’s reckless expenditure on an unnecessary military venture?

It’s worth comparing London Mourning in Ashes with the other extant ballad on the Great Fire, The LONDONERS Lamentation. It is set to the tune of ‘Troy Town’, the ballad about another great city laid low. Again, this sort of tune choice was deliberate, and it wasn’t only the ballad composer who’d had such a thought. Here is John Evelyn’s diary entry from the second night of the fire:

Thus I left it this afternoone burning, a resemblance of Sodome, or the last day. It call’d to mind that of 4 Heb: non enim hic habemus stabilem Civitatem [for here we have no lasting city]; the ruines resembling the picture of Troy. London was, but is no more.

Its printer was John Clarke, who sold ballads at the Bible and Harp, West Smithfield, just outside the city walls, between 1673 and 1686. So here we can be sure that we have a ballad printed no earlier than 7 years after the events it describes. We are in the realm of historical recounting of a disaster that, while still likely vivid in the minds of those who had witnessed it, could no longer be described as topical. So where is the composer getting his/her information this time? Let’s compare The Londoners Lamentation (on the left) with parts of London Mourning (on the right):

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So it seems clear that the composer of this later ballad used London Mourning as his/her primary source of inspiration. While the details of the streets and buildings could have been gleaned from multiple sources, the warning of a fourth curse after war, plague, and fire, that of famine, seems undoubtedly sourced from the earlier ballad’s closing verses.

So no matter when they were printed the role of news-ballads was still informative. Those who assume that the song format sacrifices accuracy for the sake of rhyme or meter overlook the fact that news songs were full of accurate details taken from various sources, and could provide information for their listeners and singers that they could not find elsewhere. That one of the many victims of the Great Fire of London was the enormous Ballad Warehouse, important enough to be rebuilt shortly afterwards, is a loss not only for ballad scholars but for all those curious about early modern society.

Dr Una McIlvenna is a lecturer in early modern literature at the University of Kent.