Last week, I posted the first few pages of the fictional plot of Death’s Bright Angel as a ‘teaser trailer’ for the book’s forthcoming publication. But as I’ve mentioned before, this title is actually ‘two books in one’, with the second part being a detailed historical analysis of the evidence surrounding the outbreak of the Great Fire. This standalone essay, as long as many an e-book, publishes for the first time much previously unknown evidence about the outbreak, and raises some uncomfortable and provocative questions about the accepted story of how the Great Fire began.
So am I saying that the Great Fire of London was, or could have been, started deliberately?
You’ll have to get your own copy of Death’s Bright Angel in order to find out! But in the meantime, here are the first few pages of the historical investigation.
THE GREAT FIRE OF LONDON:
THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE FIRE-RAISING WATCHMAKER, THE ELUSIVE SEA CAPTAIN, AND THE QUEEN OF SWEDEN’S TAILOR
A Historical Investigation
Until I started researching and writing Death’s Bright Angel, my knowledge of the Great Fire of London came from a combination of general knowledge, facts learned at school, TV programmes, Pepys’ diary, and a couple of books on the matter, read more than a decade ago. I suspect, if pushed, most people would admit similar. However, I’d also taught the subject quite often, usually to twelve year olds (Year 8, in British education parlance), frequently employing ancient BBC educational programmes with shockingly cheap special effects. It’s a subject that goes down well with schoolchildren – lots of drama and destruction, vivid first-hand accounts, even some humour (‘he buried a cheese?’), and best of all, nobody dies; well, hardly anybody. Unsurprisingly, the Great Fire is a mainstay of the National Curriculum in History for schools in England and Wales, and some ten children’s books about it have been published since 1995 alone. Within the same period, three full-length, fully referenced adult studies of the Fire have also gone into print.
I duly read or re-read all three of these books, and several earlier ones, as research for Death’s Bright Angel, and as I did so, felt a mounting disquiet. All described mid-seventeenth century London, the actual course of the Fire, and its various aftermaths, competently enough – sometimes quite brilliantly. But when it came to the aspect in which I was most interested, the different theories circulating at the time to explain why the Fire began, and especially the confessions, trial, and execution, of the supposedly simple-minded French watchmaker Robert Hubert, alarm bells rang.
All recent books on the Fire explicitly derive large parts of their accounts – of the theories of the Fire’s outbreak in Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane – from a single earlier secondary source, The Great Fire of London by Walter George Bell. This was originally published in 1923 and republished several times since, and the principal primary source upon it relied, William Cobbett’s Complete Collection of State Trials, was published between 1809 and 1826, incorporating earlier material from editions dating back to 1719. All the modern books accept without question Bell’s judgement that ‘this fact (the accidental outbreak in the bakery) does not admit of doubt… the judgment that must result from a calm consideration of the evidence, [is] that the Fire in its origin was due to carelessness, and was not criminal’.
What of it? Surely all that Bell (a journalist and astronomer, incidentally, not a historian) did was follow the orthodoxy rapidly accepted by enlightened contemporaries like Samuel Pepys, the orthodoxy allegedly followed by the Lord Chief Justice who had actually sentenced Hubert and which, when partisan fervour and religious bigotry eventually died down, became accepted by most of the general public, too? The Great Fire began by accident; as I indicated in the note at the beginning of this book, Robert Hubert’s confession to having started it was written off almost immediately, as it has been ever since, as the rambling of a madman who did not even arrive in London until after the Fire began.
Even so, I wanted to see exactly how Bell reached the conclusions upon which all recent books about the Fire depend. I also wanted to examine the source material about Robert Hubert in a more forensic way than has been attempted before, and to see if there were any sources that had been completely ignored in previous studies. This might seem a curiously intensive research strategy for a work of fiction, but I knew from the outset that the storyline for Death’s Bright Angel would only have sufficient drama if it posited arson, or strong suspicions of arson, as the cause of the Great Fire. To make the book as convincing as possible, I knew I had to investigate that possibility as rigorously as I could.
In other words: once a historian, always a historian.
Want to read more? Death’s Bright Angel is available for pre-order through all the usual channels!