In the Book of Apocalypse in the Bible, the figure 666 is referred to as the number of the Beast, which causes the fire from heaven to descend to earth. Long before, prophets and ministers preaching hell and damnation had chosen 1666 as the year in which God would punish London for its sins. In the preceding years, countless prophecies and treatises appeared in order to announce the catastrophe, sometimes in combination with the great plague epidemic that swept over London in 1665.
The House of Stuart was reinstated when Charles II ascended the throne in 1660, and this put an end to the puritan intermezzo of Cromwell’s Commonwealth which had lasted eleven years. Puritans saw the fire as God’s punishment for the licentious, depraved and wicked way of life at the Court. On the other hand, royalists took the view that God was punishing London for having supported the Parliament during the Civil War and because the population had allowed Charles I to be decapitated.
It was unavoidable that the prophets of doom who predicted a big fire would be proved right some time in the future. Big fires were not unknown. Fires often followed protracted droughts and some seventy big fires had raged in English cities between 1600 and 1665. In that fatal month of September 1666, everything that was needed for a catastrophe was in place, a catastrophe the size of which nobody had been prepared for.
Even while the fire was still raging, all kinds of conspiracy theories started doing the rounds. Few people believed the fire to be accidental. The French and the Dutch were especially suspect. Roman Catholics, but also Presbyterians, Anabaptists and Quakers were under suspicion. Rumours flew round. The fire was said to have been lit by order of the government in order to eradicate the plague. Charles II was responsible, or the Lord Mayor. Groups that had remained loyal to Cromwell and the Commonwealth were accused of having lit the fire: as it happened, the fire started on the eve of the anniversary of Cromwell’s death. Not only in London, but also elsewhere in the country, foreigners in particular were arrested at random or lynched by a hysterical mob. Here and there, innocent people were collared ‘in the act’ of trying to set fire to even more buildings by using ‘fireballs’.
The accusations levelled at the Roman Catholics put Charles II in an awkward predicament: he was already suspected of being too kindly disposed towards Catholicism, and his brother James, Duke of York, was a devout and a confirmed Roman Catholic. Charles instructed Sir John Kelyng, the Lord Chief Justice, to investigate the accusations.
On 18 September, the Parliament convened again and appointed its own committee of inquiry under the chairmanship of Sir Robert Brook to inquire into the causes of the fire. In January, the Parliament cleared a report founded on – rather selective – evidence, which established that the fire had been started deliberately. The report was sent to Charles II and his Cabinet, but they maintained that the fire had to be blamed on ‘God’s, hand, a hard wind and the dry season’. At first, the Parliament acquiesced in this conclusion, but in March 1667 there was a call to reopen the investigation. Parts of the report appeared in print in order to breathe new life into the popular anger against the Roman Catholics.
Charles II succeeded in shielding Roman Catholics from being persecuted until a new incident arose. In 1678,Titus Oakes revealed an alleged Popish Plot, a Jesuit conspiracy to set fire to the city. The House of Commons stated once more that the papists had started the big fire in order to be able to ‘introduce despotism, arbitrary rule and papistry into the Kingdom’. A new inquiry into the causes of the Great Fire was opened in 1681.