The Day The Merry Monarch Got Serious

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
This is a true account of the amazing story of King Charles II and his contribution to the firefighting efforts during and after the Great Fire Of London. It's a wonderful story of personal transformation that took place in the exact manner that "Life Cycles Theory" would predict.

Submitted: October 07, 2018

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So just who was called “The Merry Monarch” and why? How did he overcome people’s suspicions of his ‘not really caring about them’ attitude? How did it make his reputation and why did it once again happen in one moment of one day in his age 36 year??

England in the 17th century saw much drama and upheaval. First there was the Civil War, which saw King Charles I beheaded in 1649 and his son Charles II flee to Europe, whilst Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans ruled the land until 1660. A couple of years earlier Cromwell had died and his son proved unfit to lead, so rather unexpectedly, Charles II was invited to restore the monarchy.

The populace had grown tired of the ‘no fun’ lifestyle of the Puritans, and hence a 30 year-old King, who was into parties, theatre and lots and lots of women, was like a breath of fresh air. He agreed to more control by Parliament and dominance by the Anglican Church. His rule was best summed up by this four line poem,

  “We have a pretty witty king,
  Whose word no man relies on,
  He never said a foolish thing,
  And never did a wise one."

As a result he became well liked and was given the name “The Merry Monarch”. But what about when times got tough, what would happen to this ‘good time Charlie’ then? Well in 1665 they did indeed get tough, when the bubonic plague broke out in London and it was reported to be killing 7,000 people a week at its peak. What do you think Charles’ response was? Yes, he moved his entire Court to Salisbury and left London to its own devices. At one level it’s understandable, but it didn’t do his popularity any good and his reputation as, likeable but unreliable, was reinforced.

Now I haven’t told you his date of birth yet, but it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that it was May 29th, 1630. You see he was coming up to his own career and life-defining year of 36, according to “Life Cycles Theory”. So what in heaven’s name happened in the second half of 1666? What followed the Great Plague of 1665, in a particularly hot and dry summer?? Some of you may be catching on here, it was the Great Fire of London. A major catastrophe that saw most of the medieval part of city destroyed over 3 days, including 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, most of the City authority buildings and St Paul’s Cathedral all decimated.
 

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So why did this relatively small fire get so out of control? Well apart from the narrow streets and wooden buildings the human factor certainly played a part, in the form of the Lord Mayor of London, one Sir Thomas Bloodworth. He was in charge of fighting the fire, but when he was told to demolish houses that were in its path, he refused and uttered the fateful words as he left, “Pish. A woman could piss it out”.

From here things got a whole lot worse. The fire spread over most of the city, destroyed St. Paul’s Cathedral, then leapt across the Thames threatening the King’s Court at Whitehall. Interestingly many in the city were the ones who supported Cromwell and when Charles offered his troops to help they, at first, refused. By now however, Lord Mayor Bloodworth was nowhere to be found, so the King had to take over control. Just how was this going to play out?

Welcome to Monday 3rd, Sept, 1666, the one day that would change Charles’ life and reputation forever. The day the “Merry Monarch Got Serious”. It was the famous diarist Samuel Pepys, who broke the news about the spread of the fire to Charles and his brother James. Given his earlier offer of support was rejected and given he had left London when the plague was on, what would be his next move? Leave and let James to get involved and not potentially endanger his own life? Or stand up and finally get serious? Well this was his day in his all important age 36 “Year of Revolution” and in one decisive moment he said to himself, “to hell with it, I’m the King I’ve got to lead”.

And lead he did. He went downriver to see the disaster for himself. He landed at Queenhythe and talked with the crowd of refugees, gaining detailed information and urging on everyone the need to pull down buildings in the path of the conflagration. He was less than 100 metres from the blaze, but appeared careless of the danger in his eagerness to help.
 

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People fleeing Newgate with whatever goods they could carry.


Back at Westminster, he summoned a group of Privy Councillors to draw up a plan of campaign. A committee was appointed with headquarters at Ely House in Holborn, just beyond the western wall of the city. From here groups of soldiers and volunteers were despatched to various points to do whatever was necessary to check the fire’s progress. Charles spent most of Monday in preventing what would have been another tragedy. The strong wind was carrying a rain of sparks towards Westminster and there was a possibility that the palace and all the government offices might be set alight. The King supervised the erecting of fire breaks at Charing Cross and had teams out smothering any embers that reached the western end of Fleet Street.

The first thing Tuesday morning found him and his brother, the Duke of York, back in the city. They rode to and fro, urging on the firefighters and sometimes dismounting to join the chains of people passing buckets of water. Charles also carried a pouch of gold guineas to give spontaneous rewards to men conspicuous for their efforts. 

Charles was everywhere. For more than 30 hours without a break he rode about the northern parts of the capital, which had so far avoided the flames. He sent word downriver to the dockyard for bread to be brought from the navy stores to feed the homeless and destitute. He gave orders for the relief of the hundreds of citizens gathered in makeshift camps on the spaces of Moorfields and Spitalfields to the north. He instituted the setting up of a relief fund. By the time he returned to Westminster his clothes were wet and muddy and his face black with soot. He now knew what being a leader was all about.

By Thursday the wind had finally died down. However, vigilance was still needed as occasional bursts of flame shot up from the smouldering embers. The king now went to the Tower of London and oversaw the destruction of wooden buildings within the fortress. Although the fire had moved in the opposite direction, there was always the possibility of sparks causing a secondary blaze in the vicinity of the arsenal where the main stores of gunpowder were stored. Had they exploded, the devastation would have been unimaginable.

Something else ‘not indeed imaginable’ to was, “how extraordinary the vigilance and activity of the King and Duke was, ever labouring in person, and being present to command, order, reward and encourage workmen, by which he showed his affection to his people and gained theirs.” A real King at last, not merely a pleasure-loving dilettante.
 

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Christopher Wren’s suggested plan to rebuild the City of London



But it didn’t just end when the fire was over. There was a massive reconstruction project to be done. He had a genuine interest in architecture and something of a flair for it. Within days a Privy Council committee had been set up to work hand-in-hand with the city fathers. Charles often attended their meetings. In Sir Christopher Wren, Charles found an architect of genius who shared his aesthetic preferences for the Baroque and Classical revival fashions prevailing on the continent. Wren and his office drew up the plans; the committee pondered them; the King urged them and supported them by issuing proclamations in support of particular projects and priming the financial pump from the government’s slender means.

Although money couldn’t be found for some of his grander ideas, Wren’s churches and, of course, the revolutionary St Paul’s gave hints of what might have been. Most importantly, however, Londoners knew that their King had done all he could do. In 1674, they acknowledged this by presenting him with the Freedom of the City of London – the only reigning monarch ever to have received this honour.

Great story isn’t it? Another ‘life lived in two halves’ which was bisected by an amazing transformative event that takes place in ‘one mind-numbing moment of one day’ in someone’s age 36 “Year of Revolution”.


© Copyright 2018 Neil Killion. All rights reserved.

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