On September 2, 1666, 80% of medieval London burned to the ground in the largest fire in the city's history. The fire raged for more than three days, consuming huge swaths of the city, but the Great Fire of London story often leaves out what happened after the fire. What happened to London after the Great Fire destroyed over 13,000 buildings?
The country was amid war with the French and Dutch, so many Englishman first blamed foreigners, and while the city smoldered, mobs attacked immigrant populations. Others feared it may have been a Catholic plot. Preachers blamed the fire on London's gluttony, while the government hanged a man who falsely confessed to starting the fire.
Much of the cities infrastructure was destroyed while many were left homeless, but a completely new city was built from the ashes. A fire court heard disputes between tenants and landlords, the city organized fire brigades, and new rules banned wood and pitch. After great fear and persecution, London was rebulit, and its citizens were determined to prevent another disaster as destructive as the Great Fire of London.
When the Great Fire broke out, many Londoners blamed England's enemies. The English were feuding with the French and the Dutch, stoking fears that their enemies had set fire to the capital as part of a planned invasion of England. The people of London attacked foreigners all over the city. A mob lashed out at a Dutch bakery while the fire still raged, a blacksmith accosted a Frenchman with an iron bar, and the Duke of York had to intervene to save the life of a Swedish diplomat strung up by a group of Londoners.
Londoners feared the French may have carried explosives into the city. In a moment of great fear and resentment, a mob mutilated a French woman who they thought carried bombs in her apron, while another mob almost dismembered a Frenchman carrying tennis balls because they mistook them for explosive devices.
The fire completely burned 80% of the area within London's medieval walls, leaving behind only a few stone ruins and left at least 65,000 people homeless. In the early days after the fire, when the ground in many places was still too hot to walk on, displaced Londoners camped in fields outside the walls. Soon, many traveled to villages outside of the capital or other parts of the city.
The housing shortage caused rent prices in London to rise exponentially. Within only days, leasing costs rose about 200%, but within two weeks, houses grew 10 times more expensive. Rental and leasing prices remained high through 1668, but even though the city was expensive, many merchants and tradesmen were willing to pay these extraordinary prices.
As London tried to recover from the fire, Robert Hubert tried to flee the country. When authorities stopped Hubert, he confessed to setting the fire. A 26-year-old watchmaker's son, Hubert claimed that he worked for a French gang that wanted to destroy London, but his bizarre story changed during his October trial.
Hubert declared himself a Catholic, even though witnesses claimed he was a Protestant. Evidence emerged that Hubert wasn't even in London during the fire. Although the judge presiding over the trial doubted Hubert's guilt, the man was declared guilty and received the death sentence. Only weeks after the fire stopped burning, Hubert hanged at Tyburn.
After the Great Fire, a government committee investigated the outbreak. Londoners showed up with testimony that pointed the finger at Catholics. William Tisdale reportedly overheard an "Irish Papist" warn that there would be a "sad Desolation" in London in September 1666. Mr. Light from Ratcliff testified that months before the fire, a Catholic said, "You expect great things in Sixty Six, and think that Rome will be destroyed, but what if it be London?"
Suspicion against Catholics persisted. In 1681, a plaque commemorating the fire read “Here by the permission of Heaven, Hell broke loose upon this Protestant city from the malicious hearts of barbarous Papists."