The Phoenix, By Leo Hollis

How the Great Fire of London gave birth to modernity
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Throughout history there have been patterns to thrill the numerologist. Ronald Knox pointed out in his book Let Dons Delight that certain events seem to happen at particular intervals. Professor Nicholas Boyle, the president of Magdalene College, Cambridge, argues that there is a marked order to Great Events, with the character of a century being shaped by a major incident in the middle of the second decade. But I'm not sure if the numerologists have cottoned on to '66. There was 1066, when England became Norman. Then there was 1966, and Geoff Hurst's hat trick which won England the World Cup. But the daddy of them all has to be 1666, when the City of London was laid waste as the Great Fire swept all aside. The four-day-long inferno, which began on 2 September in a baker's in Pudding Lane, gutted 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, six consecrated chapels, and all the major government and business buildings, from the Guildhall and the Royal Exchange, the Custom House, to prisons, company halls, gates and bridges. The stained glass in St Paul's Cathedral liquefied, beer boiled in barrels and burst through them to run down the streets, and the air was filled with the rich stench of burning spices. As the diarist John Evelyn looked upon the sight of his city ablaze, he wrote of the "miserable and calamitous spectacle". "London," he wrote, "was, but is no more."

The result was far more than destruction. As Leo Hollis points out in The Phoenix: St Paul's Cathedral and the Men Who Made Modern London, the Great Fire led to the rebirth of the city, which in turn influenced the making of metropolises across the world. Great city disasters certainly do far more than just lead to rebuilding, as the greatest in our own lifetime – the destruction of New York's twin towers – reminds us. They can lead to a reinvention, a rethinking, that is far more than merely physical. It causes a nation to rediscover itself and reflect on what its purpose is.

The Great Fire led to the reshaping of thought, the start of the modern society. Hollis uses the clever device of telling this absorbing tale of ingenuity through the lives and thought of five men: the diarist and gardener John Evelyn, the speculator and builder Nicholas Barbon, the philosopher John Locke, the scientist and architect Robert Hooke and his fellow architect Christopher Wren.

Other than Barbon (who was a Puritan who began life with the magnificent nomenclature If-Jesus-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Wouldst-Be-Damned) they were royalists who had suffered hardship, even persecution, after the Civil War and during the theocracy of the Cromwellian era. Science, in contrast, offered a haven of reason and empirical truth. The royalist four were all connected to the thinkers of Wadham College, Oxford, who became in turn the founders of the Royal Society. While they were believers – believers who saw their Anglican religion return from exile with the Restoration of the monarchy – these were men entranced not so much by what they could only guess at, but by what they could see with their own eyes. No wonder, then, that they were engrossed by the inventions of the microscope and the telescope. Indeed Hooke and Wren devised the Monument to the Great Fire as not only a memorial but also as a telescope.

What came to encompass all that made these men was Wren's greatest triumph, St Paul's Cathedral, a church that is not only a symbol of Christian faith, but of the resurgence of Anglicanism after the Puritan age, and of the triumph of science – a brilliant exercise in geometry and physics. While Hooke and Wren, in their roles in the rebuilding of London, looked to Paris and Rome for inspiration, St Paul's became a very English, Protestant cathedral. It was certainly no St Peter's.

The cathedrals of England until that time owed their origins to monastic orders and were designed to be places where divine office would be sung and monks would process. St Paul's was a cathedral for music and praise, yes, but above all for preaching. Like the old Catholic cathedrals of pre-Reformation England, it took a miniature city of workers to build and Hollis provides a vivid portrait of the scurrying mass of craftsmen who constructed one of the greatest symbols of London. There are other similar pen portraits of the teeming City – of the plague-riddled streets, where the bells tolled death so often they broke. Then the flames whipping through the streets a year later and the people running for their lives.·

What makes this book so fascinating, though, is not just the rich detail, but also its explanations of the emergence of the new thinking that so profoundly shaped the spirit of the age. Sometimes the episodic nature of the book works, but on occasion the jumping from place to place and person to person becomes overwhelming.

Both Hollis and the reader benefit from the trouble taken by the publisher. Too often books of this kind lack decent illustration or even an index, but The Phoenix benefits from both, particularly the reproduction of Wren's early designs for his cathedral. And it is above all his cathedral that stands proud above the rest in this book – a suitable monument to Wren and to St Paul's in this year which marks the 300th anniversary of its completion.