23rd July 1212. Fire! Fire!

William the Conqueror in the 11thc had required a couvert feu (cover-fire or curfew) with a metal cover for fire-control. In the 14thc central hearths were moved to the walls for the same reason.

The first Great Fire of Medieval London was at Pentecost in 1135 which destroyed a large area from St. Paul’s to Westminster. (1)

However the biggest fire before the 1666 ‘Great Fire’ was in the Great Fire of Southwark of 1212 as described in the: Liber de Antiques Legibus of 1274.(2)

The account mentions the destruction of London Bridge [recently built in stone] and that it, ‘sent innumerably men and women to their graves’.

At that time King John had allowed wooden building to be built on the bridge, so the fire beginning in Southwark, soon swept to the City, on the north bank.

New Regulations were quickly drawn up against further conflagrations by a Council of ‘responsible men for the purpose of calming and pacifying an angry citizenry and to protect against fires with God’s help’.

However due to a scribal error in these 1212 Regulations, they were dated Monday 24th of July, but in the Julian Calendar of the time that day should have been recorded as Today the 23rd.(3)

Getty map of London 13thc.

Getty Map of London 13thc.

One of the regulations in the Document was the banning of thatched roofs. The fire, recorded on the 11th by Matthew Paris as destroying a large part of the City, was discussed at the Guildhall in the presence of the long-serving and first mayor Henry fitz Ailwin and other barons (citizens) of the City.

The Mayor’s building regulations for the city ordered that the walls should be of stone 3ft thick and 16ft high from which the roof ran up to a point, the gable end being towards the street.

He made no rules about roofing materials and it was not until later that citizens were enjoined to cover their houses with lead, tiles or stone.

 

At the time London houses seem to have consisted of no more than two storeys the floor of the upper storey being about 8ft above the ground. This upper room was the main room called by fitz Ailwin ‘the house’ sometimes called the ‘solar’.

Matters weren’t helped by the ‘jetting’, overhanging wooden layers of building onto the streets. It was James I (VI) who boasted to change the city from ‘stykkes to brykkes’, decreeing that all new houses be faced in brick to avoid fire risk.

However this didn’t stop the 1666 Great Fire in the reign of Charles II.

(1) On May 26th 1135.

(2) The oldest book held by City of London Corp.

(3) On 12.7.1212.

The 24th fell on a Tuesday due to a leap year and there was no Monday 24th July in adjacent years.

References:

wikipedia.org/early_fires_of-london.

users.trytal.com/Corp of London Record/Florilegium Urbanum.

telegraph.co.uk/fire-of-london-1212/Pic Credit Getty. 10.12.2016.

historic.uk.com/History/great-fire-of-london-1212.

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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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