The Great Fire of London | One Disaster Among Many

The Great Fire of London in 1666 was a disaster, but it was not the only one facing the English Government at the time. 

A letter in the Caird Library and Archive provides a contemporary response to the Great Fire of London and a description of a distant encounter between the English and Dutch fleets.

By Mark Benson, Library Assistant

The Great Fire of London began on Sunday 2 September 1666 and burned until Thursday 6 September, destroying much of the city.

Amongst our archive collections is a letter recounting this disaster but also showing that it was only one of many concerns for the English government at that time.

Edward Montagu's letters 

Edward Montagu, 1st Earl of Sandwich was an important figure from the English Civil War through to the Restoration period acting as a general on both land and at sea and was also a cousin of and patron to the famous diarist Samuel Pepys.

He was in command of the fleet which returned Charles II to England and also helped establish English control over Tangier in 1662.

SAN/A/1 is a volume containing letters addressed to him from government ministers between 1656 and 1667, several of them written in numerical code.

One letter that is fortunately written in plain (17th-century) English is a letter addressed to the Earl from Henry Bennet, 1st Earl of Arlington written on 10 September 1666.

At the time Sandwich was the English Ambassador to Spain, while Arlington was a Royal favourite and Secretary of State.

Page 1 of Lord Arlington’s letter to Lord Sandwich within the volume SAN/A/1
Page 1 of Lord Arlington’s letter to Lord Sandwich within the volume SAN/A/1
This post will carry your Exce[llency] the narratives of a sad calamity befallen us by the burning of a great part of the City, which continuing soe many days & with such violence was most terrible & distracting to us not only for the thing itself but the consequences of it, but God bee thanked it eased at last, – wee may say with truth, miraculously, without being accompanied with any further circumstances to affright us, soe that now God bee thanked wee are in our witts again, & all but the loosers as chearfull as if noe such thing had befallen us

As we can see from Arlington’s letter the government was relieved this disastrous fire had finally begun to be extinguished but were just as thankful, if not more so, that nothing else had gone wrong in the meantime.

London Verbrandt (RMG ID: G297:20/27).

Plague and war

There had been a Great Plague in London during much of 1665 with nearly 70,000 recorded deaths in the capital, although the true figure was likely far higher.

England was also in the middle of the second of a series of wars with the Dutch Republic and by the time of the fire this had been going for about a year and a half. There had been several naval battles during this period, including the Four Days Battle, one of the longest naval engagements in history.

Both sides achieved victories but neither managed to deliver a decisive blow and a quick end to the war was becoming ever more desirable in England.

France and Denmark-Norway had joined the war on the Dutch side and as the English government was already facing financial difficulties the fire and its aftermath were one more set of problems amongst many.

London had also been a republican stronghold during the Civil War and there was still plenty of ill-feeling towards the Crown. In the chaos of the fire Charles II and his advisers feared a new rebellion might break out.

These wider concerns are also illustrated by the fact that discussion of the fire only makes up around half of Arlington’s letter with the remainder focusing on the movements of the Dutch fleet. The reported failures of English attempts to follow them or engage them in battle providing an insight into the problems of naval intelligence and unfavourable weather in this period.

Page 2 of Lord Arlington’s letter to Lord Sandwich within the volume SAN/A/1.
Page 2 of Lord Arlington’s letter to Lord Sandwich within the volume SAN/A/1.
In our last letter wee told you the Dutch fleet was come abroad … and ours set sayle in search of them, & quickly came in sight of them upon which they made all the sayle possibly theye could from us & the weather being very fowle sheltered themselves in St John’s Road near Bouloign, with which the weather would not suffer us to follow them soe wee came to St Helen’s point where wee have been repairing ourselves ever since, from Dover wee are advertised that the Dutch fleet set sayle towards their owne Coast on the 8th yesterday on this day ours intended likewise to weigh anchor but the weather having been fowle wee suppose they might suspend that resolution, wee esteem ourselves stronger & more numerous than them, & soe fear they will avoid fighting us, a few days will tell us what wee are to hope or fear on the seas.

As it turned out a decisive blow would not come until June the following year when the successful Dutch raid on the Medway inflicted a humiliating defeat upon the Royal Navy with the loss of thirteen ships and the capture of two others, including the flagship Royal Charles, and prompted Charles II to finally pursue a quick peace.

Dutch Attack on the Medway, June 1667 (RMG ID: BHC0295).
Dutch Attack on the Medway, June 1667 (RMG ID: BHC0295).

Our Collections catalogue includes several prints depicting London before or after the fire including proposals by the likes of Sir Christopher Wren and Sir John Evelyn for the reconstruction.

Discover more on Collections Online

See the catalogue record for the volume containing Lord Arlington’s letter to Lord Sandwich (SAN/A/1)