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. For these reasons it is informative to compare them. Here is how John Strype, writing in 1752, describes the tragedy. Strype was Church of England minister and his approach is very different from that of the journalist Thornbury. It is also much longer, and will be given in three parts. Here is the first part.
The fatal VESPER, or dismal EVENSONG, happening at the Black Friers on Sunday in the Afternoon, it being the 26th day of October, 1623.
There were upon that Day, being dedicated to the Service of God, assembled in the Black Friers, near the French Embassadors House in Ordinary, above Three hundred Persons of sundry Nations; as English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish, to hear a Sermon, and after that to celebrate Evensong, according to the Rites and Ceremonies of the Romish Church. He that was to supply that Exercise for the present, was Father Drury, a Jesuit by Profession, and by Birth a Gentleman; being extracted out of the House of the Norfolcian Druries, and Son unto Dr. Drury, late Professor of the Civil Law, and Practiser thereof in the Court of the Arches here in London. He was by those of the Romish Religion, reputed to be a Man of great Learning; as having studied many Years beyond the Sea, with much approbation and allowance of his Superiors. And although he were opposite in point of Faith and Belief, unto the Religion now professed in England, yet was he held by the generality of our Nation, both Protestants and Papists, who knew him, and could make a true estimate of his Vertues and Vices by the outward circumstance and appearance of his Actions, to be a Man of a good moral Life, and of a plausible and laudable Conversation. So that in respect of these Indowments, there could nothing have been desired more by us of the Reformed Church, than that he had not been a Papist; but a Member of our Church, Religion, and Profession.
All the Day before, which was the last that ever had Eyes beheld, he was observed to be wondrous sad and pensive, contrary unto his wonted Humour and Disposition; he being a Man of a free, merry and affable Conversation; as though that some Spirit of Prediction had foretold him of that fatal Disaster which was at hand. Thus we read of Cæsar, that he was possessed with a strange and unwonted Sadness that Morning when he entred into the Senate-house, where he was stabbed to Death by the Senators. And so was that Assassine Cassius much perplexed and troubled in Mind, before that mortal and bloody Battle of Pharsalia. By means of which Affection, Father Drury finding an Indisposition in himself, he would (if with his Reputation he could) have made a retraction of his Promise, and a demur of the intended Exercise. But being prest on by divers of his Friends, who told him that the Audience was great, and their Expectation far greater; he did then again resolve to go forward with the Enterprize.
The Place wherein this Congregation was assembled, was not the French Embassador's Chappel, according as the first Report went currant; for that was reserved for the Use of himself and his Family, to celebrate their Evensong, after their own Manner and Custom: But it was a Chamber near unto the Gate, some three Stories high; being some threescore Foot long, and twenty Foot broad,or thereabouts. The Walls were not made of Lome, composed of Laths and Rafters, and covered over with Clay and Lime, as some at first reported; but were of Brick and Stone, which are held by Architects to be the strongest and the surest Building. But howsoever, a Gentlewoman of a Noble House, and of a quick and judicious Spirit, who was then present, and had taken a curious view of the pressing Multitude of the People, which was at length their own Oppression, and of the unfitness and uncapacity of the Place beside, told him, That she thought it would prove an Action full of Danger, if he should offer to preach in that Place respectively, in respect of the Premisses. But he, being led on by a divine and fatal Necessity, which blinds the Judgment of the wise Men of this World; told her, that he did mean as then to preach, and to go forward with the greatest expedition he could, with his intended Sermon.
For the accomplishment of which Design, the Father Predicant being clad in those Robes and Ornaments which are used by those of his Order, being a Jesuit, having a Surplice girt about his Middle with a Linnen Girdle, a red Cap, with a white one underneath, turned up about the brims of his Cap, and his other Accoutrements belonging, which the Ignation Orders have imposed upon them. And being placed in a Chair about the midst of the Room, which Chair was raised up something higher than the ordinary level of the Floor; he crossing himself with the Sign of the Cross, and having ended some private Prayers, accommodated himself to his Text, between three and four of the Clock in the Afternoon of the foresaid Sunday. The Words of the Text were part of the Gospel appointed for the present Day, according to the Order and Instruction of the Church of Rome, being their 5th of November; which Account is thought to be the truest by the Roman Catholicks, and begins ten Days before that of England. The Gospel was written in the 18th Chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel, and delivered unto us by the holy Spirit in these Words.
"Therefore is the Kingdom of Heaven likened unto a certain man that was a King, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was browed unto him which owed him ten thousand Talents. But forasmuch as he was not able to pay, his Lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant fell down and besowed him, saying: Sir, have patience with me and I will pay thee all. Then had the Lord pity of that servant, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. So the same servant went out, and found one of his fellows which owed him an hundred pence: And he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying; Pay that thou owest. And his fellow fell down and besowed him, saying: Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not, but he went out and cast him into Prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellows went and saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told their Master all that happened. Then his Lord called him and said unto him: O! thou ungracious servant, I forgave thee all that debt thou desiredst me, shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow, even as I had pity on thee? etc." The Words which he insisted especially upon, were these:
"O! thou ungracious servant, I forgave thee all the debt thou owedest me, shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow, even as I had pity on thee?" Upon which Subject discoursing with much vehemency, and implying out of it the infinite Mercy and Goodness of God; whereby he doth not only give us all that we have, but forgives us all our Trespasses and Offences, be they never so deeply stained with the scarlet dye and tincture of our Guiltiness. Which merciful Act of God is paraboliz'd unto us by a certain Man that was a King, who took account of his Servants; and after much intreaty and submission, forgave one ten thousand Talents, which he owed him. And also dilating by way of blame and reprehension of the ungrateful and unrelenting Heart of Man, who doth not forgive Trespasses as God doth forgive him. But out of his swelling and malignant Humour, writes Benefits in the Sand, and Injuries in Marble; which Uncharitableness of theirs is intimated in the Parable by the ungracious Servant, who would not forgive his Fellow a small Debt, although his Master had forgiven him one of a far greater Value. Moreover, upon the Application of these Words, he did inveigh with much bitterness, as some give out, (but I know not how truly) against the Manners and Doctrin of the Protestants.
But having proceeded thus far, loe! what a sudden and unexpected Accident fell out. The Sermon inclining towards the midst, and the Day declining towards an end, it being almost four of the Clock in the Afternoon, the Multitude and Crowd of the Assembly, breaking down with their overbearing weight, the Beams and Side-timbers wherewith this Room was supported, they fell down into the next Chamber; the Floor whereof being broken down also with the descending weight of them, and the Ruins, they fell at last upon the lowest Chamber of the Edifice; where some of them perished, some were hurted and maimed, other some were free from all hurt and danger, except of that which the present Fright and Terror did impose upon them; and those were they especially who fell not at all, but remained in one Angle or Corner of the Chamber, which was free from falling. Which Persons being thought to be between twenty and thirty in number, as I heard by one who was one of them, perplexed and frighted thus as they were, by consideration of that most fearful Danger whereinto they had seen their Fellows and Brethren to fall; who did lift up their Hands for help, and beat their Breasts for life, whereof they then were Spectators; and being doubtful that they should be Actors with them presently in that Scene of Calamity, the Place being weak, tottering and unassured; for this Cause fear and necessity giving motion and strength to their Arms, they opened with their Knives a Lome Wall, which parted that Room, and a Chamber belonging to the Embassador's Lodging. By which means, after much difficulty and labour, they got their passage, and live as yet to glorify God for their deliverance.
Presently, upon the report of the fall and cry, divers Persons of all Sorts resorted unto the Place; some out of Charity to help those that were thus distressed, for which cause they brought Spades, Pickaxes, and other Instruments fit for that purpose. Others out of a meer Curiosity came thither to see this wonderful event, and this Object so full of admiration. Where, after the Guards were set upon all the Avenues and Passages leading into the Black Friers, and from thence into the Embassador's House, by the direction and command of Serjeant Finch, Recorder of the City; who was exceeding careful that my Lord Embassador, and his Servants, should not suffer any detriment in their Goods or Persons; being jealous in this point, of the King's, his own, and the City's Honour. And Matters being thus disposed for the Safety and Assurance of the Strangers, after they had broken down a Wall, and opened some Doors, they fell to work upon the Ruins it self, with all possible diligence and dexterity. Where at the opening of every Board, Plank, and piece of Timber, there were Objects which presented themselves full of Horror and Confusion.
Read the other parts of Strype’s account.