In 1623 ninety-five people perished when the floor of a temporary chapel in the Blackfriars district collapsed. Two of our antiquaries, John Strype and Walter Thornbury, have left us vivid descriptions of the event. These differ in both the detail and, particularly, in the style. Here is how the antiquarian Walter Thornbury, a journalist by profession, and writing in the 19th century, describes the event.
In 1623 Blackfriars was the scene of a most fatal and extraordinary accident. It occurred in the chief house of the Friary, then a district declining fast in respectability. Hunsdon House derived its name from Queen Elizabeth's favourite cousin, the Lord Chamberlain, Henry Carey, Baron Hunsdon, and was at the time occupied by Count de Tinier, the French ambassador.
About three o'clock on Sunday, October 26th, a large Roman Catholic congregation of about three hundred persons, worshipping to a certain degree in stealth, not without fear from the Puritan feathermakers of the theatrical neighbourhood, had assembled in a long garret on the third and uppermost storey. Master Drury, a Jesuit preacher of celebrity, had drawn together this crowd of timid people. The garret, looking over the gateway, was approached by a passage having a door opening into the street, and also by a corridor from the ambassador's withdrawing-room.
The garret was about seventeen feet wide and forty feet long, with a vestry for a priest partitioned off at one end. In the middle of the garret, and near the wall, stood a raised table and chair for the preacher. The gentry sat on chairs and stools facing the pulpit, the rest stood behind, crowding as far as the head of the stairs. At the appointed hour Master Drury, the priest, came from the inner room in white robe and scarlet stole, an attendant carrying a book and an hour-glass, by which to measure his sermon. He knelt down at the chair for about an Ave Maria, but uttered no audible prayer. He then took the Jesuits' Testament, and read for the text the Gospel for the day, which was, accordingto the Gregorian Calendar, the twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost:-
"Therefore is the kingdom of heaven like unto a man being a king that would make an account of his servants. And when he began to make account there was one presented unto him that owed him ten thousand talents.”
Having read the text, the Jesuit preacher sat down, and putting on his head a red quilt cap, with a white linen one beneath it, commenced his sermon. He had spoken for about half an hour when the calamity happened. The great weight of the crowd in the old room suddenly snapped the main summer beam of the floor, which instantly crashed in and fell into the room below. The main beams there also snapped and broke through to the ambassador's drawing-room over the gate-house, a distance of twenty-two feet. Only a part, however, of the gallery floor, immediately over Father Rudgate's chamber, a small room used for secret mass, gave way. The rest of the floor, being less crowded, stood firm, and the people on it, having no other means of escape, drew their knives and cut a way through a plaster wall into a neighbouring room.
A contemporary pamphleteer, who visited the ruins and wrote fresh from the first outburst of sympathy, says:
"What ear without tingling can bear the doleful and confused cries of such a troop of men, women, and children, all falling suddenly in the same pit, and apprehending with one horror the same ruin? What eye can behold without inundation of tears such a spectacle of men overwhelmed with breaches of mighty timber, buried in rubbish and smothered with dust? What heart without evaporating in sighs can ponder the burden of deepest sorrows and lamentations of parents, children, husbands, wives, kinsmen, friends, for their dearest pledges and chiefest comforts? This world all bereft and swept away with one blast of the same dismal tempest."
The news of the accident fast echoing through London, Serjeant Finch, the Recorder, and the Lord Mayor and aldermen at once provided for the safety of the ambassador's family, who were naturally shaking in their shoes, and shutting up the gates to keep off the curious and thievish crowd, set guards at all the Blackfriars passages. Workmen were employed to remove the debris and rescue the sufferers who were still alive.
The pamphleteer, again rousing himself to the occasion, and turning on his tears, says:-
"At the opening hereof what a chaos! what fearful objects! what lamentable representations! Here some buried, some dismembered, some only parts of men; here some wounded and weltering in their own and others' blood; others putting forth their fainting hands and crying out for help. Here some gasping and panting for breath; others stifled for want of air. So the most of them being thus covered with dust, their death was a kind of burial."
All that night and part of the next day the workmen spent in removing the bodies, and the inquest was then held. It was found that the main beams were only ten inches square, and had two mortise-holes, where the girders were inserted, facing each other, so that only three inches of solid timber were left. The main beam of the lower room, about thirteen inches square, without mortise-holes, broke obliquely near the end. No wall gave way, and the roof and ceiling of the garret remained entire.
Father Drury perished, as did also Father Rudgate, who was in his own apartment, underneath. Lady Webb, of Southwark, Lady Blackstone's daughter, from Scroope's Court, Mr. Fowell, a Warwickshire gentleman, and many tradesmen, servants, and artisans-ninety-five in all-perished.
Some of the escapes seemed almost miraculous. Mistress Lucid Penruddock fell between Lady Webb and a servant, who were both killed, yet was saved by her chair falling over her head. Lady Webb's daughter was found alive near her dead mother, and a girl named Elizabeth Sanders was also saved by the dead who fell and covered her. A Protestant scholar, though one of the very undermost, escaped by the timbers arching over him and some of them slanting against the wall. He tore a way out through the laths of the ceiling by main strength, then crept between two joists to a hole where he saw light, and was drawn through a door by one of the ambassador's family. He at once returned to rescue others.
There was a girl of ten who cried to him,
"Oh, my mother!-oh, my sister! They are down under the timber." He told her to be patient, and by God's grace they would be quickly got forth. The child replied,
"This will be a great scandal to our religion."
One of the men that fell said to a fellow-sufferer,
"Oh, what advantage our adversaries will take at this!" The other replied,
"If it be God's will this should befall us, what can we say to it?"
One gentleman was saved by keeping near the stairs, while his friend, who had pushed near the pulpit, perished.
Many of those who were saved died in a few hours after their extrication. The bodies of Lady Webb, Mistress Udall, and Lady Blackstone's daughter, were carried to Ely House, Holborn, and there buried under the chapel. In the fore courtyard, by the French ambassador's house, a huge grave, eighteen feet long and twelve feet broad, was dug, and forty-four corpses piled within it. In another pit, twelve feet long and eight feet broad, in the ambassador's garden, were buried fifteen more. Others were interred in St. Andrew's, St. Bride's, and Blackfriars churches.
The list o the killed and wounded is curious, from its topographical allusions. Amongst other entries, we find "John Halifax, a water-bearer" (in the old times of street conduits the water-bearer was an important person); "a son of Mr. Flood, the scrivener, in Holborn; a man of Sir Ives Pemberton; Thomas Brisket, his wife, son, and maid, in Montague Close; Richard Fitzgarret, of Gray's Inn, gentleman; Davie, an Irishman, in Angell Alley, Gray's Inn, gentleman; Sarah Watson, daughter of Master Watson, chirurgeon; Master Grimes, near the 'Horse Shoe' tavern, in Drury Lane John Bevan, at the ' Seven Stars', in Drury Lane; Francis Man, Thieving Lane, Westminster," etc.
As might have been expected, the fanatics of both parties had much to say about this terrible accident. The Catholics declared that the Protestants, knowing this to be a chief place of meeting for men of their faith, had secretly drawn out the pins, or sawn the supporting timbers partly asunder. The Protestants, on the other hand, lustily declared that the planks would not bear such a weight of Romish sin, and that God was displeased with their pulpits and altars, their doctrine and sacrifice.
One zealot remembered that, at the return of Prince Charles from the madcap expedition to Spain, a Catholic had lamented, or was said to have lamented, the street bonfires, as there would be never a fagot left to burn the heretics.
"If it had been a Protestant chapel," the Puritans cried, "the Jesuits would have called the calamity an omen of the speedy downfall of heresy." A Catholic writer replied "with a word of comfort," and pronounced the accident to be a presage of good fortune to Catholics and of the overthrow of error and heresy. This zealous, but not well-informed, writer compared Father Drury's death with that of Zuinglius, who fell in battle, and with that of Calvin, "who, being in despair, and calling upon the devil, gave up his wicked soul, swearing, cursing, and blaspheming." So intolerance, we see, is neither specially Protestant nor Catholic, but of every party. "The Fatal Vespers," as that terrible day at Blackfrials was afterwards called, were long remembered with a shudder by Catholic England.
In a curious old pamphlet entitled "Something Written by Occasion of that Fatall and Memorable Accident in the Blacke-friers, on Sonday, being the 26th October, 1623, stilo antiquo, and the 5th November, stilo nova, or Romano," the author relates a singular escape of one of the listeners." [Note: Stilo antiquo, stilo nova; Old Style and new style. The Julian Calendar was replaced by the new and more accurate Gregorian in 1582 in the Carholic countries of Europe. It dropped 10 days to bring the calendar back into synchronization with the seasons and introduced the Leap Year rule to preserve the sunchronisation. It was adopted by Britain in 1752.]
"When all things were ready," he says, "and the prayer finished, the Jesuite tooke for his text the gospell of the day, being (as I take it) the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, and extracted out of the 18th of Matthew, beginning at the 21st verse, to the end. The story concerns forgiveness of sinnes, and describeth the wicked cruelty of the unjust steward, whom his maister remitted, though he owed him 10,000 talents, but he would not forgive his fellow a xoo pence, whereupon he was called to a new reckoning, and cast into prison, and then the particular words are, which he insisted upon, the 34th verse: 'So his master was wroth, and delivered him to the jaylor, till he should pay all that was due to him.' For the generall, he urged many good doctrines and cases; for the particular, he modelled out that fantasie of purgatory, which he followed with a full crie of pennance, satisfaction, paying of money, and such like.
"While this exercise was in hand, a gentleman brought up his friend to see the place, and bee partaker of the sermon, who all the time he was going up stairs cried out, ' Whither doe I goe? I protest my heart trembles;' and when he came into the roome, the priest being very loud, he whispered his friend in the eare that he was afraid, for, as he supposed, the room did shake under him; at which his friend, between smiling and anger, left him, and went close to the wall behind the preacher's chaire. The gentleman durst not stirre from the staires, and came not full two yards in the roome, when on a sudden there was a kinde of murmuring amongst the people, and some were heard to say, 'The roome shakes;' which words being taken up one of another, the whole company rose up with a strong suddainnesse, and some of the women screeched. I cannot compare it better than to many passengers in a boat in a tempest, who are commanded to sit still and let the waterman alone with managing the oares, but some unruly people rising overthrowes them all.
"So was this company served; for the people thus affrighted started up with extraordinary quicknesse, and at an instant the maine summer beame broke in sunder, being mortised in the wall some five foot from the same; and so the whole roofe or floore fell at once, with all the people that stood thronging on it, and with the violent impetuosity drove downe the nether roome quite to the ground, so that they fell twenty-four foot high, and were most of them buried and bruised betweene the rubbish and the timber; and though some were questionlesse smothered, yet for the most part they were hurt and bled, and being taken forth the next day, and laid all along in the gallery, presented to the lookers-on a wofull spectacle of fourscore and seventeen dead persons, besides eight or nine which perished since, unable to recover themselves."