1666: The Devil’s New Year

Happy New Year all! Here we are at the start of 2022 in the midst of a pandemic. Gloomy times for sure. But at least we aren’t fearful of the violent wrath of God (are we?). In that we have an advantage over many residents of London at the start of the year 1666.

If you were a resident of London as 1666 was rung in, there’s a good chance you were anticipating end-time levels of doom for your city and your King over the next 365 days. Why?

A very unlucky number . . .

First there were the optics. The year 1666 was bound to get a lot of side-eye. After all, six-six-six is the number of the beast—aka Satan—in the Book of Revelation. And, as 1665 ended, those using the Gregorian calendar faced a year with those three, evil-incarnate-indicating digits smackdab at its end. Warning sigh anyone? Before you laugh, I seem to remember folks in 1999 fearing the “millennium” or “Y2K” bug—a computer glitch some predicted would trigger doomsday by launching nuclear missiles and causing plains to fall from the sky as the year 2000 began. Human nature doesn’t really change that much.

What exactly would God have to be angry at London about . . .

1666 offered an unfortunate visual portent of impending doom, but why assume London would be a wrathful God’s target? Many British people—including sore-loser Puritans, still reeling over the Restoration—viewed the English capital as a sin-filled city, and the court of Charles II as debauched and lecherous. If you embraced those conclusions, what sane, god-fearing person wouldn’t be worried the wrath of God was in the cards? If you questioned these conclusions and/or weren’t quite at the “world is ending” panic level in 1665, there were a number of folks willing to give you “helpful” a shove in that direction.

Clergymen fan the flames (sorry I couldn’t resist) of doomsaying panic . . .

Of course, England’s fringe religious denominations could be counted on to condemn the capital and predict its imminent demise (I mean no disrespect in calling them “fringe,” but the fact remains England had an official church/religion, and they were NOT it). Clergy in these denominations were neither on “team Church of England” nor, in most cases, fans of the Restoration of the monarchy. When Charles II was invited back to London and restored to his late father’s throne in 1660, clergymen from these sects could be counted upon to condemn and hand-wring over the state of England and her capital.

Fire as the weapon of God’s vengeance and the method of London’s destruction topped a lot of prognostication-of-doom- lists—doubtless because, as any scripture literate person knew, both God and the devil had the power to summon fire from the heavens. In 1660, for example, the frequently imprisoned Quaker preacher, Humphrey Smith, wrote of his vision of London in flames such that “none could quench it” a fire that continued for days, taking down even the loftiest buildings. Smith predicted this conflagration would happen in 1666.

Even Anglican clergymen got in on the disaster-foretelling action. For example, Thomas Reeve—an “Anglican divine,” meaning a clergyman whose theological writings were considered standards for faith—warned Londoners: “I see you bring pick-axes to dig down your own walls and kindling sparks that will set all in a flame from one end of the city to the other.”

Nothing sells like sensationalism . . .

As a Londoner in 1665, your seat in a church pew, or religious readings, weren’t your only chance of exposure to prepare-for-the-end warnings. Seventeenth century almanac writers—like today’s social media click-seekers—knew that nothing sells like sensationalism. So, they too built up apprehension over the arrival of the Devil’s year, and a number of them predicted London’s destruction. For example, in his volume Hieroglyphicks almanac publisher Will Lilly prophesied 1666 would be an annus horribilis. This warning was accompanied by a large graphic illustration representing a city in flames.

Gossip magnified the wild and frightening predictions of both preachers and publishers. So, if you were a Londoner of the superstitious variety, the arrival of 1666 likely had you trembling in your boots. But to be fair, even if you weren’t overly superstitious, it wasn’t unreasonable to feel a sense of foreboding as the new year dawned.

Tangible bad things were actually happening . . . .

1664 and 1665 hadn’t exactly been banner years for the nation or its capital.

England was embroiled in what would turn out to be the second of four Anglo-Dutch wars as 1666 arrived. The weather leading up to the new year had been a nightmare: two bad winters in a row, and then drought conditions.

Then there was the plague. London saw its first death—written into the parish register at St. Giles-in-the-Fields—from a new outbreak of plague just in time for Christmas 1664. By spring of 1665 when watchmen were at last deployed to London’s parish boundaries to prevent infected persons from moving between neighborhoods, the council’s efforts to control the contagion were a classic case of “too little too late.” Anyone who could afford to flee London did during 1665—including King Charles II and his court. The court was still out of the city on January 1, 1666 as the new year began.

From a purely factual and practical perspective then, pessimism seemed in order as 1666 opened. I’d assume anyone with common sense who even allowed himself the momentarily cheery thought, “it’s bound to get better, it can’t get worse,” knocked on wood immediately.

Well, I’ll be damned—London WAS doomed . . .

As it turned out, 1666 was a devil of a year for London. Fire did come to destroy the capital . . . not from the heavens, but from a baker’s poorly tended oven. And not just any fire THE GREAT FIRE—a mighty, hellish conflagration that destroyed over 80% of what lay within London’s city walls before it was done (click here for more fearsome facts about The Great Fire). In the aftermath of this historic fire, Londoners would turn their energies from fearing divine vengeance and gossiping about it, to seeking vengeance and spinning conspiracy theories.

1666 . . . a devil of a year indeed.

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