The Great Fire of London in 1666 was described as an act of God. Pam Rhodes explores why and discovers the new city churches that rose from the ashes.
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350 years ago this month,
THE most devastating fire in the capital's history destroyed
most of the City of London and 80% of its churches at the time,
including St Paul's Cathedral.
Some saw the Great Fire of London as an act of God,
others saw it as a deliberate act of religious terrorism -
most were just looking for someone to blame.
As well as exploring the religious responses to the inferno of 1666,
I also discover the magnificent churches
designed by Sir Christopher Wren
that formed the heart of the new London
that rose from the ashes.
Church bells used to be the herald of both good news and bad.
And in Norwich, I get to grips with the ancient art
of bell-ringing as churches look for new recruits.
And over in South Wales,
I meet a choir with a difference who are part of
a scientific experiment to prove that singing really can do you good.
Well, we've no shortage of inspiring music today
from churches across Great Britain,
including one of the many hymns written by Charles Wesley,
who said that this one should be sung in tumult,
in times of great difficult and challenge.
September 1666 and the Great Fire of London
has brought the city to its knees.
"All the sky was a fiery aspect,
"like the top of a burning oven.
"The noise and crackling and thunder of the impetuous flames,
"the shrieking of women and children, the hurry of people,
"the fall of towers, houses and churches was like a hideous storm."
Well, that was the harrowing, very graphic account
by Christian John Evelyn
in his diaries as he watched the devastation unfolding.
And, using biblical imagery, he described the scene
as a resemblance of Sodom, or the last day.
So, plainly, he thought that it felt like the end of the world.
It all began here, on Pudding Lane, as historian Kate Williams explains.
Well, it seems like the most unassuming city street,
but we're pretty much on the site of Thomas Farriner's bakery,
except, he said, "It wasn't me, it was nothing to do with me!"
And then the fire raged for four days
and then it ended in Pye Corner.
And because of pudding and pye, those food references,
lots of Londoners said it was God's punishment for the sin of gluttony.
Well, we've already heard that people worried that it was
apocalyptic. Is that really what they thought?
People were absolutely terrified.
So you've got these tiny houses all made of wood up in flames.
Within a matter of hours, this whole area
was one firestorm and people couldn't escape.
They dashed down to the Thames, that was no good because it was all on fire there,
and the peak was when St Paul's itself goes on fire,
which everyone had thought was safe because it was made of stone.
But there was wood scaffolding and a few embers
and the whole place was flaming.
Imagine the seat of Christianity, heaven on earth,
the great St Paul's is up in flames.
So it really was terrifying.
It was like the fires of hell.
And what made people really panic was the date -
it was the year 1666,
and in the Book of Revelation,
666 was the number of the beast.
After the flames were finally quenched,
an Act of Parliament ordered that a monument was constructed to,
as they put it, "Preserve the memory of this dreadful visitation."
Thousands of Londoners walk past this every day
and probably never wonder why it's here.
Well, this monument marks the position of the very first
of the 87 churches that were burned in the Great Fire.
So it's a monument to the city that was burned,
the churches and all the sacrifice that the people made.
So in the aftermath of the fire, what was the general mood?
The belief was that the Catholics had caused it.
They were seen as these religious terrorists.
And this is what actually was inscribed on the monument.
So in 1681, on the side, it said that the fire was caused by
a popish frenzy which has not yet been quenched.
The inscription wasn't lifted off until 1830,
after the Catholic Emancipation Act.
So the Catholics were blamed for the Great Fire of London for 150 years.
So, was it possible for anything to quell those rumours
and stop the bloodshed?
Charles II put out a statement saying it was an act of God,
not a papist plot.
And on top of this, he said, "We all must atone for our sins.
"There must be a day of atonement, a day of fasting
"and we all must say sorry for all the things we have done."
# I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills
# From whence cometh my help
# My help cometh even from the Lord
# Who hath made heaven and earth
# He will not suffer thy foot to be moved
# And he that keepeth thee will not sleep
# Behold, he that keepeth Israel
# Shall neither slumber nor sleep
# The Lord himself is thy keeper
# The Lord is thy defence upon thy right hand
# So that the sun shall not burn thee by day
# Neither the moon by night
# The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil
# Yea, it is even he that shall keep thy soul
# The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in
# From this time forth for evermore
# Glory be to the Father
# And to the Son
# And to the Holy Ghost
# As it was in the beginning
# Is now and ever shall be
# World without end
# Amen. #
Singing always make me feel good, or am I just imagining that?
Well, scientists have been visiting some of the Tenovus choirs
across South Wales to put that feel-good factor to the test.
# Lifting me higher... #
I think we're like a family.
I know that I'm going to meet people who will cheer me up,
the singing cheers me up.
All the members of the Tenovus choir here at the Tabernacle Church
in Bridgend have been affected by cancer.
Supporting each other in singing and we're supporting each other
very subtly when we have problems, you know.
# Higher and higher! #
Lissa and her dad are two of their members.
When Lissa's mum died from cancer last year,
it left a huge gap in their lives.
Tell me about her. What was she like as a person?
She was my best friend.
She would have loved the choir, I'm sure. Mm. Were you very close?
Very close, yeah.
Um...because I'm disabled, she was my carer for a long time, as well.
So, how did the idea of joining a choir come about?
Well, that was because of my daughter, that was.
She came up here one day and she said,
"Hey, Dad, I've seen this advert for...
"They want people to join the choir of Tenovus."
We looked at it and it was cancer support.
We hadn't long joined and, um...God Only Knows
was on the list to sing, by the Beach Boys,
which was my mum and dad's song.
And it was played at their wedding and played in her funeral.
# God only knows what I'd be without you
# God only knows...#
And it was like as if we were meant to be there, you know,
like something had brought us there.
Do you feel as if God's in it? Yes.
I think he's always got your back and he's always got a plan.
# God only knows what I'd be... #
What does singing do for you, do you think?
I suffer from chronic pain and it definitely distracts me from that.
I don't even think about it when I'm singing.
Er...it just makes you feel happy and joyful, I guess.
Certainly, by the end of practice, you're coming out of there
with a spring in your step and a smile on your face, you know.
So clearly, Lissa and Pete believe singing is good for them,
but what's really going on?
Dr Ian Lewis analysed the effects
of one hour's singing on the choir members.
For this experiment, I had to get on the road
to collect as many saliva samples as I could
from as many choir members as I could.
What were you looking for in the spit?
We were looking for a range of things.
We were looking for different chemicals that could show
how the singing was affecting people's mood
and psychological state.
Dr Lewis has tested hundreds of choir members across Wales
and he's come to reveal the results to the Bridgend choir.
What's your spit doing?
Now, in the blue, that is a stress hormone called cortisol.
It's widely known as a very good measure and marker for stress response.
Now, as you can see, this stress hormone dropped.
And this was in five different choirs on five different nights
and was the case across the board.
Amazingly, there was also a rise
in hormones that help the body's immune system,
as well as the feel-good hormones, like endorphins and oxytocin.
Now, the fact that we can measure that in just one hour
was pretty mind-blowing.
APPLAUSE So there you are -
scientific proof of something Songs Of Praise has always known -
that singing is good for body and soul.
Coming up later,
we find out what happened after the Great Fire
when a new London emerged from the ashes
with more than 50 new churches at the heart of its grand design.
And it's God's grand design which is being celebrated today,
as Christians on Harvest Sunday
give thanks for the fruits of God's creation.
And this hymn is a must at every harvest festival.
Down the years, church bells have not only chimed
their way through everyday life, but have warned of danger too,
just as I'm sure the bells in the City of London rang during the Great Fire.
Well, this month, as part of Heritage Open Days,
hundreds of churches up and down the country have opened their doors
to visitors to try and encourage new interest
in the ancient art of bell-ringing.
Long before newspapers and mobile phones,
church bells were the megaphones of the day,
ringing out national and local news to the neighbourhood.
But how can bell-ringing survive in today's society?
Here at St Peter Mancroft in Norwich,
bell-ringing is thriving, and has been for centuries.
So I'm climbing all the way up this bell tower
to meet some of their 30 members.
Wow! That's fantastic!
Simon Rudd loves ringing in a bell tower with such an impressive past.
Every time I come up to the stairs into the ringing chamber here,
I feel the weight of history on my shoulders.
Because the first recorded full peal
was rung here on 2nd May in 1715
and it's recorded on the fine peal board that you can see on the wall.
So we're very proud and privileged to have that
here at St Peter Mancroft.
We are a disparate group of people, but when we come together,
we come together with a common purpose.
It's a message to tell the city that there is
a church alive and active, at the beating heart of the city,
and to sound out the message that the church is here is a great one.
Jo's going. Sue's gone.
A recent BBC local radio news report
has warned that there aren't enough volunteers
to keep the country's 5,000 bell towers ringing,
with just over half of those surveyed saying
declining church attendances made it harder to recruit.
We're blessed here with a very strong team of ringers,
but the age range is probably a little on the high side.
We're very conscious of the fact we need to be seeking out
the next generation of ringers who are going to come along.
It can be a struggle to get people to take up the art and stick at it.
The outward aspects of ringing seem a little bit dusty
and a bit...we're all old wrinklies and doing things in a dusty tower.
Here we go. I'll pull that bit. It goes up and you pull it back down...
So the bell-ringing team here have a device that they hope
will encourage new recruits to try bell-ringing for themselves.
This is a portable mini bell ring.
And anyone can have a go.
There's lots of youngsters here.
One of the great things about a mini ring like this is the bells are very tiny,
so they're very easily used for young people.
And...catch! Oop! And pull it down again.
It's different. I've never really done anything like that before.
I don't think I was that good at it.
I kept on missing the fluffy bit on the string.
It was fun because I was pulling on string to make a sound.
Well, if the kids are doing it...
And then just pull down and let the other hand go up.
BELLS PEAL Oh, no, hang on a minute. I let go!
Oh, I've got it! You've got it.
Yay! Keep you fit, this, wouldn't it? Yeah. Yes. That's it.
Do you know, this is really good fun.
So if you love the sound of church bells,
why don't you have a go at getting those bells ringing yourself?
The Great Fire of London changed the medieval city forever,
destroying hundreds of acres,
burning more than 13,000 houses and most of the city's churches.
But out of the destruction came opportunity
as bids came pouring in to rebuild the city.
And there is St Paul's,
the masterpiece of the man who landed the job,
Sir Christopher Wren.
Christopher Wren was this amazing polymath.
He was a mathematician, a physicist, an astronomer and an architect.
He was a great friend of the king, and, of course, a devout Anglican.
And what he really wanted to do was really put his stamp on London
and to leave the fire behind, to create this brand-new, forward city.
So, in some ways, St Paul's was the symbol of the new city?
Well, the burning of old St Paul's was so terrible,
so cataclysmic, no-one had expected it,
so the new cathedral became the symbol of this new,
and what I really love is that
the symbols of the fire are on the outside.
So there were gilded flames,
and also, there's this great phoenix,
and underneath is the motto, "Resurgam" - I shall rise again.
So, while these grand churches were being built, what about
ordinary people who'd lost not just their churches, but their homes?
The ordinary people has lost so much in the Great Fire,
and what you see after the fire is a real surge in religious worship.
People are desperate for something like that never to happen again,
and also, they've seen the fires of hell
and they really, really don't want to go there.
Wren's redesign of over 50 London churches
transformed the skyline forever.
One church hidden amongst today's offices is St Stephen's Walbrook.
Oh, my goodness, what a surprise!
Isn't it incredible? It's such an amazing church. And it really...
I mean, it was so significant to Wren,
basically because it was his own, local parish church.
He lived just around the corner at 15 Walbrook.
And it was also the church where the Lord Mayor worshipped.
So this one, he really wanted to get right.
What can you see here that tells us something about
the character of the man? What was important to him?
What's so important to him is space and light,
and also, geometric shapes.
So these shapes we've got up here, these fantastic windows,
and, of course, what's the most striking about this church
is the absolutely fabulous dome -
the prototype for the dome of St Paul's.
This is the first domed church in England,
and to Wren, this is the way of celebrating God.
What a huge amount that man achieved.
Did he live long enough to see the end result?
Wren lived till 91.
And the whole skyline of London, it was all about churches.
And that was what they really wanted to show after the Great Fire,
to have churches dominating the skyline.
Every time you looked at the skyline,
all you saw was the churches,
because for Wren, the most important part of rebuilding London
after the Great Fire was celebrating the glory of God.
Next week, I'll be hearing about Quakers,
whose resolute faith in times of war
compelled them to take a stance as conscientious objectors.
But today, we finish with one of Charles Wesley's most-loved hymns,
said to be a favourite of his brother, John.
Until next week, bye-bye.
The Great Fire of London in 1666 was described as an act of God. Pam Rhodes is joined by historian Kate Williams to explore why, and she discovers the new city churches that formed the heart of the city that rose from the ashes.
Ye Servants of God from St Aidan's Church, Leeds I Will Lift Up My Eyes from the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich Leaning on the Everlasting Arms from Brunswick Methodist Church We Plough the Fields and Scatter from Pershore Abbey Angel-Voices Ever Singing from Holy Trinity Church, Stratford upon Avon There's a Sweet, Sweet Spirit from St John at Hackney And Can It Be from New Community Church, Southampton.