The recent terrible conflagrations in three countries—NZ, Australia, and the USA—have reminded us of the awful power of fire.
Perhaps the best-known and most destructive fire in history was in 1666, with the Great Fire of London. The fire lasted five days, and nearly eighty per cent of all London’s buildings were destroyed.
According to the official report, 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, over 400 streets, and the enormous old St Paul’s Cathedral (one of the wonders of the medieval world), were in ruins.
Some religious fundamentalists thought the fire was connected with the calendar year, because it ended in the fearful figures of 666.
But who could have been responsible? It is not widely-known, but in the rush to judgment a man was tried and executed for starting the fire, even although he wasn’t in the city when it began.
Police and mobs of angry citizens searched for the culprit who started the blaze. Ancient reports said it was unwise for foreigners or Roman Catholics to walk through the devastated city.
Roman Catholics had been suspect in Britain whenever any villainy occurred, ever since England was invaded by a Roman Catholic king with the Spanish Armada in 1588, and because a Pope at the time had said anyone who killed the Queen of England (Elizabeth) would be forgiven.
Finally, a French watchmaker from Rouen, Robert Hubert, was found who confessed to the crime of starting the Great Fire of London.
Since he was not only a foreigner but also a Roman Catholic, many people assumed he was guilty.
One contemporary account says that Hubert was “only accused upon his own confession, yet neither the judges nor any present at the trial did believe him guilty, but that he was a poor distracted wretch, weary of his life, and chose to part with it in this way.”
The Old Bailey jury, however, found that, “not having the fear of God before his eyes, but moved and led away by the instigation of the devil,” Hubert had deliberately started the fire.
After he was hanged, it was conclusively proved that Hubert had not even arrived in London until two days after the fire broke out.
Subsequent investigation established the fire had accidentally started in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane.