The Great Fire stopped here

As the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London is marked by a new opera, His Honour Judge Cryan relates the pivotal role played by the Inn’s first Royal Bencher in saving the Temple Church and Hall from devastation

In the early hours of Sunday 2 September 1666, a fire broke out in Pudding Lane in the east of the City of London, near London Bridge. 

The Temple was about a mile and a quarter to the west, but over the next three days unseasonably strong easterly winds blew the flames inexorably closer to the Inn, destroying in its path the bulk of the City.

By the time the winds and the Great Fire of London died down, seven out of every eight homes, from aldermanic mansions and counting houses to the tenements of the poor, lay in ashes. Smoldering, too, were the warehouses of the greatest port of one of the greatest seafaring nations on earth. The wholesale and retail infrastructure of the City, from the gold and silversmiths’ shops and workshops in Cheapside to the Royal Exchange and the warehouses of the Fruiterers’ Company and others by the river, were no more. The majority of the Livery Halls, and the Guildhall itself, were gone. The offices of civic government were no longer there. Even the gaol at Newgate had been emptied and then consumed by the flames.

But undoubtedly the greatest loss to the City’s built environment was the destruction of nearly 90 churches and the mighty St Paul’s Cathedral itself – long past its prime, devoid of its spire, propped up by internal scaffolding, its gothic majesty defaced by a neoclassic appendage to its west front, but still dominant, still proud in its crumbling glory, atop Ludgate Hill. It burnt for days, in part because the City’s booksellers and stationers, thinking it a safe place, had deposited their goods there as the fire took hold.

Such was the scene which would have been viewed to the east from the round tower of the Temple Church, as the fire approached. Refugees headed out of the City in every direction. Fleet Street was full of people and carts heading away from the flames. Civic government, such as it was, had broken down and those still left in the Temple had kept its gates closed against the throng. The Inn’s accounts show various payments to its servants for watching during the fire. The Inn itself was thinly populated. Not only was it the Long Vacation, but fear of a return of the Great Plague of 1665 had caused the ‘Summer Readings’, or lectures, to be cancelled for the second year running.

The leading men of the Inn were nearly all gone to the country. Those remaining could only watch and wait under the dark pall of smoke blown in from the east and, as the days passed, the threatening blow at night came ever nearer. By the third day, Tuesday 4 September, the fire had arrived at Whitefriars, a poor area full of narrow streets and passageways, on the eastern boundary of the Temple.

Whilst the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bludworth, had initially failed to take steps to halt or even slow the fire, one Inner Templar gained universal praise for his efforts and courage in seeking to abate its progress, albeit with limited success. However, it was he whose men, under his direction, finally saved the Church and more or less literally beat out the last flames of the Great Fire of London on the roof of Hall.

The King’s brother, James, Duke of York, had been elected the first Royal Bencher of any Inn by the Inner Temple in 1661. By the time of the Great Fire he was 33 years of age, and an experienced and energetic navel and military commander. His political ineptitude and intellectual shortcomings (which were to have such disastrous consequences for him two decades later), weighed against his courage and leadership, were irrelevant in such times as this. One of his staff said: ‘More of judgement is at hand in him in the middle of desperate service than at any other time.’ Perhaps, being written after his inglorious deposition, histories subsequently have sometimes given him less credit than he deserved for his efforts at the time of the Great Fire. Even some modern scholars have chosen to ignore his achievement and, for example, the volume devoted to him in the Yale University Press series on English monarchs is silent as to his role in the Great Fire.

In a somewhat hubristic gesture, the Lord Mayor had declined the King’s offer of troops to help, but it soon became apparent that if the King did not send help, then nothing would happen. The City’s objections were ignored, and the Duke, his courtiers, troops and sailors worked tirelessly, fighting the flames and pulling down buildings to create fire breaks, an almost futile task whilst the wind was blowing a gale. It was a dangerous one too. About noon on Tuesday 4 September 1666, the Duke and some of his men had to run for their lives when the fire o’erleapt their position to the east of the Temple near Bridewell. From the Thames, up to and across Fleet Street was a wall of flames. The fire’s first assault on the Temple was at about six o’clock on that Tuesday. The new brick building along King’s Bench Walk gave a temporary check to the advance of the fire and, during the evening, the wind fell.

Nevertheless, before veering north on a changed and falling wind, it seems to have consumed King’s Bench Walk. The Duke worked in the area all night and, by Wednesday morning, things had quietened down sufficiently for him to return to Whitehall.

However, after only a few hours, no doubt still exhausted by the previous days’ labours, he was summoned again by the risk of panic in Moorfields. Crowds of displaced Londoners were panicking over rumours of a Dutch invasion.

From there to the south, he saw the red glow of flames from the area of the Temple. Arriving there, he found the fire had started up again, ‘by the carelessness of the Templars’, but the students in residence continued to bar the gates against the lawless crowd. Refusing to let anyone in ‘unless there was a barrister present’, the Duke, however, was allowed in with his attendants.

By then, it is likely that King’s Bench Walk was lost and the Temple Church and the Hall were at risk. The Duke resolved to blow up some ‘paper buildings’, buildings in the vicinity of the Hall and Church. Military engineers and gunpowder were sent for. The Inn’s accounts after the fire show:

‘To Spiers the grocer for half a barrel of powder used in the time of the fire, £1. 8s. To 4 engineers that worked at the fire by order of the bench, £4. To a soldier of Kingston for service done to prevent the firing of the hall, £2.’

But more intriguing than these figures was the entry relating to one Richard Rowe on 27 January 1667:

‘Whereas at this parliament Richard Rowe,mariner, who had £5 formerly given him by this society for his pains taken in extinguishing the fire at the end of the Inner Temple Hall, did now petition for a further reward, whereupon it is ordered that the petitioner shall have given to him the sum of £5 more as a full and final reward from this society.’

It seems that Richard Rowe (or ‘Roe’) was a sailor, presumably in the party of the Duke who was Lord High Admiral, who had climbed onto the roof of Hall and beat out the flames. Whether he was injured in the process is unknown, but in 1668 is found in the accounts of the Inn:

‘Gave Mrs Roe, the seaman’s widdy, that hope to putt out the fire at the end of the hall £2.’

Whatever the price, the Duke and his men put out the fire and, although very significant damage was done to much of the estate, they had saved the Church and Hall. Curiously, they had to act without the cooperation of at least one of the Templars present who objected to a building known as ‘the Paper House’ being blown up with gunpowder, an action ‘against the rules and charter of the Temple’. A contemporary account suggests that the Duke stared at him in disbelief before his Master of the Horse struck the objector with a cudgel. The explosion followed shortly after.

Thanks to a generous loan from the Middle Temple, its portrait of James II, as Duke of York, will be on display in Inner Temple Hall until December. His coat of arms is to be found in one of the south windows of the present Hall; his portrait will hang between those of Mary, his daughter and her husband, the Duke’s nephew, William, who deposed him. It is also ironic that the last entry related directly to the Duke in the transactions of the Inn is from the last days of his reign as James II. In January 1681, he had been captured by rebels in Kent, but had returned to London very briefly at liberty. The Inn lit bonfires to celebrate and paid a wood merchant for faggots for the purpose. Whether this was from loyalty or nostalgia is unrecorded.

Contributor His Honour Judge Cryan, Treasurer of Inner Temple. This article was first published in the Inner Temple Yearbook 2015-16

A new Temple opera: And London Burned

Inner Temple is marking the 350th anniversary of Great Fire of London with a new opera.

Temple Music Foundation has commissioned And London Burned, to premiere in October, which will tell some of the stories from the Great Fire of London. The project is the brainchild of the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple, on whose Hall the last flames of the fire were beaten out under the direction of Inner Temple’s Royal Bencher, James, Duke of York. He and his men also saved the Temple Church, where the opera will take place.

The opera’s composer Matt Rogers and librettist Sally O’Reilly made their Royal Opera debut last year, with the premiere of their work The Virtues of Things at the Linbury Studio Theatre. And London Burned will be directed by Sinéad O’Neill, who works regularly as an assistant director at Glyndebourne. Wielding the baton will be Christopher Stark, founder of Multi-Story, who makes his BBC Proms debut this summer. The singers will include ENO soloists and younger rising stars (Gwilym Bowen, Alessandro Fisher, Aoife O’Sullivan, Robyn Allegra Parton and Andrew Rupp) and the instrumentalists will include the organist and director of music of the Temple Church, Roger Sayer, fresh from his performance for the Oscar-nominated score for Interstellar. The production will be designed by Kitty Callister, who last season designed the set and costumes for Glyndebourne’s new chamber opera, Macbeth.

There will be three performances of And London Burned, on Thursday 27, Friday 28 and Saturday 29 October at the Temple Church. Tickets start at £25 and Thursday’s performance will be followed by a Gala Dinner in Inner Temple Hall, tickets for which are available separately. Tickets are on sale from Temple Music Foundation or tel: 020 7427 5641.

And London Burned is generously sponsored by a number of individual members of the Inner and Middle Temples and by JM Finn & Co. This project still requires further funding. If you would like to explore opportunities, please contact Rachel Pearson at Temple Music Foundation: tel 020 7427 5641 or email: rachel@templechurch.com

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HHJ Donald Cryan

His Honour Judge Cryan (Hon) LLD is Treasurer of the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple and a Circuit Judge (SE Circuit). He was Called to the Bar by Inner Temple in 1970 (Bencher 1992).