Marcus Nevitt

One scorching summer long ago

Celebrating the 350th anniversary, Rebecca Rideal and Alexander Larman remind us that the destruction of the old city provided a magnificent chance for Wren and renewal

It was the brightest of futures; it was the End of Days. Three hundred and fifty years before Brexit, England experienced a series of epochal events which forced subjects to rethink their relationships with each other, their political leaders and their European neighbours. In the space of a tumultuous 12 months England endured the devastation of plague, the most humiliating of naval defeats at the hands of the Dutch, and the catastrophe of a Great Fire which transformed its capital city forever. Where there was a commonly held view, espoused by humble parish clerks and vociferous dissenters like George Fox alike, that the cataclysms revealed God’s wrathful judgment upon a sinful nation, there were others who saw in catastrophe an opportunity to build afresh: Andrew Marvell repurposed satire in his ‘Advice to a Painter’ poems; Christopher Wren reimagined the verybasis of London itself.

Rebecca Rideal and Alexander Larman both offer accessible and entertaining commemorations of this historical moment in their new books. While their accounts have many affinities — chiefly a narrative emphasis on individual historical characters — they frame the central event of the Great Fire in different ways. Rideal offers a chronological survey, beginning with the explosion of a ship forebodingly called The London in the Thames estuary in March 1665, before moving through a series of historical snapshots: the onset of plague and the exodus of about 30,000 people from the capital in July 1665; the Second Anglo-Dutch war and the Dutch naval victory in the Four Days’ Fight in June 1666; the start of the Great Fire in Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane in September 1666.

Larman covers much the same ground but arranges his material into short chapters on the court, religion, science, disease, entertainment, fashion and taste, crime and international relations as a means of taking the temperature of London before it burst into flames in 1666.

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