In 1666, when London had hardly recovered from an epidemic of plague which had claimed tens of thousands of lives, it was stricken by an enormous fire. An area of one and a half square miles on the northern bank of the Thames – nowadays the City, London’s financial centre – was reduced to ashes.
The fire took place during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. People in the Netherlands, though shocked at the magnitude of the fire, were also of the opinion that the English themselves had invited disaster. Some Dutch people saw the fire as God’s punishment for the attack of the English under Sir Robert Holmes on the merchantmen at anchor in the Vlie and the sacking of West-Terschelling (‘Holmes' Bonfire’), which had taken place not long before the Great Fire.
The Netherlands’ best-known poet, Joost van den Vondel, remarks on this in his Jammerklaght over de gruwsame verwoestinge van Londen (Lament at the dreadful devastation of London). The Reformed minister Joannes Vollenhove follows his example in Brant van Londen (Fire of London). The English had it coming, he thinks:
Daar leght de Beurs nu uitgeschudt;
Daar stortze neêr, vergeefs gestut
Met roofzucht, brant, en havenschennis.
't Geroofde goet, die plonderschat,
Legt neêr in assche....
(There lies the Stock Exchange, now shaken out
There it crashed, supported in vain
By rapacity, fire and harbour violation
The stolen goods, that plundered treasure
Laid in ashes...)
Hun 'brantkreet' klinkt opeens heel anders dan
"voorheen het schreeuwen
Van uw triomffeest, zoo verheugt
Om 't jammren van den Nederlander.
(Their ‘Fire’ cry now sounds suddenly
Quite unlike the previous yelling
Of your shout of triumph, so cheerful
because of the Dutchman’s wailing.)
In England, on the other hand, people suspected the Dutch – but also the French and the Roman Catholics – to have perpetrated the fire. After the fire, everyone who did not speak English without an accent or who looked somewhat different, could not be sure of his life. Hysterical masses of people wanted a scapegoat and collared at random any foreigner to accuse him of having placed fireballs of inflammable material. The situation became so dangerous that the Spanish ambassador opened his doors to foreigners who feared for their life, Protestant Dutchmen as well as Roman Catholic Frenchmen.