The Great Fire of London, which occurred in September of 1666, completely devastated the city of London, leaving one-sixth of its population homeless and destroying a large swath of the city, including St. Paul’s Cathedral. In Adrian Tinniswood’s novel, By Permission of Heaven: The True Story of the Great Fire of London, he argued that the majority of Londoners saw the fire as either an act of terrorism or as an act of God. Those who believed the act of terrorism theory blamed the fire on England’s enemies or minority groups within England itself, while others who subscribed to the act of god idea believed that God was punishing London for its sins. Both of these ideas about why the fire happened were used by people for their own gain and to cover up the actions of people in power and the inevitability of a large, destructive fire given the layout of London.
Many Londoners saw the fire as an act of terrorism because of the ongoing conflicts with the Dutch and the French and due to the ever-present threat of Catholicism returning to dominance in England. Throughout the seventeenth century, England was involved in a series of conflicts with the Dutch Republic. These wars are known as the Anglo-Dutch wars. In 1665, the Second Anglo-Dutch War began with the French, England’s archenemy, fighting alongside the Dutch against England. The war was ongoing when the fire began in September of 1666, so many Londoners thought that either French or Dutch operatives have started the fire in order to destroy London and weaken England so that England would lose the war. Around the time when the fire was raging in London, the French were inflicting heavy losses on England in the West Indies and it was suspected that they might try and sail up the Thames in order to sack London. Since many people thought that the French or the Dutch had started the fire, Dutch and French immigrants who were living in London were looked at with suspicion and sometimes confronted by mobs of angry residents. Animosity toward these immigrants, who were easily identifiable by their names and general appearance, had already been present in the city for some time. For example, Tinniswood states in the novel that the Weavers’ Company had expressed concern and anger over the influx of thousands of foreign weavers (mainly French) into London who they believed had taken work from their own members. Other foreign residents in London were treated harshly as well because of the general climate of xenophobia that had been present in the city for centuries and had been noted by visitors from continental Europe. Many foreign residents of London were arrested and put in prisons because they were accused of either starting the fire or fanning the flames, without much of a basis for the accusations. One of the first to be arrested was Cornelius Rietvelt, a Dutch baker who was sent to Gatehouse Prison, and accused of feeding the flames. Some native Londoners were also arrested and questioned under suspicion of collaborating with foreigners and having prior knowledge of the fire.
Catholics, sometimes referred to as Papists in England, were also blamed for starting the fire as part of the act of terrorism theory. Catholics had been an oppressed minority in Protestant England for generations and there were many negative stereotypes that surrounded them and led people to believe that they would be eager to participate in any kind of action that would hurt England. Catholics were seen as slaves to their church hierarchy, which was headed by the Pope. People in England saw the Catholic Church hierarchy as a dictatorship and Catholics were seen as wanting to impose this style of government on England along with wanting to turn England into a Catholic nation. Additionally, English Protestants feared Catholics because of recent massacres that had occurred in Ireland and France where Catholics slaughtered Protestants, not to mention because of distant memories of English...
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