When the historic cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris went up in flames in April 2019, it was an all too stark reminder of how vulnerable our heritage is to fire. In less than two hours the famous spire had collapsed along with most of the roof, changing the Parisian skyline. It was only thanks to the heroic efforts of the city’s firefighters that the iconic bell towers survived with much of the stone structure, allowing restorers to begin the painstaking process of preserving the building.
British landmarks have faced similar brushes with disaster. In 1992 Windsor Castle suffered a major fire which destroyed much of the interior, while York Minster saw flames rip through part of its roof in 1984. In both cases it was the ingenuity of firefighters that made the difference and saved these landmarks from total destruction.
But firefighting as we know it today is quite a recent development. Until the mid-19th century there was nothing even approaching the sort of services that saved Windsor and York Minster, and many important landmarks were destroyed by fire in the days before modern fire brigades. In fact, three of London’s most famous tourist hotspots today, are replacements for landmarks that we lost to the flames…
Old St. Paul’s Cathedral (destroyed 1666)
It’s difficult to imagine London without the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral overlooking the Thames. Yet the present St. Paul’s is nowhere near as old as the city itself. The last stone was laid atop its dome in 1708 after the previous cathedral became the most notable casualty of the Great Fire of 1666.
Old St. Paul’s had been even larger than today’s cathedral. Begun in 1087 under William the Conqueror, it featured a spire rather than a dome and was, by some accounts, the tallest building on earth after completion in the 13th century (at 149m the spire was much taller than the present dome at 111m). Like its replacement, Old St. Paul’s was set toward one end of the mile-long ancient City of London, looking across to the infamous Tower- William the Conqueror’s stronghold- at the other end.
Its period of construction spanned two great eras of European architecture. The cathedral was begun in the ‘Romanesque’ style which flourished from the late 900s (and is better known in England as the ‘Norman’ style after the people who brought it here). However, by the 1100s, the new ‘gothic’ style was emerging and much of the earlier work was overlaid with gothic embellishment. The rounded Norman arches were replaced by pointed forms, and the completed cathedral was a masterpiece of medieval gothic, similar in appearance to Salisbury Cathedral.
In 1561 the view of Old St. Paul’s changed dramatically when the great spire collapsed into the nave, the result of a fire thought to have been started by a lightning strike. Just over a century later, what remained of St. Paul’s was then engulfed in the Great Fire of London.
Old St. Paul's Cathedral. It was replaced by the baroque building
designed by Sir Christopher Wren
Old Palace of Westminster (destroyed 1834)
The Great Fire of 1666 destroyed the ancient City of London that the Romans had established. But three miles away to the west stood the ‘City’ of Westminster, which was quite untouched by the blaze. Westminster had originally been an area near London that began to develop about a thousand years after its neighbour (and later linked up with it to form the Greater London of today). King Edward the Confessor founded the famous Abbey of Westminster in 961, giving a new name to the place previously known as “Thorney Island”, and at the same time built himself a palace there. This palace was expanded over the following centuries to become the principal royal residence of the later medieval era. The king kept his closest advisers with him at court, and as this ‘royal council’ developed into a parliament, Westminster Palace became not just the home of the monarch, but the site of English governance.
The royal apartments were damaged by a fire in 1512, and the king moved out, but Parliament remained ensconced. By the time of the Great Fire of 1666, the City of London had sprawled outside its ancient walls to meet Westminster. But though the fire threatened the home of Parliament, it never reached it. It was nearly two centuries later that the Palace of Westminster was destroyed by its own devastating blaze, on October 16th 1834.
An overheating stove set fire to the House of Lords and the flames quickly spread. By this time firefighting had been slowly developing after the shock of 1666. The founder of London’s first city-wide fire brigade, James Braidwood, was on hand to ensure that one part of the Old Palace of Westminster survived (Westminster Hall, built by William II, and still used today for addresses to Parliament by world figureheads including the Pope and Barack Obama). But most of the Houses of Parliament we see today, with their famous clocktower, belong to the New Palace, built to replace what was lost, and only completed in the 1870s.
Whitehall Palace (destroyed 1698)
Back when the royal apartments at the Old Palace of Westminster were gutted by fire in 1512, King Henry VIII was forced to find a new residence near Parliament. He found one after dismissing his chief minister Cardinal Wolsey in 1530, taking Wolsey’s palace- known as York Place- as his main London home. The palace was right next door to Old Westminster Palace and was soon renamed “Whitehall” after the dazzling stone used to extend its buildings.
Whitehall remained the main royal seat for nearly two centuries and was, at one point, the largest palace in Europe. That was until a servant hung wet linen to dry around a charcoal brazier in an upper room in 1698, sparking a catastrophic fire. It was just thirty-two years after the Westminster area had escaped the Great Fire of London, and firefighting had not yet significantly improved. Nevertheless, a small part of Whitehall Palace was saved, thanks largely to the intervention of the famous architect Sir Christopher Wren. At that time, Wren was still overseeing the final stages of rebuilding at St. Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire. Now he found himself battling another major fire while it was still burning!
Wren was summoned by King William III and told to focus attention on saving the palace’s Banqueting House. Wren ordered its windows bricked up, and around twenty nearby palace structures blown up to create a fire break. The Banqueting House still stands today on the avenue since named Whitehall after the palace that stood there. The rest of the site is occupied by government departments, and now by tourists heading to Downing Street and Trafalgar Square.
Whitehall Palace. The Banqueting House is seen on the left.