England and the Netherlands: the ties between two nations > Scapegoat

A scapegoat was found a couple of weeks after the fire: Robert Hubert, a twenty-six-year old French silversmith and watchmaker from Rouen. He readily confessed to everything he was accused of. By his own testimony, he and his mate Peidloe had gone to Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane on 2 September. Here, Peidloe had handed him a ‘fireball’, which he had lit and pushed through an open window with a stick.

Surprised, Farriner denied there had been a window in the place Hubert described, whereupon the latter promptly adjusted his account, something he did every time a contradiction was pointed out to him. According to Hubert, he had 23 accomplices, of whom no more than three remained in the end. By then, it was clear to many people that Hubert was not quite sane and, on top of that, a tremendous fantasist. It was also not so strange that he could correctly point out Farriner’s house: a hopeful crowd had encircled the spot where the house once stood. Hubert had only to stare in the same direction as the inquisitive crowd.

Despite this, he was found guilty in the ensuing show trial, solely on the basis of his own confused and contradictory testimony and he was hanged on 29 September 1666 in Tyburn. His corpse was torn apart by the mob.

The testimony that came too late
The testimony of Lawrence Petersen, master of the Maid of Stockholm, the man who could have cleared Robert Hubert, was not heard until fifteen years later. The so-called Popish Plot, according to Titus Oakes a catholic conspiracy to take over the country, once more caused anti-Catholic feelings to flare. In 1681, a new inquiry was opened to inquire into the causes of the Great Fire. Lawrence Petersen was traced and on the basis of the testimony he gave on 17 December 1681, it appeared that Robert Hubert could not possibly have been the perpetrator of the fire.

Petersen said that he let himself be persuaded by a merchant friend in Stockholm to take Hubert to his parents in Rouen, because the young man was poor and not quite right in his head. Peterson thought he was surly and silly and quickly left him to his own devices. On its way to France, the ship was apprehended by the English fleet and forced to sail to London two days before the Great Fire broke out. However, according to Petersen, Hubert did not leave ship until Tuesday, whereas the fire had raged since Saturday night.

Robert Hubert appeared to take pleasure in the fire; this annoyed Petersen who ordered him to be locked up in the hold. However, the prisoner managed to escape and went ashore. When Petersen heard that Hubert had been jailed, he did not concern himself any more about the Frenchman. He sailed to Rouen and went to Hubert’s father to get paid for the passage from Sweden. The father told him Hubert had been hanged for having allegedly set fire to London. By his own account, Petersen was very much surprised at this as he knew it could not be true.

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