Burning books: the Great Fire of London

Burning books: the Great Fire of London

Burning books: the Great Fire of London

By Dr Matt Shaw

This is an abridged version of an article originally featured on the School of Advanced Study’s Talking Humanities blog.
It may be tempting fate to revisit a fire in a library, but as part of the 2016 festival, the Institute of Historical Research held a ‘night at the library’ escape game in which participants, supported by librarians, used the 250,000 volumes of published materials held at the library to solve a series of puzzles set by special guests from the past. Dr Matthew Shaw, who led this innovative event that also marks the 350th anniversary year of the Great Fire of London, explains that during the course of the night, guests were invited to learn more about the disaster and the measures taken to save the country’s precious books.

In September 1666, the ‘lamentable and dismal fire’ that we now know as the Great Fire consumed most of the City of London, from Fleet Street to the edges of the Tower of London, coating what remained in inches of soot, destroying homes, churches and ancient company halls, and causing many thousands to sleep out under the late-summer stars. As many as 100,000 people were rendered homeless, more than 80 churches were razed, along with St Paul’s Cathedral, the Royal Exchange and the Guildhall. Within three days, four-fifths of the ancient city had been destroyed.


The flames not only consumed buildings, but also paintings, tapestries, and evaporated thousands of gallons of wine, beer and other liquor (estimated at over £1m in value). Many thousands of books and manuscripts also joined the pyre in perhaps one of the most terrible, and perhaps neglected, losses of the Great Fire. As one chronicler of the fire notes ‘Never since the burning of the great library at Alexandria had there been such a holocaust of books’.

As the flames jumped from building to building, urgent action was taken to attempt to save precious codices. The Stationers’ Company’s books had been carried down to the west crypt, the peculiar site of the ancient parish of St Faith’s under St Paul’s, in the hope of escaping the flames. Partly abetted by the wooden scaffolding that surrounded the building as part of Christopher Wren’s restoration work, the fire also spread to the Cathedral, melting, as the diarist John Evelyn lamented, six acres of lead on the roof, which crashed into St Faith’s.


The books ‘were all consumed, burning for a week following’. In 1648, all but a handful of St Paul’s manuscripts had been transferred to Sion College, a guild/fraternity established for London’s clergy, whose long library room was its particular pride. The fire also consumed private libraries, the stock of city-based booksellers and printers, presses and type, at a cost of between £150,000–200,000 (at a time when the cost of rebuilding a church was estimated at £8,000).

In London, as sparks blew on the wind causing buildings to ignite seemingly without reason, rumours of foreign plots spread quickly. Stories of Dutch or French terrorists, with fireballs, matches and grenades, led to vigilante actions and mob violence. French shops were looted, and individuals physically attacked.

Religious tensions also surfaced, and by the second day of the fire, Catholics and foreigners had to seek protection from the Duke of York’s men. In an attempt to calm fears, Charles II issued a series of proclamations denying foreign sabotage. Yet fears continued, with the psychological trauma of the conflagration and a rhetoric of loss informing official narratives, sermons, diaries and poems for decades to come. On the Dutch side, the Great Fire was seen as divine punishment for this brutal episode, which was dubbed Holmes’s Bonfire. A medal was issued, with the words: ‘Sic punit’ (Thus He punishes).


But for some, a fire that razed the existing city was also the occasion for hope. At least for those such as Christopher Wren or John Evelyn, who had long scorned what they considered the crude clutter of medieval London. And, with arguably unseemly haste, they quickly proposed plans for rebuilding according to the modern, formal principles of Renaissance architecture. The fearful inferno was an opportunity for a new, classically-informed city, one that would overshadow its continental competitors.

Yet practical considerations, including property claims, and the need to rehouse and reemploy thousands, ensured that the medieval street plan largely remained. Even the new stone buildings retained much of the shape and function of their razed forebears. The hope of the new, continental city does, of course, have at least one striking imprint on the cityscape – Sir Christopher Wren’s baroque St Paul’s, rebuilt with a new library chamber and granted special funds to restock its shelves.

Night at the library: books of hope and fear took place at Senate House, London on Friday 18 November 2016.

Dr Matthew Shaw is the Institute of Historical Research’s librarian. His research interests include the French Revolution and, more broadly, the long-eighteenth century.