Great Fires of the Medieval Period
Great fires have ravaged the earth throughout recorded history, from the days of the Romans, through the Medieval Period and into modern times. These days we recognise the importance of fire safety precautions and install smoke alarms in commercial buildings and homes to protect people, property and contents (amongst other safeguards). In Medieval Times however, there was no such thing as ‘fire safety’.
The homes of peasants, shops and bridges were constructed using highly flammable building materials including straw, wattle & daub and wood. While wood played a role within grander structures built for religious purposes such as cathedrals, or manors and castles belonging to upper classes and nobility, they also incorporated far more fire resistant materials such as slate tiled roofs, and stone was predominantly the main structural component.
However, despite the dwellings of richer Medieval classes using more fire resistant construction materials, cathedrals, churches, manors and castles nevertheless still burned during the Middle Ages.
Medieval London was a City Built to Burn
In Medieval London, fires were a common occurrence as houses were mostly built with combustible materials – wood and pitch and tightly crowded together, standing side by side with manufacturing and commerce buildings on narrow, winding streets allowing for no firebreaks. No organised, official fire brigade operated in London during the Middle Ages and local residents had to fight fires with leather buckets and water squirts, the use of which normally had little effect when it came to extinguishing fierce flames.
The most infamous of all of London’s infernos is the 1666 AD Great Fire of London which scourged most of the city, burning to ash approximately 80% of it, yet taking surprisingly few lives, only 4 casualties were officially recorded, but more are likely as the fire incinerated human remains. It raged on for days and though loss of life was minimal thousands found themselves homeless and in financial ruin.
Though London’s Great Fire of 1666 is perhaps Britain’s most well-known, the city of London was savaged by other blazes, some of which resulted in wide-spread destruction and a staggering loss of life completely eclipsing the number of casualties during the 1666 blaze.
A Medieval Timeline of Ferocious London Fires
675 AD: London’s original St Paul’s Cathedral (not Christopher Wren’s 4th incarnation which pierces the skyline today) established by King Ethelbert of Kent as home to East Saxons first bishop, Mellitus burned to the ground.
1087 AD: The rebuilt 2nd St Paul’s Cathedral in London burnt down.
1135 AD: One of the two Great Medieval Fires of London. This blaze occurred on Pentecost and was so severe that it destroyed most of the city between London Bridge in the east and St Clement Danes in Westminster to the west.
1212 AD: The Great Fire of Southwark was one of the two Great Medieval Fires of London and speculated to have claimed around 3,000 souls. It began south of the Thames in Southwark, destroying the cathedral church of St Mary Overie aka Our Lady of the Canons and most of Borough High Street before reaching London Bridge. With high winds at work that day, burning embers were carried across to the other side of the Thames setting alight the buildings on the northern end of London Bridge. The inferno spread quickly into the City of London.
The greatest loss of life occurred on the bridge itself, as people from the northern end ran to help those fleeing from the south, everyone become trapped as the blaze had engulfed both sides of the river. With wooden homes and shops built along the stone bridge, it wasn’t long until the fire came for those trapped. Anyone who didn’t die in the flames, jumped into the Thames and either drowned in the river, or was crushed to death on overloaded rescue boats.
Modern Fire Safety Shouldn’t be Overlooked
Usually fire dangers within houses and apartments are not obvious to the naked eye, often concealed within walls, roofs, or elsewhere on the property. Older homes are especially prone to needing rewiring, or new switchboards installed to keep up to date with fire precaution regulations.
If you own a home, or are looking to move into a new (or, older) place, or buy an investment property, then give yourself peace of mind and have your home electricals and smoke alarms assessed for fire safety in the lead-up to National Fire Alarm Day on 18th October.